January Issue 2015

By | People | Profile | Published 4 years ago

The case of 14-year-old Shafqat Hussain, who was sentenced to death for the kidnap and murder of seven-year-old Umair, would have disappeared from the public eye, had it not been for Sarah Belal, one of the lawyers at Justice Project Pakistan (JPP). Belal petitioned the Sindh High Court, seeking suspension of his execution because he was a juvenile when he was sentenced to death. The court turned down her petition, but Belal remains undeterred. As director of JPP, a non-profit human rights law firm established in Lahore in 2009, she will continue her fight for the underprivileged like Hussain.

With a degree in law from Oxford, Belal became a barrister after completing the Bar Vocational Course in 2007, specialising in human rights. She says that her decision to pursue the degree came “fairly late in life, purely out of a sense of trying to achieve social justice.”

“I couldn’t be a doctor or an engineer, but I was good at my studies and good at arguing,” she says. “After completing my degree, I moved to Pakistan and was working with my father. I had a nice job, was making good money and did not have to pay rent because I was living at home. However, I felt horrified seeing the poverty and injustice around me. I didn’t want to be part of such a society, and I wanted to do something about it.”

This led Belal to take on difficult cases that no one else would touch, such as the cases of those on death row. “I empathise with the sense of helplessness that a prisoner feels when the entire system of the state and its machinery are stacked against him. It was empathy that brought me to the fore when I read a letter from a prisoner on death row asking for help in a newspaper,” Belal says of her most famous case. “I called the newspaper and within an hour, his brother was at my doorstep with the case files. I told him that I was just one year out of law school, but could help him find a good lawyer who would take the case up for free. He just smiled very sweetly and said, ‘You’re not going to find any lawyer for this case.’ He was right. I went to the big criminal lawyers and they all said the case couldn’t be won. They advised me against starting my professional career with it. How ridiculous is that? How can you live knowing that you did not try? I ended up taking him as my client. I didn’t know if I would be able to help him or anyone else, but I knew that the rest of my life would be spent trying.”

Working with a team of like-minded individuals certainly helps. “It is a blessing to be able to do what you love. Each day brings new and unexpected challenges and battles. I love the JPP and the people I work with. We truly are a band of brothers and sisters. The support I get from my colleagues fighting the same battle makes going to work all the more enjoyable. We are emotionally involved in the lives of each of our clients, their families, children and their cause.”

Another important case the JPP took on was securing the release of Pakistani citizens imprisoned without any charges or a trial at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. “The Bagram litigation that we did was very special for us. After three years of talking to the US and Pakistani governments, we finally got close to 39 people out of detention.”

Asked whether the greatest setback to the course of justice in Pakistan had to do with a politicised judiciary, Belal responds, “Judiciaries have always been political. It’s a big fallacy that judges are not regular people and that they are not supposed to bring their experience of the world to the courtroom. They do! They have lives outside of the courtroom, and it’s impossible to expect any human being to divorce themselves from that.” Instead, she feels the biggest problem with the judiciary is the lack of women in it. “I don’t know any woman in the last three generations who has had an easy time and unfortunately, not a lot has changed. Never make the assumption that it’s going to be easy. It’s never easy, but it’s worth it,” she advises.

Despite the nature of her job and the inevitability of losing some cases, Belal remains optimistic: “I don’t believe in doomed philosophies. I believe in getting out there and doing something about it. I think we are faced with a lot of challenges, but there are some incredible people doing positive things that demonstrate we are not the country that we were 20 years ago. I plan on doing what I’m doing now for the rest of my life. I won’t give up.”

This profile was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.