A political buzz surrounded Iqbal’s case in Europe and the United States. As the 1st of May (Labour Day) approached, the upper levels of government and many global institutions began to take up the positions of the human-rights organisations on the ground. On 21 April, the CEO of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, became the first to publicly condemn this hateful and totally irresponsible crime.
The same position was taken by the high commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights. Lucette Michaux Chevry, the French Delegate Minister for Humanitarian Action, decided to wait until the 24 April to make known to the world her dismay and her desire to make the public more sensitive to the existence of child exploitation in other countries.
On the other side of the Atlantic, many renowned politicians were also making their anger known. Edward Kennedy agreed to sign the petition of protest against child slavery presented to the congressmen by Douglas Cahn, the director of Reebok’s Human Rights Department. Kennedy got together with another senator involved in the fight against child slavery, Tom Harkin. The Reebok petition was sent directly to Benazir Bhutto with a cover letter written by Senator Harkin and Representative George Brown Jr., demanding that Bhutto take action against child slavery.
Joining these political interventions and the initiatives of companies like Reebok, there were a series of connected actions taken by the schools that Iqbal visited when he came to the United States in 1994. Photocopies with a picture of the boy from Haddoquey were now being passed around.
After his stay in Geneva, Ehsan arrived in London on Tuesday 26 April. His strategy was to give an international dimension to the problem. He was aware that in England there had not been a solidarity reaction like in other countries. Then, he got in contact with the association Antislavery International who told him he had made a rash analysis of the events surrounding Iqbal’s death. Was it scientific sociological honesty? Did they prefer assistentialism campaigns rather than political accusations that could put their positions at risk?
In Pakistán, Ehsan’s absence was thought to make the BLLF more vulnerable and weaker. The police had not undertaken brutal actions to take Faryad and Lyakat’s statements. It was difficult to believe they had acted against their will. The government was trying to solve the problem diplomatically. The BLLF’s demonstration organised for 25 April took place without any problems. More than a thousand supporters of the organisation marched through downtown Punjab.
Eshan did not return to Pakistan. Was he under threat? Was he tired of fighting? He received several accusations. Yet, it is easy to pass judgement from our privileged positions.
On 28 April, both witnesses, Faryad and Lyakat, summoned by the judge Sheikhupura, withdrew their testimony and fully supported the carpet mafia conspiracy. Meanwhile, Eshan defended the same thesis on a BBC program.
ASHRAF, NICKNAMED ‘HERO’
The prison was situated opposite the square. There, behind the high walls, Ashraf was imprisoned in a common cell. He had not escaped but had been roaming around the fields when he was caught by the police. He was taken to the police station and his confession was recorded in the first report (FIR) His testimony was very imprecise. He even contradicted himself many times in his interviews with the reporters during the subsequent weeks.
WHAT TO WORRY ABOUT
The district judge Chaudhry Muhammad Hussain had many questions after reading the suspect’s statement taken by the same policemen who had been to the scene of the murder in Rakhbauli. He spent a week searching the field where Iqbal had died for information about his death and also interrogated Inayat Bibi. The witnesses’ answers lacked rigour, but that was usual in these small towns and dozens of crimes remained a mystery. Such were local investigations in these rural villages of Pakistan where corrupt policemen were feared by the villagers, who gave statements that lacked the necessary information to unmask the truth. The powerful ones bought local people’s silence and complicity to conceal their crimes.
BOTH COUSINS CONFESS
On Thursday 29 April, Iqbal’s cousins, accompanied by two BLLF militants, confessed to the district judge that their previous testimony had been false. “I heard a shot that night when we were going to Amanat’s field and I fainted,” explained Faryad. “When I woke up, the police were surrounding us and said that we had to go to the police station with them; there they forced us to sign with our fingerprints. I was so scared that I obeyed.”
According to Faryad’s testimony, Iqbal had gone with them to take supper to Amanat even though it was raining and there was no room for him on the bike. Later, they were going back together, singing some songs, but could hear no noise or seen Ashraf or anybody else because of the bad weather. Suddenly, they heard a shot that had killed Iqbal and hurt Faryad, who immediately lost consciousness. They just obeyed the police, shut up and said what they were told. Fortunately, Eshan intervened and took them to the BLLF premises after Iqbal’s burial. However, the police had threatened them with killing their parents if they dared to reveal the truth.
