Pakistan dispatch: judges, lawyers and other luminaries gather to celebrate the legacy of Pakistan human rights pioneer Asma Jahangir Dispatches
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Pakistan dispatch: judges, lawyers and other luminaries gather to celebrate the legacy of Pakistan human rights pioneer Asma Jahangir

Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Abu Bakar Khan is a final year law student at University Law College, University of the Punjab. He files this dispatch from Lahore. 

Lahore hosted the 5th Asma Jahangir Conference, titled ‘People’s Mandate: Safeguarding Civil Rights in South Asia’, on the weekend of April 27th and 28th. The event attracted a diverse array of participants, including judges from the Supreme Court and High Courts, legal professionals, politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and ambassadors from various nations. The conference encompassed a broad spectrum of topics ranging from justice, law, and liberties to fundamental rights, media freedom, and gender equality. Discussions also delved into regional issues such as provincial dynamics, climate change, and electoral matters, among others. With participants representing diverse fields of life, the event provided a platform for discussions reflecting the voices of their respective communities.

Established in 2018, shortly after the demise of Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist Asma Jahangir, the annual conference perpetuates her legacy of courage and conviction. Asma earned the moniker “voice of the voiceless” through her relentless pursuit of justice and democratic ideals. She raised her voice loud and clear against the political, social, economic and legal shortcomings and abuse of power in Pakistan.

Her activism commenced at the age of eighteen, when she challenged her father’s unjust imprisonment under martial law regulations in the landmark case “Miss Asma Jilani v. Government of Punjab.” Finally, in 1972, the Supreme Court concluded that Yahya Khan (r. 1969–1971) had usurped power in an unjustified manner and declared his martial law regime illegal. In 1978, two years after graduating from Punjab University, she founded the first-ever female law firm in Pakistan, AGHS. In 1981, Asma Jahangir played a key role in founding the Women’s Action Forum, aiming to advocate for women’s rights. Subsequently, in 1986, she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), utilizing it as a powerful platform to spotlight the plight of marginalized groups, including ethnic and religious minorities, women, children, and political dissidents. Simultaneously, Jahangir, along with her colleagues at AGHS, transformed the organization into a pioneering legal aid center, providing crucial assistance to those affected by unjust laws and societal injustices. This included cases involving unjust laws and societal injustices, aiding women accused of moral crimes, defending religious minorities, and assisting bonded laborers.

Alongside her legal and advocacy work, Asma Jahangir authored two books: “The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?” examining the detrimental effects of General Zia’s implementation of Islamic criminal law on marginalized groups, and “Children of a Lesser God,” shedding light on the plight of child prisoners in Pakistani jails. Serving as a United Nations Special Rapporteur from 1998 until her passing, Asma played pivotal roles in addressing human rights issues on a global scale. In the midst of the 1980s, Asma Jahangir emerged as a prominent critic of General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamist regime. This period marked a significant opposition to Zia’s authoritarian rule, resulting in his hand-picked unelected Parliament, Majlis-e-Shoora, passing a resolution condemning her for blasphemy and calling for her execution. The allegation was based on a statement purportedly made by Jahangir during a Women’s Action Forum (WAF) assembly. Despite General Zia initiating a commission to investigate the accusation, a recording of the WAF refuted Asma’s supposed remarks.

In 1990, Asma Jahangir successfully represented Darshan Masih in a landmark case regarding bonded labor (Darshan Masih v the State, PLD 1990 SC 513). The court’s ruling established that bonded laborers could seek legal recourse through informal means, such as a telegram, and recognized the exploitative nature of the brick kiln system as forced labor. This pivotal case laid the groundwork for the enactment of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act 1992.

In 1995, Asma Jahangir courageously took on the defense of 12-year-old Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih, who were sentenced to death for blasphemy by a session court. Despite facing threats and attacks for her advocacy, she appealed the convictions in the Lahore High Court. Asma was attacked for pursuing the case but she remained undeterred and secured an acquittal for both of the accused. Tragically, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who presided over the case, was later assassinated in his chambers at the Lahore High Court. Afterwards, the case was appealed in the Supreme Court, which granted bail to the accused. (Salamat Mansha Masih Versus The State, PLD 2022 SC 751).

In 1996, the courageous decision of 22-year-old Saima Waheed to marry a man of her own choice sparked a legal battle that would resonate across Pakistan. Faced with rejection and threats to her life, she fled her home. Her father, in response, filed a habeas corpus petition, asserting that Saima’s marriage without the consent of her guardian (wali) was invalid under Islamic law. Asma Jahangir took up Saima’s case, navigating a challenging legal journey that ultimately resulted in the Lahore High Court ruling in favor of Saima, validating her marriage. Subsequently, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hafiz Abdul Waheed vs. Asma Jehangir (PLD 2004 SC 219) established that any woman over 18 years old can marry without requiring consent from a guardian, marking a landmark decision in the protection of women’s rights for years to come.

In 1999, Asma Jahangir undertook the case of Saima Sarwar, a woman seeking refuge at Dastak (a shelter for home run women established by Asma) after leaving her husband and seeking a divorce. Tragically, Sarwar was subsequently murdered in an act of honour-killing in Jahangir’s offices, highlighting the immense risks involved in taking on these sorts of cases in Pakistan. Additionally, Jahangir challenged the arbitrary arrests and searches of child vagrants by the Punjab police under the outdated Punjab Vagrancy Ordinance of 1958. She argued that Pakistan, as a welfare state, failed to fulfill its obligations in providing education, healthcare, and employment opportunities to its citizens, thus rendering unjustifiable the harsh restrictions imposed on the impoverished and needy. While the Lahore High Court dismissed her petition, it directed the administration to differentiate between professional beggars and those compelled by necessity, guiding the application of detention on an individual basis.

Moreover, Jahangir successfully intervened in a child custody matter, securing custody of a male minor for his mother in accordance with Muslim law, after the father had unlawfully deprived the mother of custody for years. In October 2010, amidst escalating pressures on lawyers, she made history as the first female President of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Throughout her career, Asma remained vigilant in her scrutiny of Pakistan’s political landscape, steadfast in her pursuit of systemic reforms to safeguard human rights. In her final address, delivered just two days before her passing, Jahangir spoke passionately to young Pashtuns gathered in Islamabad, addressing their agitation against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore honors her enduring legacy of courage, advocacy, and unshakable devotion to justice. From her revolutionary legal successes to her brave defense of the underprivileged, Asma Jahangir’s legacy lives on, motivating future generations to fight civil rights and democratic principles throughout South Asia and beyond.