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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.