Speaking up, reaching out
In 1977, gun-toting policemen carted off a student leader from his Karachi home for demanding that General Zia — who had seized power in a coup — hand over power to the civilian government chosen in general elections in February.
In the evening, a young Benazir Bhutto met him in the Clifton police station’s holding area. Within hours of that meeting, around 11 pm, charges were framed and a 10-month jail term was announced for the accused named Ansar Burney, without even presenting him before a judge. This first-hand experience of how easily police could stomp upon his basic rights made Burney a crusader credited with introducing Pakistan to human rights.
It may be only in the fitness of things that the Pakistan government’s information website www.infopak.gov.pk still describes Burney as the federal minister for human rights when he has long relinquished that post. But, he will not be hanging up his boots as a rights campaigner any time soon.
In the news recently for having been sent back by India from New Delhi’s airport — apparently due to an immigration glitch — Burney is actually preparing to exorcise many such ‘ghosts’ that haunt Pakistan. For 60 years since Pakistan’s founding in the partitioning of British India, human rights violations have changed that country’s political map. “Human rights are invariably the first casualty in a dictatorial regime,” he says.
Burney has become a hero in India for securing the release of Kashmir Singh, the death row prisoner who spent 35 years in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail on charges of spying. His efforts resulted in the re-appraisal of another death row convict Sarabjit Singh’s case. In his own country, however, he is under mounting pressure for being an anti-establishment activist. “We don’t accept ‘terrorism courts’ of Pakistan as legitimate because they are run by the home department and, therefore, are not part of the mainstream judiciary,” says the lawyer, named ‘International Hero’ by the US State Department for his work in the field of anti-human trafficking.
“I took up Kashmir Singh’s case because it was shocking to discover that this man had spent 35 years in a death cell,” he says.
Death cells in Pakistan’s grimy prisons are cubby-holes large enough for just three inmates, but where 12-14 convicts are packed in. Prisoners defecate and eat in the same space and cleaners drop in once in a blue moon. Burney’s Prisoners’ Aid Society, which he set up after completing his law degree in 1980, is waging a crucial battle to eliminate these cells.
“I don’t think Sarabjit (Singh) is a terrorist because he was not tried in a fair manner.” Singh had been implicated in four cases related to terror acts. Since the four cases were registered in Faisalabad and Lahore, Singh should have been tried before four magistrates. He was tried by one, Burney says. “Singh was shown to witnesses planted by the police, who were asked to identify only him as the accused. What justice is that? How can I accept that Singh is a terrorist in the absence of credible evidence?” asks Burney.
In 2001, the Pakistani government was preparing to execute a young, illiterate woman convicted for murder in a trial termed ‘shady’ by human rights groups. Rubina Ansari, then 24, was to be the first Pakistani woman to be hanged. But the Supreme Court gave her a last-minute stay of execution after the government came under pressure from Burney to commute the sentence to imprisonment for life.
Burney, an advisory member of the UN Human Rights Commission, divides his time between Karachi and London, where the Ansar Burney Trust monitors human rights violations worldwide.
Burney believes India and Pakistan can come closer through validation of human rights. “The more prisoners they swap, the closer they come.” He also wants the visa system scrapped for unfettered movement of people whose roots lie strewn on either side of the border.