Kamran Rizvi is 55 and looks a decade older. It has taken a while to meet him. He has a day job at a Hess gas station, and during the evening he works at a department store. The years of 18-hour workdays have taken their toll. Rizvi lives in a small house on Long Island. The furniture is aging and worn. He prefers to meet with visitors outside of his home. He fears that his wife might interrupt and voice her displeasure about their fallen circumstances.
In the late 1990s, Kamran Rizvi was the human rights advisor to the prime minister of Pakistan. He and his family lived in an eight-room house and had a chauffeured car. His wife taught international relations at the Quaid-e-Azam University, one of the best colleges in Pakistan. Their daughter went to private school. He traveled widely, attending human rights conferences in Europe and the United States. The Rizvis were regulars in gatherings of the capital’s intellectual and political elite.
It is a cloudy, chilly day. Rizvi walks slowly into a coffee shop and sits down, his balding 6-foot-3 inch frame hunched over the table. He smiles faintly under his bushy moustache. Dark circles under his eyes reached almost to the frames of his glasses. The café feels like an old and pallid version of a Starbucks.
I ask, “Do you like this place?”
“I’ve gotten used to it,” he says. He sits with his rather large hands spread on the table. The fingertips are frayed, a sign of physical labor.
This is a story about how a bunch of fundamentalist elements engineered the fall of one of the most respected human rights activists in Pakistan. From a position of power and prestige, Rizvi was reduced to wondering where the next meal is going to come from. In 2001, when the United States embraced Pakistan as an ally in its war on terror and denounced the human rights abuses by extremists, one of the most prominent defenders of those rights was sitting in Chicago where few people knew of him and fewer still entertained him.
In 1995, when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, Rizvi wanted to dilute the provisions of the blasphemy law under which any perceived insult to the Quran could mean a jail term for years, and was often misused by people to get rivals out of the way. A court had recently sentenced three Christians to death under this act. Among the convicted was a 14 year old. The case got wide media attention, including in the international press.
“We must save these guys,” Bhutto told Rizvi, on a hot summer day in May before she left for a tour of Europe. He agreed. There was ample evidence that the local land mafia had created a fictitious case against these hapless Christians. With connivance of the local police, these elements wanted to get the three out of the way to grab the land and build a mall. The charge was that they had insulted Islam, a broad allegation without evidence.
Rizvi worked with government lawyers to file an appeal. A couple of months later, just as he was about to leave for lunch, he got a call. A group of German officials from the embassy wanted to see him.
He decided to make it quick. Instead, that meeting went on for more than an hour. The Germans had decided to offer asylum to the three men. They were especially concerned about the boy.
Rizvi went home after that to have a quick lunch with his wife, Naseem. He decided to ask her opinion, as he had on several occasions. “What do you think will happen at the courts? They always convict people accused of blasphemy. If you want to save them, let them go,” she said. Rizvi agreed.
Discretion was key – otherwise, extremist elements would try their best to stop the three from getting out of Pakistan. The government lawyers had succeeded in getting bail for the three people – and they had been given police protection during this time. Rizvi had also urged the complainant to withdraw the case.
Rizvi called up his driver and instructed him to go straight to the German embassy. A plan was made – the three men would board a flight to Frankfurt in a week. On that day, Rizvi’s secretary, Tauqir Khan, went to the house where the three were put up and took them to the airport. They were put in the plane. Rizvi had earlier talked to Bhutto – she had agreed to the plan. Before leaving the boy hugged Rizvi. “You saved me,” he said and then was off. Moments later the flight took off to Bonn. He’s certain that his involvement saved their lives. “It was,” he says, “a very satisfying feeling.”
More than an hour has passed and Rizvi hasn’t touched his food at the café we are at. He looks out of the window, staring into space. It seems that memories have come flooding back, like a gas nozzle turned on. I let the moments slip by, to allow him to gather his thoughts.
He did not realize it when he helped the three people escape, but this was where Rizvi’s life took a turn. The case itself was barely discussed in the papers – the appeal hearing was due a year later and the media did not focus on this event. Rizvi was confident he was safe.
By 1997, Bhutto was out of power after losing in the parliamentary elections to rival Nawaz Sharif. At the time Rizvi was heading a human rights organization called “Society for Promotion of Non-Violence and Tolerance”. Papers had by now reported on the “disappearance” of the three accused and then found out they were in Germany. But no one had been able to connect that with Rizvi directly. They blamed Bhutto – and she was safe in England after fleeing the country. A few years later tragedy would strike – she was assassinated on her return to Pakistan.
