Making the Case for Legal Activism

We talked to Zia Ahmed Awan, the President of Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Action in Karachi, in a noisy New York diner last fall. Since then, there has been a change in government in Pakistan and Nawaz Sharif has been re-elected Prime Minister. There is little change, however, in the grim trade in women and children that flourishes in the South Asian Region, or in the courageous efforts of activists like Mr. Awan to battle it

Chandana: We would like to know about your organization and how it was started.

Zia Awan: Lawyers for Human Rights was started in 1989, but before that I was very active in the university days as a student leader. I was working in a mainly left group, the Progressive Front in Karachi University, and we were quite strong because of the struggle. The last election of the student union was held in 1979. At that time there were 56 colleges in Karachi University. We made alliance with liberal students at that time against the martial law-supported Islami Jamiat-i-Taleba which was a component of Jamat-e-Islami, the religious fundamentalist group and we won in 52 of the 56 colleges. In only 4 colleges did the martial law-supported union win. So the martial law government banned the elections. And even now, even after Nawaz Sharif, and then Benazir, the student union ban is still there. There is no change from the martial law government policies as far as the student union is concerned.

Shankar: How did you make the transition from student politics to human rights work?

Zia Awan: There were a lot of struggles on at that time. The first thing that the martial law administration did was pull all the progressive journalists out of the trust newspapers, that is, the few very big news groups, like the Pakistan Times, having government money. So there was a big campaign made by the journalists. They called on student leaders, peasant and labor leaders for support. We made a committee called Awami Jiddojehad Committee, the People's Struggle Committee with all of the organizations. In solidarity, my organization decided, and I volunteered, to court arrest. So I was arrested. This was the first time in my life. That was in 1978. Zia ul-Haq had just come to power and it was a really very dark time for people struggling against martial law. My case was received by the military court.

The colonel who was in the position to give a sentence did not do so because every day three persons, one journalist, one student leader and one labor leader, were courting arrest. And it went on for two months, every day. Although I was very politically active before, that was the first time I went in jail and saw the situation inside.

Shankar: How long were you in jail?

Zia Awan: I think 3 1/2 months. We started a hunger strike inside the prison and I was on it for 19 days. I came out on a stretcher. At that time we had the inspiration of Bobby Sands of the Irish movement. He survived 63 days of a hunger strike and so we thought that we could survive.

Shankar: Were political prisoners kept separate from other prisoners?

Zia Awan: Some of the time, yes. They did not want us to meet ordinary prisoners because they felt that we can create more awareness among them about their rights. But we were meeting with them. This was my first intervention in the real political arena. Soon after this, Jamat-e-Islami tried to kill many students. We were in a procession. I got a bullet in my leg and other students, even a girl student got shot. In the hospital, Benazir and other leaders came to see me because we were very popular in the student field. When she came to see me, a case was registered against me that I had tried to injure some of the Jamat-e-Islami students. So I went to prison for a second time and remained almost 6 1/2 months in a false case although I was the one who got the bullet.

I became a lawyer in 1981. In 1982 the struggle was still on. Lawyers were very united in fighting martial law. Again we brought out a procession and 10 lawyers were arrested. I was one of them. We faced a military court and trial and I remained in prison 3/12 months. With this long struggle, I was quite mature by the end of student life, with our political background and due to the jail when I read a lot of Marxism. I learned about political systems and learned languages. I can talk fluently in all Pakistani languages, Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi. I did not want to go into politics. All the feudal and tribal leaders are involved in politics and you just have to go and work for them. You cannot even think that they are going to bring any change.

I was thinking of building up an independent forum, a platform, somewhere between politics and student leadership. But there were no resources. I belong to a lower middle class family. Livelihood was a real problem. My family felt that I was a spoiled child because I was going to jail all the time and the police was coming home all the time. People had been killed during the struggle; the families had a reason to be frightened. So I decided that I would establish myself first in my profession and then do something.

Shankar: As a lawyer?

