Date: October 1998
Contact: Kenneth Rodman, Director, Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights,
A lecture titled "Human Rights in Pakistan," scheduled for Friday at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has been canceled. Zafaryab Ahmed, Colby's first Oak Human Rights Fellow, who was scheduled to deliver the talk, is still in Pakistan, fighting in the courts and in his country's executive branch for permission to come to Maine to fulfill the fellowship he won for his human rights work and writings.
Ahmed also was noticeably absent last weekend at a United Nations' Day forum in Portland celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, Colby government professor Kenneth Rodman, who also is director of the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights, spoke on Ahmed's behalf.
After drawing attention to the evils of child bonded labor in Pakistan and to the murder of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old who helped expose the heinous working conditions in Pakistan's carpet industry, Ahmed was charged with sedition in 1995. He was accused of working on behalf of India to embarrass Pakistan. Because of those charges, which never have been substantiated or even presented in a court, he is barred from leaving his country, Rodman said.
Ahmed continues to bounce from court hearings to meetings with officials in Pakistan's interior ministry in his efforts either to be removed from the country's Exit Control List or to get a one-time waiver to travel to the United States for the fellowship at Colby. Since being denied permission to leave this summer, Ahmed has seen scheduled court and administrative hearings frequently postponed. When they have been held, hearings have resulted only in orders for further meetings.
Ahmed called the process "Kafkaesque," and recently described the experience as "surreal."
Colby invited Ahmed to study and lecture during the first semester, but his arrival is now two months past due. The college is working on contingency plans, hoping he will gain freedom to travel so he can spend the spring semester in Maine. Ahmed was selected for the inaugural Oak fellowship from among 70 human rights activists nominated from all over the world.
Trying to secure Ahmed's freedom to travel, college officials have worked with Maine's Congressional delegation, the State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, the U.S. Embassy in Lahore, Pakistans embassy in Washington and its United Nations delegation, as well as various non-governmental organizations. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Congressman Tom Allen all applied pressure to try to expedite Ahmed's release. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, author of a bill condemning child labor, also intervened an behalf of Ahmed.
U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan William Milam met with Pakistan's minister of the interior in mid-October to discuss the case. That resulted in a promise to expedite a meeting between Ahmed and interior ministry officials -- a meeting that had been ordered earlier by the high court but had never been held.
"It seems to me that the way the Pakistani government is dealing with this is designed to minimize news about the case," Rodman said. Each hearing results in a promise for another meeting, but meetings are postponed and weeks drag by with no action.
"Being branded an enemy agent by the high and mighty is not a pleasant experience," Ahmed said in a recent interview conducted by e-mail. "You may call it optimism, but it is the possible that keeps the likes of me going. To struggle and suffer, I suppose, is a conscious choice."