Spotlight: Sarah Belal on Defying Law and Life

As the founder of the Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit human rights law firm advocating the civil liberties of prisoners, Belal finds herself refiguring law as a matter of life and death day after day.

Eleven years ago, Sarah Belal read a death row convict’s appeal in the newspaper. Bigger and better lawyers than her ignored it; taking on hopeless cases like this in Pakistan was deemed an effective way to end one’s career. But she couldn’t let it go.

“His name was Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan, and he was going to die in a week.”

He had served 15 years on death row – a result of a flawed judicial for killing two men out of self-defence. Belal, a 28-year-old Oxford graduate at the time, was able to secure a stay on his execution.

Inside Pakistan’s Judicial System

Cases like these weren’t uncommon – Pakistan’s prisons house one of the largest death row population in the world. She didn’t stop there, and it took only one case for Justice Project Pakistan to come into existence.

Her passion project wasn’t about power, respect, or recognition, she says, but about helping the people she promised to help out.

Belal came to be alluded to as a twenty-something female, bright-eyed troublemaker in the dusty law chambers of Pakistan.

“You’re always qualified as a pain in the ass, now you’re just a pain in the ass to bigger systems.”

For Sarah, a reputation for ruffling institutional feathers meant exposing the creaking reality of Pakistan’s judicial system. “It wasn’t transparent, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t able to protect the most vulnerable that it set out to safeguard.”

Since 2015, more than 470 prisoners have been executed. With more than 30 capital offenses, people are put on death row for crimes ranging from blasphemy to drug abuse. Activists have pointed out the compelling need for jail reform in Pakistan.

Pakistani prisons house 77,275 inmates against authorised capacity of 57,742

— Sarah Belal (@SarahBelal_) March 25, 2020

Cells are known to run overcrowded with languishing prisoners, often arrested “listlessly”. Amidst the current coronavirus pandemic, this acquires greater currency. The packed cells pose a threat not only to the inmates but also to those working in the prisons. Prisons around the globe are releasing inmates on parole to avoid the formation of clusters in jails.

Here’s why Pakistani prisons are a flashpoint for #COVIDー19

#COVID19 #CoronaVirusPakistan #coronavirus

(video made in collaboration with @rsilpak and @LawgicOfficial)

— Justice Project Pakistan (@JusticeProject_) April 2, 2020

Sarah Belal, and the Justice Project Pakistan

Belal’s work for JPP is directed towards altering the marrow of the place. JPP offers pro bono services to victims of corruption, chronic delays, and police torture trapped within the judicial system.

The daughter of a textile merchant, Sarah grew up between Boston, Geneva, and Lahore. She briefly worked for her father after coming back from London, but soon found the elusive purpose at JPP.

Good days for Sarah are few and far between, but happen when she’s instrumental in changing a part of the system. She fancies Rocky’s soundtrack playing in the background when her client gets a stay of execution. When she doesn’t, it becomes a matter of life and death. “When you lose, someone actually dies.”

Existing in such proximity with death leaves room for trauma and healing. She lauds her mother’s strength and falls back to it, when in fear or doubt. Motherhood, in turn, has allowed her to escape the darkness. She couldn’t go into despair over lives lost because life and living were happening in front of her with her two daughters.

The Road Ahead

Belal falters for words when memories of clients lost cloud her thoughts. “I don’t talk about them that much; they’ve become quite personal in that sense…” Therapy has helped her in confronting unprocessed emotions. “I’m trying to get better at living,” she says, her voice finding the courage and grace it knows otherwise.

Zulfiqar comes to her mind, who was eventually sentenced to death in 2015 despite every appeal. It is during these times she feels the need to remind herself why she does what she does, and to not walk away.

We’re all learning every day, she says wistfully, knowing that her learning curve is still rising. “I hope I get better at being kind not just to the people on death row, but to the people in my life.”

In 2016, she won the Franco-German Human Rights Prize, awarded to only 16 human rights activists throughout the world. She’s unstoppable. A force of intent, of resolve.

When asked if she is where she hoped to be, Belal doesn’t let recognition cloud her sense of purpose. “There’s still a lot more work to be done. We can do better.”

You can read more about the Justice Project here.