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Bonded labour activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima.— Photo courtesy: Humans of New York
Bonded labour activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima.— Photo courtesy: Humans of New York

The photographer behind the celebrated Humans of New York Facebook page has spoken out after alarming accusations were leveled against Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the subject of one of his viral photos, and vouched for her “integrity and prudence”.

In an email to Dawn.com, New York-based Brandon Stanton on Monday responded to questions about his association with Fatima, saying, “I stand behind Fatima's work and have complete faith in her integrity.”

The photographer has spoken in support of Ghulam Fatima days after her organisation, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), was accused of “corruption and mismanagement by a Pakistani online publication which alleges that Fatima has “done nothing substantial” with the $2.3 million donated to her organisation through a crowdfunding campaign initiated by Stanton.

The allegations have shocked many Pakistanis who had celebrated Stanton’s visit and his subsequent fundraising campaign for Fatima’s NGO. The debate over whether this was a case of fraud and embezzlement went viral across social media.

Stanton says the funds were transferred to Fatima in phases: “The money was transferred in three different installments, beginning less than 1.5 years ago. The first installment was not received by Fatima until November 2015. I have been in constant contact with Fatima, and we have met in person twice since she received the money.”

The article published on March 17 says Fatima has “failed to provide audits and contracts” two years after Stanton’s campaign.

The report also includes photographs of what appears to be an under-construction building, which it says is the Freedom Center BLLF pledged to construct. It likens Fatima's project to "many government projects plagued by corruption", adding that it exists only on paper.

Stanton however clarifies that there was “never a timeframe for completion” of the project.

“The money was intended to support her work for an extended period of time. It is my understanding that very little has been spent so far — which I believe to be a sign of Fatima's prudence," Stanton says.

"The money was never intended for a single construction project and there was certainly never a timeframe for completion.”

Fatima shot to fame in 2015 when Stanton photographed her during his visit to Pakistan as part of his journey to photograph ordinary people and tell their stories on his blog.

In his Facebook post with her photograph, Stanton described Fatima as a “very special change agent who is working to eradicate one of the nation’s most pressing social ills”.

Inspired by her work at the BLLF — an NGO that describes itself as the pioneer of organisations working to end bonded labour in Pakistan — Stanton invited the over 15 million followers on his page to donate to her cause.

“She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism…. So as we learn her story over the next few days, anyone wishing to help empower Fatima can donate to Bonded Labour Liberation Front…," Stanton wrote in 2015.

Fatima shares bank statements

In an attempt to refute allegations leveled in the report, Fatima shared bank statements and land registry documents. The documents, as obtained by Dawn.com, contain:

  • A bank statement of her account held in Meezan Bank since December 10, 2015 with a closing balance of Rs208 million (over $1.9million) on March 20, 2017
A bank statement of her account held in Meezan Bank with a closing balance of Rs208 million
A bank statement of her account held in Meezan Bank with a closing balance of Rs208 million

  • A bank statement of a BLLF account held in Meezan Bank with a closing balance of Rs5.2 million (around $52,000) on March 20, 2017

  • Land acquisition papers dated April 24, 2014 for her private property which is now being built as the Freedom Center

Land acquisition papers dated April 24, 2014 for her private property which is now being built as the Freedom Center
Land acquisition papers dated April 24, 2014 for her private property which is now being built as the Freedom Center

Fatima tells Dawn.com that the entire sum of donations was transferred to her a year ago and that the search for land and resistance from powerful brick-kiln owners have caused delays.

"I wanted to build something that will live on after me," Fatima says, adding that the site where the center is being built has no access to water and electricity after a nearby transformer was destroyed by people associated with kilns were she has freed labourers.

"The photographs that have emerged show just one block. It is not the complete project."

In a message to Dawn.com, Hamza Rao, the reporter who worked on the first story says: "First of all, these are not allegations. I have not alleged anyone of corruption or embezzlement. I have simply raised questions about why there is no concrete advancement or development in the project for freedom centers."

"And I am not responsible for how people are perceiving the article." He adds that he has since written a rebuttal to "clarify" his earlier report.

Charity funds in a personal account?

Through a generosity.com campaign, over 76,000 people donated $2.3 million to Stanton for Fatima’s organisation, wildly surpassing the $100,000 goal Stanton had originally envisioned.

Questions are now being raised as to why a large sum of money is under Fatima’s personal account and not in the BLLF account.

In a conversation with Dawn.com, Fatima confirmed that the account with over $1.9 million is a personal account which she created after members of her organisation "expressed their trust” in her to keep the money safe.

According to her, the decision not to put the funds in the BLLF account was taken when the government decided to register a separate entity, Bonded Labour Liberation Front Union (BLLFU), as a platform for both kiln owners and labourers.

She said she feared an "overlap or confusion between the two entities", adding that the transfer of funds into her personal account was meant to avoid what she feared was government intervention.

The Meezan Bank account under Fatima’s name is not a charity account and is therefore not exempt from the relevant taxes.

BLLF is a non-profit organisation registered in 1990 under the Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies Registration and Control Ordinance 1961.

According to a paper prepared by the Social Policy and Development Centre, the ordinance regulates grass-roots level organisations providing welfare services to those in need. It also requires that all organisations engaged in social welfare or charitable works must be registered with the Social Welfare Departments of the provincial governments.

