Zafaryab Ahmed was a Pakistani journalist, academic and human rights crusader. In Pakistan, he faces death by hanging because of his human rights work, particularly for his efforts to end the country’s bonded labor system that virtually enslaves children and adult workers in the carpet industry and at brick kilns.
When he called for an independent investigation of the murder of a child who was a leader in the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, he was charged with treason and was imprisoned for two months in Lahore. His arrest and incarceration were protested by Amnesty International, which named him a “Prisoner of Conscience” and still is appealing to have the treason charges dismissed. Amnesty International and The Body Shop have named him one of twelve “Defenders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In 1998, Pakistan refused to allow him to leave the country to accept the Oak fellowship, delaying his departure for four months. Finally, after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif intervened last December, he obtained provisional permission to travel.
Ahmed was born in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province and the nation’s second-largest city. His career as an activist began in Pakistan’s student protest movement in the 1960s. He earned a masters degree in international relations and politics and Eastern and Western political thought from Punjab University and another in sociology from the University of Manchester in England. He taught at Aitchison College and the University of Agriculture at Faisalabad, both in Pakistan, and he was a writer and editor for various English-language newspapers and journals in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Since his arrest in 1995, he was without gainful employment for all but eight months from his release from prison until arriving in Maine for the Oak fellowship in December.
After months of delay and international pleas for his release, Pakistan’s prime minister agreed to give Ahmed a 90-day permit to travel to accept the fellowship at Colby, with the condition that he return in February to Pakistan, where he still faces the sedition charge and a possible death sentence.