I have only been to Pakistan once. I was in Karachi and I was terrified to go out of my luxury hotel. This was partly because of the traffic, which was mayhem; partly the mass of people in the street; and partly the number of ‘guards’ carrying a scary variety of hardware.
So, I have nothing but admiration for Isabel Buchanan who, fresh from Glasgow Law School and a short stay at the London office of Reprieve, ups sticks and, aged 24, goes to work in Lahore (pictured) in a criminal practice specialising in death row work. She spent two years there, being refused a continuing visa in 2013; and returned to London via a master’s at Harvard to write this book and pursue her career to the bar.
Buchanan is clearly not only a composed young woman capable of dealing with what, at times, must have been a pretty stressful experience; she also pulls off the trick of writing a very readable set of stories. The main focus is Sarah Belal, the lawyer with whom Buchanan goes to work.
She was ‘the daughter of a wealthy textile merchant, she had been brought up between Boston, Geneva and Lahore. Taught by nuns, she spent six years at a private convent in Lahore before leaving Pakistan – for good, she hoped – to finish her education at an elite east-coast US boarding school and its neighbouring liberal-arts college’. We follow Belal as she develops a practice helping a varied cast of disadvantaged clients facing Pakistan’s creaking criminal justice system.
They are charged with a variety of offences from murder to blasphemy that leave them facing the death penalty. In the end, Belal is tipped off about a death threat and flees to London with her young daughter. But, unable to keep away, she ultimately flies back to an uncertain future. As far as I can see from the net, she is still alive and the director of the NGO that she founded – the Justice Project Pakistan.
Author: Isabel Buchanan
£16.99, Jonathan Cape
Belal’s character is revealed through her conduct of a number of key cases which culminated in that of Karim Mohammed, a Pakistani national arrested by US forces and detained without proper trial in Afghanistan. Through acting for him, she managed to secure the release of a number of Pakistani detainees in similar positions. Buchanan shows understanding of the human messiness of a judicial triumph: ‘The real injustice to Karim Mohammed was not that American military officials hadn’t charged him with a crime but they had taken four years of his life, returning him to Pakistan a broken man, forever divided from his family’.
A capacity for sharp observation stops the book short of hagiography: Belal took on the blasphemy case of Altaf Rehman in 2010: ‘The injustice of [the blasphemy] laws was too great to ignore, and Pakistan’s religiosity irked her. There was, as well, a certain allure to the danger’.
Glimpsed below the surface of the writing is the hint, if not of criticism, certainly of concern at Belal’s use of publicity: ‘Winning over the court of public opinion, she had been advised by Reprieve, was far more important than winning a case in a court of law… Sarah’s behaviour did not go without comment in Pakistan. She was seen as glory-seeking… Sarah cared little for procedural propriety.’ In the short term, she won her case and a subsidiary hero of the book is the judge who was bold enough to stand up for the rule of law. Justice Khalid Mehmood Khan, ‘a genial soul with an unkempt moustache and wavy salt and pepper hair’.
Justice Khan represents the high point of Belal’s success. He also represents the summit of an analysis of the Pakistani justice system, whose history is clearly set out as one of the sub-themes of the book.
This is much more than a well-written coming-of-age memoir: it is a thoughtful reflection on the legal system of an important country in the modern geo-political world.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice