Nazir Afzal’s rise to prominence in the British legal profession is extraordinary, not least because he had plenty of odds stacked against him. The son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, from a community that had no faith in the police or the justice system, and yet, rising to the top in a profession dominated by white people — his was a story just waiting to be told.

Interestingly, the process of writing his memoir took place largely during evenings in a hotel room whilst on official visits to Pakistan, where he has been advising the Pakistani government on law reforms.

In a career with the United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) spanning almost 25 years, Afzal rose to become the Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England in 2011 and was responsible for legal teams pursuing more than 100,000 prosecutions a year. His approach was defined by a willingness to challenge injustice and serious inconsistencies and prosecute crimes involving vulnerable victims previously ignored by others.

The Prosecutor: One Man’s Pursuit of Justice for the Voiceless charts the story of Afzal’s life, from growing up in 1960s and ’70s Birmingham, UK, in a Pakistani Muslim family who often felt that “without any warning, we might be told to leave.” The book opens with a powerful and moving account of a 14-year-old Afzal being chased and assaulted in a racially motivated attack: “A flurry of punches knocked me to the floor,” he writes. “I curled myself into the foetal position, clutching my head with my hands as all three of them began booting, stamping and attacking me in a frenzy.”

Afterwards, his father tells him: “The police are not interested in you. Justice doesn’t mean anything to us.” That, however, made Afzal more determined to ensure that justice really was for everyone.

A former British prosecutor’s memoir offers an inspiring account of fighting racism, misogyny and systemic injustice

The memoir poignantly traces how his early experiences shaped his quest for justice for the ignored and the neglected — often women and children. Early in the book, Afzal recounts a road trip he made to Pakistan with his parents, siblings and younger cousin Yasmin. This car journey alone could be written about as a separate book; it is a fascinating account of how the entire family managed to drive from the UK to Pakistan for Afzal’s brother’s wedding. It was 1970 and, from today’s lens, quite difficult to fathom that it was a world with open borders, where making that trip was a fairly smooth undertaking.

It was also a defining moment for the then eight-year-old Afzal, whose first interaction with white people was not in Birmingham, where he was born and where he lived, but instead in Saleh Khana, his family’s originating village in northern Pakistan. He describes how polar opposite his experience in Pakistan was to the one in Birmingham, where he would be beaten by racists on his way home from school and regularly encountered packs of skinheads chanting “Paki.” The white people he encountered in his village in Pakistan were Swiss and German hippies, with whom he and his cousin Yasmin dined. “I went to Pakistan for my first interaction with white people. It taught me a tremendous amount,” Afzal observes.

However, the tragic event that occurred on the return journey had a huge and everlasting impact on Afzal. Seven-year-old Yasmin fell ill and died in just a few hours as a result of acute dehydration. Afzal cradled her body in his arms until UK border officials at Dover port carried her away. This trauma, to a large extent, contributed to his choosing the legal profession. “Her loss has stayed with me for decades,” writes Afzal. “I have come to prosecute hundreds of cases where voiceless girls have achieved justice and every time, it is as though a part of Yasmin has been present.”

In an interview, he went on to tell me how the process of writing the book brought into focus the impact that the event had on his life: “... it made me realise that I do not want to carry dead bodies in my hands. I want to be able to prevent them happening in the first place. I think that journey did more than just open my eyes to Pakistan. It also opened my eyes to vulnerability.” Afzal writes how his young cousin’s death led him to bury himself in his studies and finding that the only way to cope with his grief and guilt, for feeling powerless, was the pursuit of knowledge. These thoughts followed him from childhood into his time at law school and beyond.

It is that sense of justice and lending his voice to the vulnerable — notably women and girls — which dominates Afzal’s memoir. Yasmin’s death shaped Afzal’s resolve to fight for young women and girls. Going through the cases he mentions, in which women and young girls were victims of appalling crimes, makes for an emotional and affecting read. Afzal has overseen some harrowing, violent and complex cases and his book methodically explores in detail what led him to become a champion of the ignored.

Take the case of modern slavery involving a 10-year-old Pakistani child, “Safiya”, who was literally waved through Heathrow Airport with fake documents showing her as a 20-year-old woman. Hearing impaired and unable to speak, Safiya was held in slavery and horrifically abused for nine years by her captors, a Pakistani couple.

In another case, Banaz Mahmod, a young British-Iraqi woman, was murdered at the instructions of her father in a so-called ‘honour killing’. As with many such victims, Mahmod’s ‘crime’ was to have left an abusive husband. The killers fled to Iraq to escape arrest, but Afzal hunted them down, had them extradited and successfully prosecuted.

Afzal aptly describes crimes against women and girls as “gender terrorism”, a description he coined, which includes so-called ‘honour killings’ and forced marriages.

He also highlights victim-blaming culture, an attitude that was present in the groundbreaking Rochdale grooming gang case, which he reopened in 2011 after the CPS had earlier — in 2008 — deemed it not worthy of prosecution. Many cases were already festering where young girls were viewed as not being credible. Social workers believed these girls had made “lifestyle choices”, even though most of them were underage. The police, too, dismissed these victims as “child prostitutes” and prosecutors considered them lacking in credibility. As a result, despite state agencies’ knowledge that child sexual exploitation was rampant and widespread, such cases were almost never taken to court. The 2012 successful conviction of the nine men — of whom eight were of Pakistani heritage and one an Afghan asylum-seeker — is quite possibly Afzal’s proudest achievement.

It is worth noting that, during and after the successful conviction of the grooming gang, there was a sense of an uncomfortable déjà vu for Afzal, in terms of having to endure overt racism again, as he had done growing up. “The far-right realised that I had damaged their narrative — that everyone from a minority group is the same — so they wanted to paint a picture that these bad guys were reflective of the whole community,” Afzal recalls. “When they discovered the one who prosecuted them was brown, they came for me.”

Another case of victim-blaming was that of the 16-year-old British Kurdish girl Heshu Yones, whose father slit her throat after he discovered she had a boyfriend. In court, she was portrayed as someone with a questionable character and, whilst sentencing the father, the judge expressed his sympathy to him for having a “wayward” daughter. As a result, the murderer received a reduced sentence.

“This embodied a toxic mindset, one that had to be challenged,” Afzal writes. He sought out to educate others, after seeing the systemic problems with the way these cases were being handled by social workers, the police and the legal system.

Afzal reiterates — as he has done in the past — the importance of listening. “My book is about listening. The one thing generally that leaders are really bad at is listening. I’m not an expert, but I listened to experts such as the victim groups and I acted upon what they told me.”

In his memoir, Afzal reiterates openly that he used the law as a mere tool for fighting the good fight and that he saw his legal campaign, against gender terrorism and other injustices, as a form of social advocacy. He remains an optimist, however, and that sense of hope is evident in his book. “Despite the people being in the most horrible circumstances, there is some element of hope. Whether it’s justice or whether it is being able to move on,” he adds.

The Prosecutor is an inspiring account of the career of an outstanding lawyer who made it his mission to help change the legal system and ensure that justice was delivered to those who had been overlooked in the past. What stands out about this memoir is the clarity and jargon-free writing, even when describing quite complex legal cases. Afzal’s efficient and rational parlance and thought process makes the book an engaging, fascinating and crystal-clear read for a layperson.

The reviewer is a freelance writer

The Prosecutor: One Man’s Pursuit of Justice for the Voiceless
By Nazir Afzal
Ebury Press, UK
ISBN: 978-1529105018
293pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 16th, 2020

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