Zia Awan: Yes. For 3-4 years I didn't know what to do because I was very new in politics and survival was very difficult. In 1985 I fought and won the election to become secretary of the bar association in Karachi, the biggest in Pakistan. This was the first proper entry into the legal profession. Initially, my perception was that I should support the political workers who remain in prison because the political parties don't really bother about them or give them support. But gradually I began to feel that there are ordinary people who need us more and we should support them. The political parties always have their legal cells in which there are so many lawyers who want to have a ticket and to serve the political party. So in 1989 we established our organization, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid. We were a big group of 50 lawyers, all previous friends, some from the struggle. Initially, we didn't know any NGO politics. We didn't know from where the funds come or who is going to support us.

For the first 3 years, Sattar Edhi, a very well-known social worker in Pakistan supported the organization. Then we decided not to go for government funding or for international donors. We thought that we should be a people oriented organization instead of a project oriented organization. We are still fighting that battle.

Shankar: So where do the resources come from?

Zia Awan: From ordinary people. We are not a membership organization, we try to get public donations. I also don't want to get support from one or two people and become their puppet. So, every year we do the fundraising campaign, write thousands of letters. A lot of people in Pakistan can support this kind of work... they need to trust that you are not politically affiliated to anybody, or serving your own personal ends.

Sattar Edhi picked up on this. And his support means that you've got a good name in the society. By now we are quite known in the country. Even the Pakistan television has brought out 12 plays on our work. It was very popular. Then I was doing a TV program on social issues. It was very popular because I was confronting ministers and all the big officials and big shots on several issues.

Shankar: You have been talking about your work and what you do and how you came to this work. Could you tell us about the framework for human rights in Pakistan?

Zia Awan: Well I think the most important thing is that institutions like the judiciary should be independent. And we need a free press.

Chandana: Do you see any improvement in the situation?

Zia Awan: Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. We still need to have a right direction and we need a very strongly committed political leader to lead the nation. The leaders we have now, whether Benazir or Nawaz Sharif, have feudal mentalities and they don't bother about the poor of the country. They are just making agreements which are colonizing us. We are controlled now by the IMF and the World Bank. Unfortunately, there is no real third force in the political arena. Not in the shape of Imran Khan who was saying that he's a third force but now he has joined Nawaz Sharif and Jamat-e-Islami. We need a political party not a personality. In Pakistan we don't have parties with people in different cells working on things like economics, law, journalism and wanting to bring some reform. We just have personalities. Whatever they decide, that is the aim and object of the political party.

The other problem we have is influence and money from outside. A lot of money came in, for example when the Iran-Iraq War was going on. The Pakistani political leaders divided the people into Shia and Sunni and encouraged riots because Iran is Shia and Iraq is Sunni. A lot of money came to support the fundamentalist groups. Later on when Libya was in trouble they sent some money into Pakistan, and again then when Iraq and Kuwait war started again money came in. The worst was during the Afghan war. Because the Americans and Europeans wanted to fight with the Russians, they were using my country as a playground. They brought a lot of money, supported the Afghan refugee organizations and the religious organizations in my country and because of that a lot of fundamentalism has grown in our country. Previously it was not like that.

Chandana: I suppose the stakes have gone up because of foreign money.

Zia Awan: Yes, because of the money they have become so organized. They have land and big religious institutions where they give arms training. So the Shias are armed and the Sunnis have their own arms and a lot of arms came during the Afghan War. This heroin culture and Kalishnikov culture came because of the Afghan War. The fault is from the outside world, the Americans and Europeans which has brought this problem to us.

Shankar: Is there any coordination between any human rights organizations and the government of Pakistan?

Zia Awan: Yes, within the Benazir government, there is a little consultation with the overall NGOs. But consultation does not necessarily mean the NGOs suggestions are taken. The last time Benazir came into power, she put all of the NGO leaders into different committees. But she did nothing with the decisions of the committees. And now it is the same. It is a big problem working under this regime because she poses as a liberal leader but she's not. If Nawaz Sharif is in the government, it is very easy, I can straight away say he's a reactionary. But if you say this against Benazir, people will not believe you because she always portrays herself as a progressive.

Like she said that she has brought about separate police stations. It is having no effect in the society because the women police have the same attitude as men. They are also abusive and biased. Like when a wife goes to the police station with bruises and says that I have been beaten by my husband. Although it is a penal offense, instead of taking it up in this manner, the women police always say go and compromise with your husband. There should be some links with the women police, women's groups, and the rehabilitation center. There is nothing like that. It is just a smoke screen.

