Pakistani Human Rights Activist Asma Jahangir Dies

Asma Jahangir in 2004. (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Asma Jahangir in 2004 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistani Human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir died February 11 aged 66. She died of a heart attack.

At the time of her death she was the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran.

We have lost a human rights giant,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

The daughter of famous left-wing politician Malik Ghulam Jilani, Jahangir was a tireless voice for democracy and the rule of law in Pakistan. Her first public action was when she petitioned the Supreme Court, aged just 18, to challenge the “preventative detention” in which General Yahya Khan’s administration had placed her father. In 1972, after Khan’s rule ended, the court declared him a “usurper” and ruled Jilani’s detention illegal.

Jahangir began her career as a family lawyer. In 1980, along with her sister, she established a law firm specializing in divorce. The cases she saw there motivated her to fight for women’s rights for the rest of her life.

In 1983, she was imprisoned for her work supporting the Movement to Restore Democracy under the rule of General Zia ul-Haq, the dictator whose policies were widely regarded as increasing extremism in Pakistan. In 1986, she founded Pakistan’s first legal aid center. In 1987, she went one better, establishing the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body that still fights for justice in Pakistan.

Later she became the first female president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. In her capacity as a human rights lawyer she fought many cases on behalf of those accused of blasphemy, women seeking divorce from dangerous marriages and other important cases.

Her work was not just confined to Pakistan, but also overseas. From 1998-2004, she was the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. From  2004 to 2010, she was the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

For her efforts she won many prizes and awards, including the French Legion d’Honneur and the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights.

Eulogies are pouring in for Jahangir from across the political spectrum in Pakistan and from leaders around the world.

“She was not only a prominent lawyer, she was a kind-hearted human who cared for the poor and marginalised, she never left the poor in hard times. She always struggled for democracy and supremacy of law,” former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, visiting her family home to offer his condolences. “May Allah raise her status [in the afterlife].”

Democracy Now reviews her life:

 

RELATED STORIES

Pakistani Student Kills ‘Blasphemous’ Principal

1,800 Pakistani Scholars Ban Suicide Bombing

Pakistan to US: We Are No Longer Allies