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Invisible Man

After years as a political prisoner, followed by prominence as a human rights official, Kamram Rizvi was forced to emigrate to save his skin. Does anybody know of any openings for human rights officials?

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One evening last December a Pakistani man, still shivering from the winter chill, slid into a booth at a quiet restaurant on Devon with his eight-year-old daughter. When the curry and rice arrived he ate slowly, his six-three frame hunched over the table, and half listened as the girl prattled on about friends, school, and life as the new kid on the block. The dark circles under his eyes reached to the frames of his glasses, and he moved wearily for a man of 43. As the waiter engaged the girl in some light banter, her father flashed a faint smile under his bushy black mustache. "She is my best friend these days," said Kamran Rizvi.

Since September 11 the Bush administration has embraced Pakistan as an ally in the war against terrorism, denouncing the human rights abuses of Islamic extremists. Yet one of the most prominent defenders of human rights in Pakistan is now an exile in Chicago, where few people know of him. In 1993, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto chose Rizvi to head Pakistan's first national human rights office. He was the country's leading human rights official for four years and later he founded a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and nonviolence in Pakistan. Rizvi's life changed dramatically in April 2000, when Pakistani newspapers reported that he'd aided three Christians charged with blasphemy against Islam and Sunni Muslim leaders issued a fatwa against him. Rizvi began receiving death threats, and his family's home in Islamabad was ransacked by armed men. Last June he and his family were granted political asylum in the U.S., and three months later they moved from New York to Chicago.

On the restaurant's large-screen TV, an Urdu-language news program from Pakistan focused on terrorism and Islamic extremists. Rizvi sat up and turned to look at the screen. "A senior member of the Pakistan People's Party," he said of the man being interviewed. "I know him well." The interviewer shifted his attention to a distinguished-looking woman. "Our former ambassador to the United States," observed Rizvi. "She was at my birthday party a few years ago." The date of our meeting was December 10, International Human Rights Day; in years past he'd marked the occasion with a function at one of Islamabad's leading hotels, hosting government ministers, human rights activists, and journalists. Now Rizvi was working the graveyard shift at a 7-Eleven, earning $7.85 an hour. Anguished about his family's dire financial situation, frustrated with the guarded welcome he says he received from the local human rights community, he lamented his decision to leave Pakistan. "I saved my life, but I feel I've destroyed everything I worked for."

Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was a left-leaning populist who led Pakistan from 1971 to 1978. The Pakistan People's Party, which he founded, espoused socialism and democracy, though critics said that once in office he favored the former more than the latter. Rizvi's father was a civil servant and supporter of the elder Bhutto who rose to the rank of deputy accountant general in Pakistan before his retirement. Rizvi recalls meeting the elder Bhutto when he was about 12. That encounter, he says, planted the seeds for his activism as a young man. "Bhutto was a very revolutionary person," Rizvi says. "He was the voice of the people of Pakistan at that time."

Pakistan's political scene changed with the ascent of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the army chief of staff under Bhutto who eventually became his primary opponent. Bhutto was hanged in 1979, and Zia-ul-Haq canceled promised elections and kept the country under martial law for years. Rizvi blames Zia for the increased Islamization of Pakistan, including the flourishing of madrassas, the strict Islamic schools recently accused by the U.S. of breeding terrorists.

Rizvi, who was raised in a life of privilege, attending a private school in Lahore where classes were taught in English, says he "became very active against the Zia military government." He was a political science and history major at Government College for Men in Islamabad and president of the PPP's student wing. "My whole family was involved in anti-martial-law activities. We were for the restoration of democracy, elections, and the release of political prisoners. We organized marches, wrote letters, distributed leaflets, and conducted wall-chalking campaigns." The military government took notice. Rizvi's sisters were jailed in 1979, and his father and brother were taken to the police station for questioning. But Rizvi paid the heaviest price.

In May 1981 he was among 18 students, teachers, social workers, and labor leaders arrested for allegedly conspiring against Zia's military government. Thirteen were released but Rizvi was one of the five charged with conspiracy. He alone was also charged with possession of what the authorities labeled "anti-martial-law materials." News accounts describing the arrest said police and military officers burst into a student hostel near Rawalpindi and arrested the 22-year-old Rizvi with what his family and lawyer later described as political pamphlets and a poem by an exiled poet who supported Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The government claimed Rizvi and several others were plotting with Libya to overthrow the Zia regime, a charge he dismisses as "ridiculous." In the so-called "pamphlet case," Rizvi was tried by a military court and sentenced to ten years in prison. There was no possibility of appeal. He was held for four years before the conspiracy case went to trial. When that trial finally began it too was held before a special military court, this time on the prison grounds. That court awarded him an additional 25 years, also without right of appeal.

