Luminaries praise Asma Jahangir for her temerity

Updated 14 Oct 2018

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Chief Justice Saqib Nisar addresses the Asma Jahangir Conference. — White Star
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar addresses the Asma Jahangir Conference. — White Star

LAHORE: Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts in Pakistan, jurists from home and abroad, diplomats, civil rights activists and politicians assembled at a local hotel on Saturday to pay homage to the late Asma Jahangir whom they termed her fearless warrior of human rights recognised the world over.

Their words were not mere traditional posthumous praise for a departed soul. These words just narrated how she courageously fought against the mighty, had the faulty laws corrected and ensured justice for the marginalised men and women even at the peril of her own safety.

The speeches were interspersed with rolling down of tears, clapping in appreciation of Asma’s rebellion against injustice and sudden sparkling of eyes of the speakers, making one feel as if they had become excited by imagining her in real time action. Prominent among the audience were veteran jurists Aitzaz Ahsan and Abid Hasan Manto.

Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar said he learnt from Asma the importance of rights and began taking suo motu notices of matters involving the downtrodden because of this education. “I am blamed for my suo motu notices but I took my first one on her pointation,” he said, explaining how Asma pointed out the torture of a young girl Tayyaba on his first working day as the chief justice, and he provided justice to her.

He said as a family friend he knew Ms Asma closely. She turned out to be one of the best human rights fighters ever and her legal acumen was amazingly of high quality. “Without her, we would not have been able to achieve the standards of human rights which we have. The lawyers in Pakistan were ahead of their Indian counterparts in fighting for human rights because of Asma," he said.

The chief justice said he had made it easy for all to approach the superior judiciary for justice in line with the desires of Ms Asma, expressing his annoyance with the handcuffing of university professors by NAB in Lahore.

“Teachers should be respected even if they have committed any wrong,” he said, narrating how a German judge honoured writer Ashfaq Ahmad when he failed to deposit his traffic violation fine.

Lahore High Court Chief Justice Yawar Ali said Asma was a remarkable human being. She was a voice against tyranny, and for the downtrodden. Her landmark case “Asma JiIani vs government of Punjab” forever buried the ‘might is right’ theory. “We will take her mission forward,” he said.

Former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby mentioned how Asma made him wrote the Commonwealth Charter of Human Rights and got it approved from Queen Elizabeth. He also mentioned a letter from the International Bar Association’s president, offering respects for an amazing woman (Asma).

European Union Ambassador to Pakistan Jean-Francois Cautain said Asma was a true human rights defender, and a supporter of international fundamental rights which are embedded in the European Union treaties. “I agree with her that human rights is not a job, it’s a conviction. And I also add that it is a passion,” he said.

Indian jurist Colin Gonsalves said lawyers in his country were far behind in the sphere of human rights because of Asma who was an inspiration across the borders. “You have faced terror which we did not. But we now fear it. I am taking back home her spirit of daring the mighty,” he said.

German Ambassador Martin Kobler said before assuming charge of his office in Pakistan he met Asma to seek her guidance on how to work here. She was a teacher and a truthful person.

Afghan activist Orzala Nemat narrated how as a refugee child in a camp in Peshawar she was inspired by Asma and realised that she would have to be a lawyer to fight for her and others rights.

Former HRCP Secretary General I A Rehman said Asma had the conviction that all people were entitled to equal treatment and kindness.

Supreme Court Bar Association President Pir Kaleem Khurshid, LHCBA President Anwarul Haq Pannu, Pakistan Bar Council Vice Chairman Kamran Murtaza, Indian poet and activist Kamla Bhasin and Advocate Ahsan Bhoon also spoke, lawyers Azam Nazir Tarrar and Abid Saqi moderated whereas Asma’s daughter Sulema Jahangir presented welcome address and two short movies on the life and work of her mother.

In the post-lunch session ‘Freedom of Expression and Shrinking Spaces for Dissent’ speakers from different countries talked about the issues they faced.

Artists paint Asma Jahangir’s picture at the conference. — White Star
Artists paint Asma Jahangir’s picture at the conference. — White Star

India’s editor of the news site The Wire, Siddharth Vardarajan, spoke about the high profile murder of two journalists but added that while the situation was not as bad as in Pakistan, India was still facing a huge problem. Mainly he said self-censorship was the issue. There is also trolling against media houses and journalists, misuse of defamation in courts, and other problems that is affecting the freedom of the media.

A senior editor from Sri Lanka, Dilrukshi Handunetti, spoke about how several journalists had laid down their lives and risked other things to fight for freedom in her country, but despite being ‘somewhat free’, there was still a lot of self-censorship. And while the new government had promised justice, none of it was yet seen.

Editor of The News, Peshawar, Farzana Ali, said self-censorship meant the death of journalism. She recounted experiences where she was pressured for her freedom of expression, as well as for being a woman.

Steven Butler from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said around 60 journalists had been killed since 1992, however Hamid Mir, who was moderating the panel, said the figure among Pakistani journalists was above 100. Butler said in South Asia more and more licence was being given to ‘elected autocratic governments.’

Nepali editor Kanak Mani Dixit said thought must be given to vernacular or regional reporters who face the worst circumstances, threats and intimidation yet get the least protection.

At the end of the first day, adviser to UNDP on human rights Ali Dayan Hasan read out resolutions which included that self-censorship must come to an end and Pakistan’s Article 19A must be reviewed as it is very selective in giving freedom of expression.

Meanwhile in the session about empowering women in the criminal justice system, Faisal Chaudhry, advocate Supreme Court, said there were about 39 laws that were female specific, but these were not being implemented. “Women have been ignored in almost all sectors of life, but this may be one of the most important sectors: the criminal justice system, including policing (investigation), prosecution and adjudication.”

Salman Sufi spoke about how Asma Jahangir had guided him in his work regarding Violence against Women Act.

DPO Amara Athar said women must be emotionally strong within themselves to withstand a negative lobby against them instead of giving in to the pressure. “We are streamlined instead of mainstreamed, even in our training,” she said.

Other resolutions that were read out at the end of the day included issues pertaining to the independence of judiciary. It was decided that Article 184-3 must be reviewed, and limits must be created to suo motu powers; family laws must be reformed especially with regard to dissolution of marriages; more women must be included in the workforce; regarding cyber laws, there must be clear distinction between free speech and cyber terrorism; there must be training for lawyers and judges regarding cyber space so they understood it better, and data protection laws must be reviewed.

The resolutions were accepted by the house.

Earlier, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had an interactive session with the audience.

He said politicians must be tried on the basis of their misuse of funds and tax laws should be used. But discriminatory attitude towards a politician was detrimental to democracy.

“Selective accountability does not work,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was mentioned that former chiefs of army were accused of money laundering and were living in foreign countries but they were not asked any questions.


Excerpts: for Side Bar

Reema Omer, International Legal Adviser for ICJ, South Asia

“The judiciary should be all inclusive because young female lawyers face a lot of harassment in the field – we need a complete overhaul in this sector. He system of judicial appointments need to be more inclusive towards women.”

I A Rehman, veteran human rights activist

Over the years, Asma Jahangir became the voice and the conscience of the people of Pakistan... When Asma became silent, the nation became silent.

Former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbassi

You can’t have this law- hang them all, we will sort them out later. Accountability of politicians is done at the polling stations.

Kamla Bhasin, poet

Feminism is the only ‘ism’ that has focused on patriarchy. No other ideology has done that.

Siddharth Vardarajan, Editor of The Wire

A section of the South Asian free media is itself turning against the idea of dissent. Readers and viewers themselves must come out and support free media so that it can exist.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2018