Asma Jahangir, Human rights activist – no more

Dr. Mike Ghouse   February 13, 2018   Comments Off on Asma Jahangir, Human rights activist – no more

Her work resonates with me… why did she go and stood out for others? Why did she got beat?  I can’t explain why I stood up for people from Atheists to Zoroastrians either. There is a gene among us that wants to do things for no gain. A few friends had written comparing me with her, and I disovered we were born in the same month and the same year.

Mike Ghouse

An Irreplaceable Champion for Pakistan’s Dispossessed Is Gone

Asma Jahangir died at a time when her country needed her most.

Courtesy – The Atlantic

I first met Asma Jahangir, the champion of human rights in Pakistan who dies Sunday,

Lawyer and Chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asma Jahangir. —Photo: Sara Faruqi/File

Chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Asma Jahangir, no more.

at the Supreme Court in Islamabad. It was September 2007, and General Pervez Musharraf’s eight-year rule was tottering. For several months, a popular movement led by lawyers had harried him on the streets, and now, Musharraf feared, the judges were poised to disqualify him from office.

 

As a journalist, I was there to observe the hundreds of lawyers clamoring for Musharraf’s worst fears to be realized. Soon, they were outnumbered. The ranks of the baton-wielding police swelled as reinforcements arrived, including a contingent dressed in plain clothes with rocks in their pockets. The police began beating the lawyers on their heads, in some cases breaking the protesters’ spectacles, and causing blood to pour onto the black blazers that symbolize the legal profession in Pakistan. Soon, rocks began to fly, scattering the ranks of the demonstrators. Then came the tear-gas, letting off a cloudy trail as the canisters arced in the direction of the protesters and journalists, forcing everyone to retreat inside the Supreme Court building.

Jahangir was unfazed. She shepherded the lawyers, activists and journalists inside and then led them to the kitchen, where they could wash their faces, sip water, and reflect on the events convulsing their country. A military ruler was resorting to repressive methods in order to cleave to power. The rule of law had deteriorated to the point where the police were laying siege to the seat of justice. Confronted with such force, what hope was there for a peaceful resistance whose only weapon was the constitution? Still, Jahangir remained confident. She had lived through such moments before.

Jahangir was 18 years old when she first made her name in the Supreme Court. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, a noted left-wing politician, had been placed under “preventive detention” during the military rule of General Yahya Khan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jahangir would later joke that she came to know court as an occasion to dress up and see her father. In a landmark petition, Jahangir challenged the legitimacy not just of her father’s detention but of Khan’s rule as well. To everyone’s astonishment, the court later decreed that Khan was an “usurper.”

Later, during General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year rule, which ended in 1988, Jahangir was one of the leaders of the Women’s Action Forum. The group protested in the streets against laws that discriminated against women. Its members were beaten viciously by the police. She was first arrested in 1983, and then again during the Musharraf years—twice: the first time in 2005, at a Lahore marathon for women’s rights; then in November 2007, during Musharraf’s last year in power, when she was placed under house arrest.

Soon after Jahangir qualified as a lawyer, in 1978, she established Pakistan’s first all-female legal firm, along with her sister, Hina Jilani, and two other friends. Over the years, the clients they represented included women trying to divorce violent husbands, women trying to marry against the wishes of their parents, bonded laborers seeking freedom from their oppressive “owners,” religious minorities facing death sentences under the blasphemy laws, and relatives of the forcibly disappeared. In 1987, Jahangir co-founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which she chaired for several years.

Even at the best of times, it was hazardous work. In the mid-1990s, Jahangir defended Salamat Masih, a Christian teenager sentenced to death for blasphemy for allegedly scribbling an insult on a mosque’s wall. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have often ensnared members of religious minorities. An accusation can be made on the basis of little or no evidence. The accused have been deemed guilty by riled up mobs even before the trial has begun. Everyone involved fears for their lives. At one hearing, Jahangir was not even allowed to speak. She was denounced by an angry mob as “anti-Islamic.” But in a surprise result, Masih was ultimately acquitted on appeal. That result didn’t end the anger over the case, however. Following the verdict, an armed gang stormed into Jahangir’s brother’s house looking for her. In 1997, two years after the acquittal, the judge was killed.

Jahangir said she learned a lot from those she represented. She once asked a woman with five children who was seeking a divorce if she was ready to assume the life of a single mother. “Many women have been killed in their marriages,” the woman replied. “Have you ever heard of anyone killed in their divorce?” A bonded labourer once explained to her what he was fighting for, by saying: “I’m not asking for food. That I can get in jail. I’m fighting for my dignity, which is priceless.”

Jahangir became famous as a fearless Pakistani human rights defender. She won several human rights awards, spent three terms as a UN special rapporteur, and was awarded three honorary doctorates. Presidents and prime ministers decorated her with their highest civilian honors. But it was her quiet valor and discreet acts of kindness, away from the glare of publicity, that affected people the most.