The government has recently announced, maybe 1 or 2 months ago, a human rights minister and a whole ministry. I have to see how this is going to work because I hope for the best. But in his first press conference the minister said that if some policeman violates some fundamental right of a person it is a provincial subject and not in the area of the federal ministry. So what the hell is he doing there being the minister? The constitution provides that if someone's fundamental rights are violated, like being detained illegally, it is a federal question. I was shocked after seeing his press conference. Because the human rights groups in Pakistan have become stronger and have become a nuisance, the government has decided to have this parallel kind of working...just to confuse people or to target us. They just want to paralyze us.

Chandana: What do you think are the most important areas of human rights violations?

Zia Awan: Well one big problem is that the present government has almost wound up public interest litigation in which poor people can go to the high court and the supreme court without a lawyer. It has almost been stopped by the new chief justices who are brought in by this government as political appointments and don't want to follow up that public interest litigation. Another important thing for the betterment of human rights is the compulsory education for children, as a way of ending child labour. The government should do something about this. Then, the women and children's situation overall. Again, jails are horrible now. There is no system that the prisoner can get a government lawyer. If they cannot afford to engage a lawyer there is no system at all. We need that.

Chandana: I know your work focuses on women and children's issues. Could you talk about the specific pieces of legislation you most often run up against?

Zia Awan: The Hudood Ordinance was introduced in 1979 by the martial law regime (see box above). It is a so-called law brought in without consulting community leaders or religious leaders and at a time when there was no parliament. It is a ridiculous law, and it was brought abruptly by the will of the government just to have the sympathy of the religious parties. After the introduction of this law the jail population in the women's wards increased 100%. And this law has mostly been used against the poor people and not for the upper class, upper-middle class, or lower-middle class.

There are 3 or 4 kinds of cases that have been registered under this law. One is in the villages when the husband gives verbal divorce. The people are uneducated so they don't know there should be some written divorce, people are not familiar with the law. When a woman is divorced she has to go through the iddat period for 90 days, sit at home. After that she is formally free from the clutches of that man. If somebody else is interested she can go for marriage. Because of the feudal mentality the first husband may go into the police station and say that I'm not divorced (he can do that because there is no proof, it was verbal) and he says that she is committing adultery. And the sentence is stoning to death.

Chandana: Has it been carried out?

Zia Awan: This sentence is in the statute book. 3 or 4 times the court has announced the sentences but later on in the federal sharia court the appeal was accepted. No execution has happened, but the law is there and any mad person can use this. The second kind of case we have recieved is rape.

Under the Hudood laws, she has to prove that she has been raped by producing four male adult Muslim witnesses, otherwise the charges can be reversed and she is accused of adultery. Previously under the common law if she reported a rape she did not have to fear that she will be involved in this case. And there was no need of four male adult Muslim witnesses, circumstantial evidence was accepted. Lots of women went to prison because of this Ordinance.

This law is not only against women but we always say this law against the men also. When a girl, even an 18 year old, marries of her own free will but against her parents wishes. After that the family goes to the police and with their connivance make the false statement that she is 14 years old, a minor, kidnapped by the boy. When she is recovered the police, the family compel her to make a statement that she was kidnapped by the boy. Otherwise, if she does not agree, they involve her in a case saying that they both were committing adultery. So this is one kind of allegation in which the boy is innocent, because under law and under the religious perception, they can marry when they are both adults.

It's my organization's - and my personal - point of view that this law should be repealed. We don't want any amendment in this law.

Chandana: What are the prospects for that happening?

Zia Awan: We are advocating people, NGO's... We are advocating Parliament members and also to the international NGO's to bring pressure on them. Many groups support us. Women's groups, child right groups and human rights groups. And the professors at the colleges. And the journalists, media, especially English newspapers, they are supporting us. There are a lot of organizations. Maybe they are small but there are a lot. Now we have a community.

Chandana: What kind of pressure is there to keep those laws in place?

Zia Awan: Well in both the governments they did not want to move on unpopular issues. And Benazir Bhutto showed signs herself sometimes that she wanted to do something. But because of the nuisance value of the religious fundamentalist political parties, she doesn't want to go into that. She would be in trouble. So we need some daring leader to come out with all of his or her views.

