Refugees from persecution

By Tony E. Windsor

Those of us who practice law in safe environments owe a duty to those who risk not only their freedom but also their lives in order to protect their clients rights.

- Gail Davidson Founder, Lawyer Rights Watch Canada

In March 2011, Parvez Aslam Choudhry, a prominent human rights attorney, received a phone call from the Danish Ambassador to Pakistan. Choudhry, a Christian Pakistani lawyer, was warned by the ambassador that Muslim extremists were planning to murder him and his family and it was imperative that they flee the country immediately. The family was given one hour to pack one suitcase each and be ready for extradition.

As promised, in one hours time, Danish security whisked Choudhry, his wife and their three young children out of their home in Lahore, Pakistan, and on to Bangkok, Thailand, where they were to spend the next two years of their lives.

It has been almost three years since the Choudhry family has seen their home in Lahore, Pakistan, or any of the family they still have there. They now live in Seaford and attend the New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lewes.

The story of Parvez Choudhry and his historic, landmark legal work in defense of largely Christians accused of blasphemy in Islamic-law Pakistan, have been praised in, and honored by, the international human rights community.

Choudhry has been nominated five times for human rights awards by among other organizations, the European Union (EU) Bar Association, the Dutch Embassy in Pakistan, the United Nations Parliament and the United Nations General Assembly, for his pro bono human rights legal work. He was awarded the Bishop John Joseph Award in 2003 by the Pakistan Minorities Front for his outstanding work in defending the rights of minorities at considerable personal risk. His commitment to defending those charged illegally with blasphemy has resulted in not only acquittals of his clients in the Pakistani High Court, but his cases have become law references in Pakistan.

Choudhry said it is very easy to grab any person for religious reasons given the vagueness of some portions of Islamic law. He said his legal work in Pakistan was targeted toward seeing a repeal of some sections of the law, which he considers draconian. He points to references within the law that carry a death penalty for someone found by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, [to have] defiled the name of the Muhammad of Islam.

Choudhry has suggested that correcting the vagueness of this definition would go a long way toward reducing its frequent misuse. The word indirect should be repealed  this is wrong, unconstitutional, he said. Unfortunately, attempts to amend the laws have met with strong and violent opposition from supporters of strict Islamic law. No progress has been made because of extreme sensitivity over the issue. No major party wants to offend the religious groups that have the power to rally large numbers of protesters onto the streets.

The harsh blasphemy laws of Pakistan have come under scrutiny and concern by human rights groups worldwide, as well other countries, including Great Britain. The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, providing penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death.

Choudhry explains that through his legal work he has been able to render acquittals for clients who have been charged with blasphemy, but even though the courts may support his defense this does not quell the anger and hatred that resonates from the mobs made up of religious extremists in the community.

According to the BBC, the violence associated with Pakistans blasphemy law has been brutal. Three years ago, liberal Gov. Sulemam Daseer, hailed as a national hero to many, was assassinated by his own guard after defending a Christian woman charged with blasphemy. In a separate attack, militants gunned down Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti after he campaigned for changes in the law.

According to the Associated Press, most of Pakistans 180 million people are Sunni Muslims who do not support the militants violence or their abhorrence for religious minorities. Nevertheless, the minorities, including Muslims who belong to the Shiite sect of Islam, say even the smallest quarrel can land them in jail on trumped-up blasphemy charges.

Now, three years since he left Pakistan, Choudhry knows that things are no better in his native country for those who are recklessly accused of blasphemy. His fears are substantiated in a 2014 report from Human Rights Watch which says abuses are rife under the countrys abusive blasphemy law, which is used against religious minorities, often to settle personal disputes. The group says that in addition to being charged with blasphemy, Christian women fear rape, forced conversion, and marriage to Muslims.

According to a 2013 report from the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), an independent think tank in Islamabad, the blasphemy law continues to be widely abused in Pakistan, where about 247 blasphemy cases have been registered, affecting the lives of 435 people since 1987. Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2008, so the courts have not sentenced anyone to death for blasphemy. However, 52 Pakistanis have fallen prey to killings that have occurred outside of courts, and sometimes in the jail cells of the accused by Muslim-extremists. According to the CRSS research, 25 of these were Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Buddhist and one Hindu.

Price of pro bono work high

Choudhrys legal work, though free to his clients, has come at a very high price for him and his family. Working on human rights issues made Choudhry a high profile figure in Pakistan, resulting in numerous death threats and actual acts of violence against him, including the attempted kidnapping of one of his children.