In the hours since she has died, a well-known journalist recalled how she dragged him out of his office and up to the hills of Murree to accompany her as she investigated the killing of a young girl she read about in the newspaper. A lawyer told me that during Musharraf’s state of emergency, he was a student protesting outside a detained judge’s house in Lahore. The Punjab police charged up to them, and were about to attack, when Jahangir emerged out of nowhere. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she said. “These are kids, not terrorists. Go on, get lost.” Shocked, the police duly skulked away.

For many in Pakistan, Jahangir’s outspokenness made her a divisive figure. Journalists and politicians close to the military ritually attacked her as “secular,” “anti-Islamic,” “pro-Western” and a “foreign agent.” But when two of those journalists found themselves facing television bans in court, Jahangir was there to defend them. The journalists were reduced to silence. Jahangir always stood for a principle, even if it meant defending her most vituperative critics.

The tragedy is that Jahangir has died when perhaps Pakistan needs her the most. The crude acts of repression under the military rule of Musharraf have now assumed subtler, more pernicious forms. Human rights activists aren’t thrashed in the streets, like they were during Musharraf’s time. They are subject to intense surveillance online, and, if deemed necessary, “picked up.”

Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record, with possibly thousands of people unaccounted for over the past two decades. Authorities refuse to acknowledge they are holding someone, or to say where they are held. But over recent months, these disappearances have become more frequent. The disappeared are no longer mainly those suspected of membership in an armed group. They include students, journalists, bloggers, peace activists and other mainstays of civil society. Sometimes they return home within days, having endured torture and other-ill treatment. Sometimes months go by with no news of their whereabouts. The media is wary of covering their cases, and there is a fear that anyone could be targeted. “Who will be next?” as one lawyer’s placard read at a protest last year. “Will it be me, or will it be you?”

Jahangir’s last public speech was at a protest rally in Islamabad. She was speaking to hundreds of ethnic Pashtuns who had gathered in the capital to protest against enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations visited upon their community. Now, Pakistanis wonder who will be there to speak up for them. “Her sheer presence gave people strength,” a friend of Jahangir’s told me last night. Will a new generation of activists assume the mantle that Jahangir left behind for them, or will Pakistanis be left weaker without her? 

# # #  The following Piece is from Dawn

Renowned senior lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir passed away in Lahore on Sunday, DawnNews reported.

She is survived by a son and two daughters.

People gather at Asma Jahangir's residence, following her death, in Lahore. ─ AP
People gather at Asma Jahangir’s residence, following her death, in Lahore. ─ AP

The family told DawnNews that Jahangir had suffered from a cardiac arrest and was subsequently shifted to a hospital, where she breathed her last. She was 66.

Details regarding her funeral have not been made public as yet.

Known for her outspoken nature and unrelenting pursuit for human rights — as well as for remaining undaunted in the face of extreme pressure and opposition — Jahangir will be remembered as a champion of the disenfranchised and for her services towards building a democratic and more inclusive Pakistan.

A towering figure

Jahangir was born in Lahore in January 1952.

She received a bachelor’s degree from Kinnaird College and an LLB from Punjab University. She was called to the Lahore High Court in 1980 and to the Supreme Court in 1982. She later went on to become the first woman to serve as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

She became a pro-democracy activist and was jailed in 1983 for participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, which agitated against military dictator Ziaul Haq’s regime.

She was also active in the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement, for which she was put under house arrest.

She co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the Women’s Action Forum.

She received several awards, including a Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 2010 and a Sitara-i-Imtiaz. She was also awarded a Unesco/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights and an Officier de la Légion d’honneur by France.

She also received the 2014 Right Livelihood Award and the 2010 Freedom Award from the International Rescue Committee.

Nation in shock

The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, and other Supreme Court judges expressed deep sorrow and grief on her demise in a statement.

They extended their heartfelt condolences and sincere sympathies to members of the grieved family while praising her services for the independence of the judiciary, rule of law and supremacy of the Constitution.

“She was an outspoken and courageous lady, and had risen to prominence by sheer dint of hard work, diligence and commitment to the legal profession,” the judges of the apex court said.

President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also expressed their sorrow over Jahangir’s demise, Radio Pakistan reported.

The president, in his condolence message, said Jahangir had played an “unforgettable role” for the supremacy of law, democracy and human rights.

PM Abbasi likewise lauded Jahangir for her “immense contribution towards upholding rule of law, democracy and safeguarding human rights.”

He termed her demise as a great loss for legal fraternity.

Minister of State for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb said Jahangir’s struggle is a bright chapter in the constitutional, legal, and democratic history of Pakistan.

She said that the entire Pakistan is praying peace for Asma Jahangir’s soul.

Chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani, Deputy Chairman Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, Speaker National Assembly Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, and Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah also expressed grief over the Jahangir’s passing.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Bar Council announced three days of mourning across the country from tomorrow.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has also announced to observe a day of mourning across the province.

Moreover, Pakistan People’s Party has suspended activities for one day to mourn the death of Asma Jehangir.

Condolences and tributes also poured in on Twitter as Pakistanis reacted to the shock of Jahangir’s sudden demise.

Courtesy of Dawn 

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