He was held first in Rawalpindi and later in Lahore. "Those were very dark days," Rizvi recalls. Tortured "physically and morally," he was kept in shackles for four years and spent a couple of years in solitary confinement, living in a roofless cubicle, his only companions the birds that occasionally alighted. He would break his meager rations of bread into crumbs to coax them back every day.

In the mid-80s, protests against the abuses of Zia's military regime led to improved conditions for political prisoners, and Rizvi was able to earn two master's degrees in prison (taking his exams in shackles). Nevertheless the toll of his imprisonment on his family was enormous. Amnesty International launched a campaign on his behalf; in 1986 the Washington Post labeled him "one of the most prominent political prisoners in Pakistan."

Two years later Rizvi was released from prison, and in 1989 he became an aide to the new prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had assumed the political mantle of her father. After her first government was toppled amid growing public disillusionment, Bhutto asked Rizvi to head the human rights desk of her Pakistan People's Party, and when she was elected prime minister again in 1993, she named him the head of Pakistan's first national office dedicated exclusively to human rights issues. It was a radical move in a country plagued by religious extremists and a notoriously corrupt and abusive government intelligence service. Annual reports published by Rizvi's office detail its broad range of cases, including child labor, the death of suspects in police custody, wives being burned and tortured by their husbands, and abuses in the madrassas, which were said to keep some pupils in chains. In its first year alone the office dealt with more than 5,000 cases. Rizvi visited prisons, hospitals, mosques, Islamic schools, and private homes to speak with victims and their families. While he enjoyed the usual perks of high office in Pakistan--a car, a driver, armed guards--he says his goal was to reach out to the common people: "We wanted to build a bridge of hope between the people and the government."

By the late 1990s Benazir Bhutto had left office again, and Rizvi, disgusted by the corruption that had plagued her administrations, founded the nonprofit Pakistan Association for the Promotion of Non-Violent and Tolerant Culture. Among other things, the organization promoted Pakistan's diplomatic recognition of Israel, a highly controversial position in a country that's more than 95 percent Muslim. The organization also published a magazine called Rights, which addressed many of the issues he'd tackled while in office. His wife, Naseem, a lecturer in international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, served on the editorial board. Her teaching position enabled the family to live in comfortable university housing with a maid, and the Rizvis mixed regularly with the capital's intellectual and political elite. Rizvi attended international human rights conferences in Europe and the U.S., and he participated in an international visitors' program sponsored by the U.S. government.

Rizvi's career began to fall apart on April 16, 2000, when a Pakistani newspaper uncovered his clandestine role in a notorious blasphemy case seven years earlier. Three Pakistani Christians (part of a tiny minority in the country) had been accused of writing anti-Islamic remarks on the wall of a mosque; a few extreme mullahs and leaders of the predominant Sunni Muslim sect called for the death penalty and issued a fatwa to kill the defendants. Because one of the accused was a 12-year-old boy the case attracted international media attention. After one of the defendants was murdered, Rizvi, who is a moderate member of the minority Shiite sect, appealed to the Islamic leaders to withdraw the case, but they refused. A lower court found the accused guilty and sentenced them to death. Before the penalty could be carried out, however, the German embassy in Islamabad secretly offered the pair asylum if Rizvi could get the convictions overturned and arrange safe passage to Germany. Rizvi says he quietly pushed the Lahore high court to reverse the verdict, arranged passports and commercial air transport for the Christians, and spirited them to safety. He's certain that his involvement saved their lives. "It was a very satisfying feeling," he says.

Islamic fundamentalists bitterly denounced the outcome of the case. In 1997 one of the judges on the high court was assassinated, and a leading mullah proclaimed that anyone who'd aided the Christians' escape was more guilty than the accused. Rizvi's role remained secret, but in spring of 2000 the president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, called for a major conference to discuss changes in Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and journalists digging deeper into the issue discovered the part he'd played. "Up to that point, my involvement in the case had been an extremely secret thing," Rizvi says. "Even Benazir Bhutto didn't know."

The death threats began almost immediately, and the Rizvis debated whether they should leave the country. They were loath to leave their elderly parents and well-established careers, but after armed men broke into their home and threatened their maid, they realized the threat had to be taken seriously. In May 2000 they and their daughter, Yumna, boarded a plane for the U.S., where all three of them could stay on Rizvi's existing multiple-entry visa. The family landed in New York and eventually crowded into the apartment of some friends in Brooklyn.

After much soul-searching, Rizvi applied for political asylum. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights assigned his case to the large New York law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell on a pro bono basis, and attorneys worked with students at Columbia University's asylum clinic to prepare the necessary documentation. Bernadette Bernard, the lead attorney on the case, says a 28-page brief and about 400 pages of supporting documents and news clippings were submitted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service last April. "Anything involved with this case was very easy to verify," says Bernard. "It was all over the press." Yet the case was considered unusual: most people seeking asylum fear foreign governments, but as Bernard points out, Rizvi was fleeing "groups the government either tolerated or could not control."