In 2006, Muslim extremists attempted to assassinate Choudhry and other passengers in a van that he was traveling in as retaliation for his work defending against blasphemy cases. His vehicle was rammed from behind by a truck and thrust over the side of the roadway, plummeting 40-feet below. Choudhry and his driver survived the crash, but a colleague, attorney Rana Javed Rafiq, was killed. Choudhry remained hospitalized for several weeks following the crash. The police notified my wife that I had been killed in the crash, devastating her, Choudhry said. Because of his legal work, Choudhrys entire family became a target for Muslim extremists.

In September 2010, mullahs declared outside the High Court that my family and I were blasphemers working against Islam and were liable to be killed, he said. He said this happened after he had completed arguments in the Waji-Ul-Hassan blasphemy case in the Lahore high court.

In Pakistan Choudhry received numerous threats informing him that his law office and home would be bombed. He was also attacked by a large mob when he arrived at court for a bail hearing. His car was damaged and the mob threatened to kill him and perform their religious duty to kill blasphemers and supporters.

On two other separate occasions in 2006, Choudhry was accosted at gunpoint and ordered to cease his work in defending against blasphemy in Pakistan courts. In one situation I was stopped in my car and a man on a motorcycle pulled up beside me and placed a gun to my head, Choudhury said. He told me to prepare for the wrath. Fortunately, another car pulled into view and the man quickly drove away.

Choudhry explains that those charged with blasphemy by police have their cases heard in lower court, where these charges are generally upheld. It is important to understand that the police and the judges in the lower court are human beings and they are subject to deal with the threats of the mobs that demand the blasphemy charges be upheld and the accused punished by Islamic law, which is usually death, he said. While hearing the case, the judges are aware of the chants of the mobs that gather outside the courtroom. This is like a wind whispering in their ear reminding them of the consequences of not supporting the blasphemy charges.

He said the High Court in Pakistan is equipped with more security and the mobs threats are less likely to intimidate the judges. Choudhry said the judges are charged and committed to enforcing the Islamic law, so his job as an attorney was not to sway them by moral or emotional pleadings, but to provide evidence, by facts, that the charge of blasphemy was not supported by the law.

A charge of blasphemy is a criminal offense and falls under criminal law. I am a criminal law attorney. My job in defending these cases is to make sure I get all facts into evidence that prove that the blasphemy charges are violations of the law, he said. In doing this the judges have no choice but to dismiss the charges through acquittal. It is what they know they must do.

Choudhry said he has been criticized often by the opposing council for his style of courtroom cross-examination. I have had the prosecution request to the judges that I change my style of cross-examination. I say to the judge, My Lord, I cannot do that. It is by my style of examination that I am able to prove that the charges of blasphemy are not substantiated by Islamic law.

Choudhrys commitment to defending his clients against illegal charges of blasphemy extends even beyond the threats of physical harm to him and his family.

In one case, he spent three years traveling 1,200 miles away from his home to represent a Christian client. In another case he presented three straight days of oral arguments. The level of retaliation threatened against Choudhry and his clients resulted in the first-ever video-camera trial in Pakistan. This was while Choudhry represented Younis Masih, a Pakistani Christian, accused of blasphemy for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad during a religious service that was being held near Masihs home.

The journey from Pakistan travels through three countries

It has been almost three years since the Choudhry family has seen their home in Lahore, Pakistan, or any of the family they still have there. After leaving Bangkok in 2013, the family made residence in Denmark, thanks to the Danish government. Choudhry said he and his family were doing well in Copenhagen where he was able to utilize his legal skills. The family hoped to gain citizenship in Denmark; however a separate cultural battle prevented that from being possible.

Previously, Danish journalists had published editorial cartoons that portrayed the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a derogatory manner. The worldwide Muslim community expressed outrage and condemned the cartoons as blasphemy, evoking sentiments of not only verbal protest but threats of violent retaliation. The Danish government was put in defense mode and was feverishly trying to apologize to the Muslim community and alleviate the ill feelings.

The government was working to apologize for these cartoons, Choudhry said. The idea of giving citizenship to a man like me, who had such a high-profile career of defending people against Islamic charges of blasphemy, would not sit well in their attempts to calm the extremist Muslim community. So, my family was denied citizenship.

From Demark the Choudhry family received support from an international human rights watch group that relocated them to Roanoke, Va. There they received support of an area church and were able to reside and acquire a vehicle. Choudhry learned he had a relative who lived in Lewes and owns a motel.

He contacted his relative and made arrangements to take his family to Lewes and accept work as a night manager at the motel. So, Choudhry, his wife and three children took up residence in one of the motel units while Parvez Choudhry took on his work duties in the business.

Once moving to Lewes, the Choudhry family was embraced by the congregation of the New Covenant Presbyterian Church. The family worships there and has received support from the church. One of the missions of the church was to help the family find housing that would be more conducive to a family of five people.

