HRAS Interview No. 29: NGO Profile of Jas Uppal Founder Justice Upheld

NGO Profile: Justice Upheld

Jas Uppal started Justice Upheld after hearing of an Indian national on death row in Pakistan. His desperate family had no lawyer and no paperwork and were rapidly losing hope.

Since then, Jas has worked to free people held in unlawful detention from as young as 12 and as old as 76. Those freed are sometimes able to smuggle out a small piece of paper with names written on it – the names of others held in arbitrary detention, sometimes for decades.

How did you first get involved?

I’m a trained lawyer. I’m of Indian origin, although I live in Birmingham here in England. After visiting India as an adult, I fell in love with the country. At the time, I was working in the legal department of the police service in England. I was watching the news online about an Indian national who was due to be executed in Pakistan, but his execution has been stayed. I was horrified to find that he came to be convicted on very tenuous, dubious circumstances and evidence.

I managed to get hold of his sister. She was campaigning, and I was expecting her to tell me, “I’ve got a team of lawyers.” She had none, and no legal paperwork, but she had kept him alive for 18 years at that point by calling on government officials, Bollywood stars, anyone she could.

I informed the U.N., the U.K. Prime Minister and had an online petition. Sadly, the gentleman, Sarabjit Singh, was later murdered in his high security prison. His case was quite controversial over in Pakistan, and I still maintain that his murder was state orchestrated.

Did you ever have direct contact with Sarabjit?

He sent me a note saying, “Thank you for your help.” I was trying to get everyone to take notice and forward any information, but nobody would listen, not even the authorities. I’d hear things like, “Oh well, there’s 7,164 people on death row in Pakistan, we can’t help all of them.”

I was really taken back by that. You don’t say that, you know what I mean? I expected the same action to be taken as if he had been a British or American national. I expected the Indian government to be indignant, to demand access and to ask for court papers. Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen.

When he was murdered, then people were interested. The Pakistani authorities announced that they were going to hold an inquiry into his murder. I was invited to Pakistan to attend the inquiry. I made submissions via e-mail instead. Over four years on, the Pakistani authorities have yet to schedule the inquiry.

Looking back, a lot more could have been done, and should have been done, unfortunately. Being born and raised in this country, it was surreal, and you realize that you’re blind to the rest of the world. You realize just how fortunate you are.

You now dedicate much of your time to the charity. How did your efforts for Sarabjit lead you forward?

As a result of media attention from his case, I started getting loads of people contacting me with family members in similar situations – brothers, fathers, uncles – missing for years or even decades. I was shocked.

I started off by getting all the information, presenting it and making sure it got released, trying to generate a response from the Indian authorities: asking, “What are you doing? What have you done?”

This resulted in a lot of people of being released including a 76 year old man who was in prison for 36 years: Surjit Singh was finally released after 36 years in Kot Lakphat Prison in Pakistan following a dubious conviction in 1976 for spying. He was denied access to legal advice and representation and therefore did not have a fair trial. He was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life in imprisonment. In Pakistan, a life sentence is equivalent to 25 years in prison. This means that Mr Singh’s sentence should have been completed in 2004.

In another case, a Pakistani reporter, Zeenat Shehzadi, was abducted in 2015.

Zeenat was reporting on the case of missing Indian national, Hamid Nehal Ansari who who persuaded by his Facebook friends in Pakistan to travel to Afghanistan and then enter Pakistan -without valid travelling documents.

It transpires that Hamid had developed an online friendship with a young lady. He was persuaded to rescue her from a forced marriage, but this appears to have been a ploy – he was reported to the police by his contacts who handed him in turn to the Pakistani intelligence services.

I was instructed by Professor Fauzia Ansari, Hamid’s mother. Pakistan proceeded to court martial Hamid, even although he is a civilian, and thereafter convicted him of espionage and sentenced him to 3.5 years. This was despite the fact that he had already been detained without charge for over 3.5 years.

Despite my advice not to involve Zeenat, since she would be placed at risk, Mrs Ansari connected with Zeenat via Facebook and asked her report on Hamid’s case, which she did. Zeenat has not been since her abduction, and the police are no longer investigating. I have reported her disappearance to a number of organisations including journalist’s organisations, however, they do not appear to be interested.

Does your work involve people in detention elsewhere in the world?

Yes, I am working in the Middle East too. Sukhdev Singh from Punjab who went to work in Oman on a work visa in May 2010. He was employed to work at a prison on Masirah Island in Oman. While there he was approached by a man who recognized him as a Punjabi. The man, about 70 years old, was Sepoy Jaspal Singh of the Punjab Regiment during the 1971 Indian-Pakistani war. He and four others were captured by the Pakistani Army in 1971. Singh said there were two other prisoners of war at the prison.