THE COUSINS DENIED THEIR TESTIMONY
Had the kids’ testimony been true or just an evil BLLF’s manoeuvre to prove their conspiracy argument? Yet, Amanat, who had led the police officers to Ashraf’s boss’ house the night of the murder, also stated that the farfetched version of the accident involving the farm worker and the donkey had been dictated by the police and that he had to repeat it.
After the interrogation of 29 April in the office of the magistrate of Sheikhupura, most of the witnesses who had changed their testimony to back up the ambush and plot argument lodged in the BLLF premises where Faryad and Lyakat had already been for ten days. Why did they stay there? Why were they risking their lives? Had they been forced by the BLLF to change their testimonies? Had they done it under the belief that it was high time for justice?
A DUBIOUS REPORT
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan concluded in its document about Iqbal Masih’s death, which was released to the press on 2 and 25 May of 1995, that it had not been premeditated. The report, on the contrary, demanded the bicycle and other Iqbal’s belongings such as his clothes, which had disappeared after the autopsy, be searched for the investigation. The BLLF thought Asma was a slaver sold out to the government.
THE BLLF GOES INTO WAR
The BLLF replied to the report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in writing in the press on 3 May. They stated it was a lie and that the HRCP may have made a pact with children’s slavers.
In addition, they presented the autopsy report corroboration requested by Reebok’s director Douglas Cahn from the American organisation Human Rights Physics. This report was critical of the medical tests done in the hospital of Sheikhupura and made an accusation that many questions had been left unanswered; also, it was censorious with the conclusions of the first FIR.
This two-page document based on the medical report of the hospital of Seikhupura and drawn up in the USA stated that there was little probability that Iqbal could be sitting on the bicycle when he was shot. It also commented that the photos of Iqbal’s body had not been taken in the scene of the crime. Furthermore, it highly recommended an urgent examination of the main elements, such as the bicycle.
Faiz, the old lawyer of Fane Street, started a counterattack on 5 May of 1995 and distributed a two-page document in the local press. According to him, the fact that most of Pakistani newspapers favoured the official version of the accident was simply the result of a generalised plot of the manufacturers of carpets, with the complicity of the government and the mass media. The BLLF was at war with the government of Pakistan, the mass media and their humanitarian organisations, not willing to accept the theory of Iqbal’s martyrdom.
Meanwhile, Eshan continued his work on the international stage. After being in London, he hurried to Paris, where he was invited to participate in the programme “The March of the Century” on 31 May of 1995.
A CONTROVERSIAL CHARACTER, THE DEFAMATION STRATEGY
Meanwhile, the black legend of Eshan grew. He was accused of being an egocentric blackmailer eager to achieve fame; of having lost his head; of embezzling millions of rupees. It was also said that he had got large sums of money by selling slave workers the photocopies of the famous Supreme Court trial of 18 September of 1988.
Eshan, who said he was single to protect his family, was accused of being lying and having two women and three children in Pakistan, and that his second wife was a daughter to a rich brick-kiln owner. He was said to be an activist who believed the end justified the means; a master of the overstatement. Therefore, doubts about BLLF’s management and programmes in Pakistan began to spread…
The police offensive against the BLLF started by the end of May, promoted by the PCMEA – Pakistan Carpet, Manufacturers and Exporters Association – They began to take into account the militants’ fight when they saw the cancellations of orders placed by customers in Sweden, Germany, Australia, Belgium, France and Italy.
According to Imran Malik, president of the PCMEA, the total losses from these cancellations amounted to $10 million in the month of May and could soon reach $100 million. The annual income was around 500 million dollars. Moreover, China started to launch their industrially made carpets to the international market, and India was thought to be seeking to derail Pakistani economy. On behalf of Pakistani people, there was a call for submission. Once more, nationalism was fulfilling its role.
THE POLICE OFFENSIVE
The manufacturers continued spreading the worst rumours about Ehsan. We cannot say that all of them were false but we must be aware of their real origin. They also had information about BLLF’s financial embezzlement. The Field of Freedom, at whose entrance there was a red flag with a fist, became subject to regular surveillance and systematic wiretapping.