By the time asylum was granted in June 2001, the Rizvis were destitute, and they abandoned New York for Chicago, where they have relatives. They arrived in Chicago around September 11, and suddenly there was talk of rounding up Muslim men for questioning and holding secret military tribunals. "Some of these measures remind me of Pakistan," said Rizvi in December. The family settled into a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of Devon, and Rizvi immediately began looking for a job, but none of the human rights organizations he contacted offered him a position. By November the family was so desperate for money that Rizvi took the overnight cashier's job at a 7-Eleven near his home. "I guess something is better than nothing," he said a few weeks after starting. "We are facing survival problems."

Since then the family's situation has stabilized: in January, Rizvi landed a job handling medical records at a Chicago hospital, where his pay is twice what he made at the 7-Eleven. His wife has been more fortunate: Scholars at Risk, a University of Chicago-based network for persecuted academics, helped her find a part-time job at Loyola University, where she's teaching a course on the history and politics of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, friends and neighbors have given the family furniture, clothing, and kitchen equipment, and one is teaching Rizvi how to drive on the right side of the road. "Individual Americans have been wonderful to us," he says. Still, depression and dashed hopes linger as he remains unable to find work in his chosen field.

Local human rights leaders say Rizvi's experience here is not unique, although the adjustment has probably been more difficult for him given his stature in Pakistan. "Human rights activists from abroad come to the U.S. expecting they are going to find a vibrant activist community," a local human rights leader told me. "That doesn't happen. We all have very limited resources, and unfortunately, the attitude is a bit of 'You've got to make your own way.' It's a problem with the American human rights community, but that's the way it is. U.S. activists are good at getting foreign activists out of their countries, if necessary, but we're not so good at helping once they arrive here."

Rizvi was invited to Chicago as a guest speaker during a visit to the U.S. in the mid-1990s and met prominent members of the Pakistani community at the time, but he says he got a restrained reception when he contacted them last fall, hoping that they might help him find a job. When I called local Pakistani leaders recently, they indicated they knew Rizvi was in Chicago and had spoken with him in the past, but they seemed unaware of his struggle to get established. "I think he's trying to get something started," said Hamid Ullah, a leading member of the Chicago chapter of the Pakistan Federation of America. "He seems to be in the planning stages now."

Ullah said most Pakistanis arriving in Chicago rely on their family and friends to get settled here, and the established Pakistani community provides little formal assistance for new arrivals, aside from English lessons. The size of the local Pakistani community--estimates range from 40,000 to 70,000 in the greater Chicago area--and ethnic and political differences make the community somewhat fragmented.

Rizvi's old boss, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who now lives in exile in Dubai but is considering a return to Pakistan for elections later this year, is a controversial figure in the local community. "To be very frank with you, many Pakistani-Americans don't like Benazir Bhutto," Ullah said. "I believe it would be better for Mr. Rizvi if he's not associated with any particular political leaders back home."

Religion is also an issue among Pakistanis. Said Khan, chairman of the board of the Pakistani Federation, acknowledged that there have been problems between Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan, but said "these problems were created by military dictatorships." Khan says his local organization is "based on secularism."

The overwhelming majority of Chicago-area Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims, but local Pakistani leaders say there is little religious friction within the community. Nonetheless, Rizvi believes he needs to be cautious here because of the blasphemy case that eventually drove him from his country. "Most of them think those Christians were rightfully accused," he said. "I had a Pakistani-American tell me, 'You helped those criminals, so you're subject to the punishment of God--that's why you're in bad shape.'" I pointed out that there are many moderate Muslims within the local Pakistani community, and Rizvi agreed. "Nonetheless, this blasphemy case is a very touchy subject," he said. "Whether they are moderate or conservative is not the issue. Muhammad is still their prophet."

Back in December, Rizvi was optimistic about President Musharraf's crackdown on Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Although he said the way Musharraf took office was "totally undemocratic," Rizvi admitted that "Musharraf is doing a good job, and he will get good support from the Pakistani people. They've supported antiterrorism measures, and that's good for not only the U.S. but Pakistan as well. Now he can work to curb the Islamization of Pakistan. If he can't do it now, no one can." Since then the violence in Pakistan--the battles between Sunnis and Shiites, the assassinations of several prominent doctors, the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, the bombing of a Christian church near his neighborhood in Islamabad--has shaken Rizvi's confidence. While he's grateful for the safe haven provided him by the U.S., he says he'd go home in an instant if the Musharraf government could guarantee his safety. His father, who is in his 70s, continues to write articles and poems in favor of democracy. Rizvi believes that he, too, has much to contribute there--the national office of human rights that he once headed no longer exists.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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