Chandana: I've heard about women's organizations within Pakistan who deal largely with this issue. Is your organization working with them?

Zia Awan: My organization realized that NGO leaders should be equipped with the legal issues and how to fight their battles. To strengthen the women's rights and child right movements and the organizations working in the health sector and education, we collected all the leaders and gave paralegal training to them. This has been a very good thing. Now they can fight their own battles instead of always waiting for Zia Awan or X, Y, or Z. So we have started this network where we have a liaison with each other and we support each other. Most of the NGOs in the country have relations with us and they come to us for legal support.

We have a lot of liaisons-not just in Pakistan. On the issue of trafficking we have very good networking with Bangladeshi NGOs, Indian NGOs, Nepali NGOs and Sri Lankan NGOs. My organization has worked on creating this network. One coalition is South Asian People's Coalition for Human Rights which we initiated in Colombo. The office is in Colombo.

Chandana: At an NGO level there is a fair amount of work on trafficking in the different South Asian countries. Is there any government effort to parallel this?

Zia Awan: No. They are not even listening to us. We raised our voice against the traffickig of camel kids which are brought from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh to the Gulf to use for the camel race. The camel race is a very popular sport in the Gulf countries. Traffickers take children from the poor areas from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. They put the child on the camel in a kind of a cage, and then the camel starts racing. The children are from 4 to 9 years in age. Because the child is crying the camel goes fast. Some of the children die during the race because they fall down, sometimes their legs are broken. When we were raising this question, BBC made a film and there were a lot of reports.

Due to our pressure, the U.A.E. government has introduced a law that there should not be children brought from outside. Although it is still being practiced, the law came in due to our pressure. Just to hide from the international media. But the Pakistani government, Indian government and Bangladeshi they were totally oblivious to this issue. They did not do anything for the children. They don't even bother about the children in their countries. No compulsory education. No health activity. They are giving only 2% of their total budget to the health sector.

Chandana: What kind of a political philosophy have you been bringing to your work?

Zia Awan: Well we are not so strong, frankly speaking, that we can bring any drastic change in society. What we are trying to do is to educate people to think about and build up the democratic institutions in the country. We are advocating the cause that if the institutions are there, no person, whether political leader or head of the state should be above the law. The rule of law should prevail.


The Hudood Ordinance criminalizes Zina, which is defined as extra-marital sex including adultery and fornication. It also criminalizes Zina-bil-jabr, which is defined as rape outside of marriage. The Hudood Ordinance further defines Zina and Zina-bil-jabr on the basis of the assigned criminal punishment. Hence, there is Zina and Zina-bil-jabr liable to hadd (punishment ordained by the Holy Quran or Sunnah), and there is Zina and Zina-bil-jabr liable to tazir (any punishment other than hadd). The hadd punishment is stoning to death, and the tazir punishment for Zina is up to ten years of imprisonment and whipping up to 30 stripes and/or a fine. The tazir punishment for Zina-bil-jabr is up to 25 years imprisonment and whipping up to 30 stripes. The level of proof for Zina and Zina-bil-jabr liable to hadd requires either a confession, or at least four Muslim male witnesses.

Though abetting is a sin, the Hudood Ordinance requires the witnesses to be truthful and pious persons who abstain from major sins. According to the Hudood Ordinance, if this high evidentiary requirement for hadd cannot be satisfied, then the crime of Zina or Zina-bil-jabr is liable to tazir, which, unlike hadd, does not require four Muslim male witnesses to the crimes of rape, adultery or fornication. Invariably, the cases of rape, if at all registered by the police, are under the hadd category, which has the higher evidentiary burden. If unable to prove rape, the court takes the rape victim's statement as a confession of adultery which results in the punishment of the rape victim. In the cases of Zina and Zina-bil-jabr, tazir punishments are the norm and courts rarely, if ever, mete out the hadd punishment. Though given more lenient punishments, even young children between the ages of six and ten years can be, and are, charged under this law.

Source: Trafficking of Women and Children. The Flesh Trade Report 1995-1996. Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Action, Karachi


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