Given the financial situation, which was basically comprised of Parvez Choudhrys income from his job at the motel, the family was eligible for Section 8 housing. This housing was found in Seaford and now the task became finding a way to help the family move into an unfurnished home. The church held fundraisers and was able to raise money and collect donated household items. The family made its move to Seaford.

What now?

Sitting next to his wife, Neelum, in their modest Seaford apartment, Choudhry shares the frustration and immense sense of sadness he has for being forced to leave his home in Pakistan. I am the only son, so I am expected to be the head of my family. I should be leading and taking care of my family back in Pakistan, he said. I cry in my mind when I think about not being able to be there as I know my family faces threats to their safety. This is very hard for me.

Choudhry is a Christian whose homeland community in Pakistan was founded under Christian missionaries from England over 200 years ago. While Christians represent roughly three percent of Pakistans total 180 million, largely Muslim population, the area where Choudhry called home is 85 percent Christian citizenship. His grandfather, father, and now uncle have been community leaders. As the only son in his immediate family (Choudhry has five sisters), Parvez Choudhry is expected to be not only the family leader, but also would have assumed the Christian leadership role in his community. Unfortunately, all of that is currently being made impossible due to his religious-based exile from Pakistan.

Choudhry possesses three masters degrees, in history, Urdu (Hindustani language) and political science. As an extremely high-profile attorney in his native country, Choudhry dedicated the lions share of his legal practice in Pakistan to defending citizens against the Islamic blasphemy laws that discriminate against minorities, especially Christians.

At the time he was forced to flee Pakistan, Choudhry was chairman of the Legal Aid for the Destitute and Settlement (LADS) in Lahore, Pakistan. LADS is a non-governmental organization which provides legal aid to minorities who are either falsely accused by police or who are unable to afford legal assistance. LADS and Choudhrys law practice continue in Pakistan, but his current exile status prohibits him from knowledge of legal cases or access to any professional or property assets that exist back in Pakistan. He and his immediate family are essentially cutoff from the life they knew back at home in Lahore.

Neelum Choudhry, a former kindergarten teacher and English major, laments the tragic toll it has taken on her family as they assume the role of refugees. My two nephews have died since we have left Pakistan and I had no way to see them or mourn their loss with my family at home, she said. My nephews were young, only 17 and 23; we have no idea the events surrounding their deaths.

Despite the horrific circumstances, both Parvez and Neelum are especially proud of the resilience and strength of their three children in dealing with the chaotic and mobile lifestyle they have been exposed to over the past three years. Their daughter, a high school freshman, was awarded gold medals and honors for her academic achievements while in Bangkok. Her success has continued in the United States, where she maintains a 98.5 percent grade point average. Both of their sons, one a junior in high school and the other in middle school, have received accolades for their academics, including one who received special recognition for science projects.

All three children are extremely proficient in the English language and Neelum said she and her husband are hoping to find the means to see their children are able to attend Christian schools. Unfortunately, financial circumstances are preventing the Choudhrys from much of what they are hoping to accomplish.

Neelum seeks to find a job. Though she has an educational background to support a higher level occupation, she is looking for anything I can find. The fact that the family has only one vehicle and Parvez must use it primarily to get to and from his job at the motel in Lewes, is another detriment to the familys opportunities for improvement.

I was very busy in Pakistan, Parvez Choudhry says. I had a very large, successful law firm. I was blessed to provide the blasphemy defense services pro bono. My wife did not have to work because I was financially able to provide for my family and allow her to be with the children at home. I did not ask to leave my home in Lahore, I was forced to leave, or risk the lives of me and my family.

Choudhry said he is frustrated that his skills as a legal practitioner are sitting idle and he is unable to provide for his family, both here in Seaford and back at home in Pakistan, in the manner he feels a responsibility to provide.

I am desperate to go back to applying my legal skills in helping those who are persecuted and denied their constitutional rights, he said. I want to do human rights work. I am the person who can properly defend against discrimination and bring about justice for those denied. God gave me the abilities to work in defense of those people in my country who were being illegally charged. I can do the same thing here in this country. I just need the opportunity.

Choudhry hopes that perhaps a non-governmental human rights group here in this country will see the value he brings to the table and will use his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and experience to help those the organization serves. I have much to offer and I am wasting what I have by not being used by an organization to serve the human rights of others, he said.

Although very hurt and frustrated by what many would perceive as a sudden fall from grace, for the Choudhry family, Parvez and his family maintain an ever strong faith regarding their future. I do not know what will come of my circumstances, he said. I am disappointed that I am not fulfilling my abilities, but there is one thing I believe, God is the same God that allowed me to do so much good in Pakistan.

I know that He will take care of me and my family here and lead me to the place I am supposed to be. It is not clear to me right now, but Jesus has been with us and will continue to be here for us, and God has a plan.

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