Lahore-based lawyer Asad Jamal says the issue of funds in Fatima's personal account is one of ethics, but adds that she is not legally bound to transfer the funds in a charity account.

"There is more of a moral issue than a legal issue," says Jamal. "The question can be raised as to why she gave her personal bank details."

"There is no legal obligation for her to not keep the money in her personal account. If she doesn’t have sufficient legal advice then she may not even think about the moral conflict."

Jamal says the wording of the appeal is also important. "Did people perceive that the money they are giving will go to her account or charity account? Maybe the people donated on goodwill for Fatima and left it upon her to decide how best to spend it."

The generosity.com campaign page says the drive was created for BLLF, but the call to action reads, "Let's Help Fatima End Bonded Labour."

"People donated her based on her previous work. Her goodwill earned her the money," Jamal says.

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Comments (23) Closed



Jamil Mar 21, 2017 09:31am

Ironic that poor and resilient lady who is doing her best for the betterment of the helpless is being accused of corruption and harassed while the looters of billions are enjoying even though their wrongs are well known all over the world.

And this nation of ours expect mercy from the creator..... come on out people stand behind this great human being...

Ayub Mar 21, 2017 09:37am

Why our Punjab CM break this mafia instead of putting up self praised advertisement.Shame on our governance.

Amin Mar 21, 2017 09:49am

Why funds kept in her personal account? Why not being Audited? Appoint PWC for audit and clarify? Operational audit?

Hassan Mar 21, 2017 09:46am

Media should keep itself out of this. Media did not help Fatima or HONY. Its HONY's call and people trusted HONY.

Ali Mar 21, 2017 10:14am

This is called real heroes and role model. Respect!

Maryam Mar 21, 2017 10:13am

It is ironic that we pull down our people who are trying to do some good, point fingers at them thereby maligning them. It is hard to do good work.

TAMZA Mar 21, 2017 10:25am

I venture that the 'real crook' here may well be the Stanton mentioned herein,

sajjad ahmed Mar 21, 2017 10:45am

Showing land papers of personal property and a bank account that amounts to a certain sum of money are no proofs of sincerity. We all know how bank accounts are suddenly filled up depicting a certain amount. And its all in her personal name and not in the name of BLLF. Why the bank statements were refused for several months ? And only after publication of articles and added hype such statements are forged ? Why work hasnt been started since 2 years now ? Where is all the interest from the savings going ? ... Money wasnt meant to be put up in bank accounts only. She does have a BLLF account, but why is she keeping money in her personal account ? We all know personal accounts are exempted from audits. Plus, No contractor has been hired so far for the freedom centres. ... Raises lots of questions ❓

bye BYE Mar 21, 2017 10:46am

The amount mentioned in the balance confirmation certificate is Two Hundred Eight Million and few thousands and still it ends with ONLY.

Imtiaz Mar 21, 2017 10:54am

thats precious little progress for such a huge donation.

Syed F. Hussaini Mar 21, 2017 12:37pm

Nobody questions the rich and powerful who collect donations and are never reported by these investigative guys who go after the poor activists only.

zebswati Mar 21, 2017 01:39pm

The bank letter shows saving account , this means She is getting interest/profit on the amount in bank kept for over one year. On big deposits in saving accounts banks give a very handsome written ( special interest rates ). e.g on this amount deposited you cab easily get monthly return of Rs.1.5million rupees from a private bank. And even some banks offer additonal gifts in return for big deposits. But nothing until proven guilty. This should be checked and if any profits drawn should be audited

The end is near Mar 21, 2017 02:17pm

Something fishy is going on here. The millions of donations money is landing directly into her personal bank account. “Welfare” money often is nott spent on welfare.

Haider Mar 21, 2017 02:33pm

One wonders how powerful and influential these Brick-Kiln owners are that they have launched a media campaign against Fatima. Bonded Labour is providing these monsters with cheap rather FREE human resource.

Haider Mar 21, 2017 02:40pm

@Amin She is only answerable to her doners IF they seek clarification. This is not public money.

M.Saeed Mar 21, 2017 02:58pm

We are a thankless lot of people.

ARSHAD,Canada Mar 21, 2017 03:20pm

@sajjad ahmed ,You are accusing someone without any proof. What have you done for humanity lately?

M.Saeed Mar 21, 2017 03:45pm

@sajjad ahmed: It they are no proof, then why do we ask the PM to show his bank and other papers?

A. A. Mar 21, 2017 03:58pm

The report has raised some valid questions, and I for one is not satisfied by the answers provided by this lady. It will be a shame, but not a surprise, if this turns out to be yet another typical NGO operation with hardly any thing on the ground

Bay Adab Mar 21, 2017 04:39pm

@Amin seriously "why she is keeping bank account in her name and why this is not being operationally audited"

when she was risking hr life why you did not come and say that why she is risking her life and why police is not doing what she is doing.

And now when this illiterate lady is recognized by foreigners and is given funds for risking her life and trying to get free thousands of slaves you suddenly have comments to make.

Haider Mar 21, 2017 04:43pm

Audit should be done.

Usman Ahmad Mar 21, 2017 08:47pm

@Amin PWC doesnt do work for free. May be you can pay for it since you are advising for it

Aman Mar 21, 2017 11:33pm

She is my hero and i salute her work. No one can stop her doing such a good work of mercy and human rights of weak and oppressed. Thank you for your great work.