It appears that Pakistan may have moved the Indian prisoners of war to different prisons – outside Pakistan jurisdiction and presumably with the agreement of Oman. 40 years on, both the Indian Government and the international community, have failed investigate the matter. However, the Indian government is coming under increasing pressure to lobby Pakistan for the release of over 50 such prisoners of war held since the 1971 conflict.

I’m also currently helping around 50 ladies that are stuck in Oman, definite cases of slavery, and I’ve had cases of both women and men. Their passports are confiscated, and they even refer to their so-called employers as their owners. I have had to tell them: he is not your owner, she is not your owner. You’re a free person. And I find that extremely concerning.

It’s not just Indians. It’s Filipinos, Malaysians, and quite a few female domestic workers from Sri Lanka who end up being prostituted. I have helped the ones that come to my attention by reporting to the authorities, making a big fuss and getting on to the missions of the various countries.

Why do these people get involved in schemes that lead to slavery?

There’s a sort of acceptance, because a lot of them are trying to support their families. They see the chance for work overseas as their way out. I think it’s extremely important that this is stated, because it explains why people are running out of their country for better countries, the western countries or the so-called developed countries. Why the mass exodus? The answer is, it’s lack of respect, process, procedures, in their own country. And slowness in addressing the problems that they have in those countries.

For example, quite naively, when people went missing and their relatives contacted me, I would say to them, “You’ve got to begin by reporting it to the police.” They made it sound so difficult, and I couldn’t understand this until I experienced it. There are some very corrupt regimes – you have to bribe to even be able to register police complaints. Even then, action is not guaranteed.

How can slavery be so accepted by authorities?

It is a reflection of the Kafala System. “Kafala” is an Arabic word which means “sponsorship.” Kafala operates in the Gulf States, and it is unique to these Middle Eastern states, encouraging and facilitating forced labor.

The power is entirely in the hands of the employer known as the kafeel. The kafeel can dictate the conditions and terms of work, including the accommodation of the work migrant.

There are many cases where the kafeel has, unbeknownst to the work migrant, failed to renew their work visas which has resulted in the migrant being forced to work without being paid for months. They are too frightened to leave the kafeel to report the matter to the police, since the police will arrest and jail them. This often means months and even years of imprisonment.

The migrant worker is prohibited from changing jobs, resigning or leaving the country. If a migrant worker leaves his employment, the kafeel has the unilateral power to cancel the migrant worker’s right to remain in the country which will render the migrant worker an illegal immigrant and most likely will result in their arrest and subsequent deportation.

The system is archaic, medieval, brutal and is in absolute contradiction of international labor laws and conventions.

Have you helped seafarers?

Indian fishermen sometimes end up in Pakistani territory inadvertently. In one case, a fisherman aged 12 was released at the age of 36. He handed me a note, I’ve got the original, and it lists a number of Indian nationals detained in the Pakistani prison. I referred it to the U.N. Some of those named on the list have been released but not all of them. The author has not included his name; he has been accused of espionage. I am concerned about making it public, since in the last few years, a number of Indian prisoners have died in mysterious circumstances whilst in Pakistani custody.

In another case, four Indian nationals were contracted to work on the cargo ship Janan, owned by an Iranian national. The Janan arrived at a Kuwaiti port on May 13, 2013 where the four men and the Captain were arrested for the alleged illegal importation of contraband diesel. The Captain, Masood Khalif, had maintained that the diesel was fuel surplus reserve stock to power the vessel.

Three of the Indians remain in detention, one is confined to house arrest, while the Iranian Captain remained at liberty until May 2015 when he managed to leave Kuwait without having to answer the charges laid against him.

Despite being subject to legal proceedings, the Indian nationals have not been informed of the charges against them or served with copies of the charge sheets or with copies of the pleadings. The Irainian captain attended all court hearings and was provided with legal representation by the Iranian shipowners whilst the Indian nationals were unrepresented and denied the opportunity to appear before the court to learn of the case against them and present their defense.

The seafarers are being pressured by Kuwaiti officials as well as members of the public to convert from their faith to the Muslim faith. Some of these people have shown willingness to help them on the condition that they convert.

The men genuinely fear now that the captain has fled (presumably to Iran) that court proceedings will be directed against them. The Indian Mission in Kuwait has failed to provide the men with consular support and legal advice since their arrest in May 2013. Our work on this case continues.

Thank-you Jas.

Justice Upheld

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