In view of these controversies, the judge of Sheikhupura who had taken the witnesses Faryad and Lyakat’s new statement was declared incompetent for the case. Iqbal’s case was dealt with in the highest circles by the FIA Lahore deputy director Javed Mahmood personally.
The police did not take long to act. They presented taped conversations that seemed to prove that the Indian intelligence services had launched a plan to use Iqbal’s death to cause huge financial damage to Pakistan. Eshan was accused of high treason and conspiracy against the state.
On 7 June, three members of the BLLF organisation were arrested, imprisoned and released without bail some days later. On 8 June, Inayat Bibi, Faryad, Lyakat and Amanat Masih were taken to the police headquarters; they had to spend nights in prison and were subject to interrogations and physical torture.
During another police operation, carried out in the historic BLLF premises in Dyal Singh Mansion, the police seized files, documents, tapes and video cassettes of the organisation. Most of the detainees were soon released. However, the documents were still in the hands of the police six months later.
MARKETING AND LIES
The owner of the company Sheikh Carpet, Tariq Gaba, went to Paris and appeared on a TV program, where he tried to convince the international public opinion and journalists that children’s forced labour did not exist in carpet factories in Pakistan. He added that even though it was true that there were children working in some factories, they were not slaves but were duly paid and a source of income for their families. Moreover, he expressed the carpet manufacturers’ willingness to improve working conditions.
The boycott, he explained, could be detrimental to the poor. Any hindrance in this sector of the Pakistani economy would be dramatic for the 1.5 million weaving workers of all ages employed throughout the country. This was a hackneyed but effective argument to control trade boycott. This tycoon pretended to be a noble craftsman that gave work to the poor and treated children sold into bonded labour as if they were his own children.
SAIF MASIH AND “HIS FRIENDS”
On 19 June, Saif entered the Press Club of Lahore, a two-storey building ceded to the journalists’ association by the town-hall. Saif, who was illiterate, was carrying a lot of documents and accused Ehsan of being an Indian agent and of having used the money Iqbal had been awarded by Reebok. Saif also had photocopies of his church family book, issued by Kot Lakh Pat parish of Lahore, where Saif and his wife Inayat had married and christened their first children.
The journalists who were there had a look at the book and were surprised to see that Iqbal Alfons Masih, son to Inayat Bibi and Saif, was registered before his brother Aslam, his sister Zubeida and his older brother Patras, and that his birth date was 5th of December of 1976. Therefore, Iqbal was 19 years old, and not 12 as the BLLF claimed.
Was that true? Could the book have been forged? Had Iqbal’s mother lied when she sold him? Did Eshan know it?
Saif remained silent when the journalists asked him why he had decided to give that press release. When asked who had helped him, he replied: “friends”. “What friends?” reporters asked. But, he gave no answer. He spoke in a choked voice, hesitantly, and then collected the photocopies spread on the table. The press release had lasted about an hour. European journalists looked into the parish records; and although some documents were missing, the data provided by Saif could be confirmed.
As pointed out before, therefore, we could be talking about a young fighter who did not know exactly how old he was, or who could even feel embarrassed about his tiny body build resulting from child slavery.
WOUNDS THAT HURT
A new hypothesis arose: Iqbal, christened in December 1976, was not the child that everybody was concerned about. He could have been an older brother who had disappeared at an early age; which had been hidden by the family.
Such problems served as an excuse for various organisations to stop supporting the BLLF. Radda Barnen, a Swedish partner for several years, requested to see the programs of the organisation before renewing their financial aid. The ILO asked for reports on what was being done in Apna schools. In addition, the BLLF received a letter dated 7 June of 1995, where Jacinthe Desmarais, one of the representatives of UNICEF in Lahore, confirmed to Ehsan their withdrawal of their annual subsidy.
While in Europe Iqbal’s death had served to raise awareness, in Pakistan it had caused divisions, spawned resentment, and revealed scandalous mechanisms of influence. If, after so many years of existence, the ILO and UNICEF had not succeeded in curbing the increase in child slavery, we should wonder why they resented the fight capacity of a union of the South. How to get surprised by their withdrawal of funds? These charitable organizations did not relish the idea that the poor could get together to fight for justice.
As time went by, Iqbal’s case was buried at Lahore High Court. However, Iqbal Masih became a symbol of the fight against forced child labour; a child demanding schools and teachers for slave children.