It was October, and Rizvi went to the local market in the morning with his wife to buy groceries. It was a change from his routine – normally one of the maids would shop. But it was a gorgeous autumn day and the couple wanted to spend some time together. As Naureen haggled over prices with a vegetable vendor, Rizvi stopped to pick up a local Urdu daily. He froze when he saw the headline. “Mullah says Rizvi must pay for helping escape.” A mullah is a Muslim religious leader and radicalized youth follow his orders. Someone had talked. Another paper repeated the story three days later. Then another. In five days, everyone knew Rizvi was the man who helped them escape. And the radical organizations issued a fatwa to punish him.
I meet Rizvi at the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. His wife has an administrative job in Open Society, George Soros’ philanthropic foundation, located close by. Rizvi recalls being here many years ago at the restaurant upstairs. We sit in a café instead, as he would prefer lunch with his wife later. I ask him about his earlier life – before he became famous.
Some history of the country will help understand the circumstances of his early life. Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was a left-leaning populist who led Pakistan from 1971 to 1978. He was a charismatic and popular leader, and founder of the socialist Pakistan People’s Party. Rizvi’s father was a senior civil servant in the elder Bhutto’s government and held the post of deputy accountant general before his retirement.
Pakistan’s political scene changed in 1978 when General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the army chief of staff under Bhutto, took power in a military coup. He promised elections within a year. Instead, Bhutto was hanged in 1979, and Zia continued his rule for a decade. Rizvi blames Zia for the increased Islamization of Pakistan, including the flourishing of madrassas, the religious schools where the main curriculum is memorizing passages from the Quran. Post 9/11, they have been accused of fostering fundamentalist thoughts among kids, many of whom have joined the Taliban.
Rizvi had a privileged upbringing. He went to private school in Lahore where classes were taught in English. By the time he started college in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, he was already active against Zia’s government by organizing protest marches, designing and distributing leaflets and drawing graffiti across the city walls. The military government noticed – and his parents and sisters were taken to the police station and interrogated for several hours. But Rizvi paid the heaviest price.
In May 1981, police and military officers burst into a student hostel near Rawalpindi and arrested the 22-year old Rizvi. He was among 18 taken into custody. Thirteen were later released. But Rizvi was among the five accused of conspiracy against the state. The police said they found “anti-martial-law” elements. His family said they were political pamphlets and poems written by a supporter of the elder Bhutto. The government charged Rizvi with plotting against Zia’s regime by collaborating with Libya, a charge that Rizvi describes as “utterly baseless and ridiculous.” A military court sentenced him to ten years of rigorous imprisonment for distributing pamphlets. Four years later, another military court sentenced him for cospiracy to a further 25 years in prison with no chance of appeal.
Rizvi spent most of his jail term in Lahore, where he had studied. “Those were the darkest days of my life,” he says. He was kept in solitary confinement in a roofless cell, and shackled in chains for two years. His only company were birds that would alight on the wall and chirp. He made sure he saved some food from his meager rations to feed them, so that they would come back. “They were the only friends I had.”
By the late 80s, there were widespread protests against the military regime, and its torture of political prisoners. Rizvi was allowed to mingle with others, and given a better cell. He used this time to gain two masters degrees – in political science and history – while still shackled. Amnesty International organized a campaign to free him. The Washington Post called him “one of the most prominent political prisoners in Pakistan.” Two years later Rizvi was released from prison. In 1989 he became an aide to the new prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had assumed leadership of the party her father had founded.
Rizvi has again, not touched his coffee. The surroundings are much brighter and ostentatious with shiny mobile phone stores and expensive designer shops. On adjacent tables couples are talking excitedly about the new Tom Hanks play on Broadway. I ask Rizvi about the implications of the newspaper article.
“My life started falling apart then on,” he says. You can feel the weariness in his voice, of a man who has had to work too hard for too long. After the story came out, one of the judges was killed. Ironically, the stories started coming out after another dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, had called for changes to the blasphemy law to make it less stringent. This prompted local journalists to report on the major cases where the law was applied. One of the journalists spoke to the leader of the Sunni Muslim sect that had brought the case against the three people Rizvi helped escape. The leader, a mullah, said that they had come to know that Rizvi was the culprit.
A couple of fatwas (religious edicts) were issued almost immediately, and death threats started morning and night. Rizvi and Naseem debated leaving their elderly parents. Yet Rizvi was confident that they would be back soon, and would be able to re-join their existing jobs. While they were pondering, armed men broke into their house one day while they were out, and threatened a servant. The Rizvis realized that waiting longer would be very dangerous.
In May 2000 they and their daughter, Yumna, boarded a plane for the U.S. Rizvi had an existing visa which was valid for year, and covered his family. They landed in New York and went straight to a friend’s apartment who had agreed to put them up till they found their own place.
“I came with little money. The plan was to go back to Pakistan in a few months,” says Rizvi. Instead, the situation got worse back home, with rising extremism and Rizvi was forced to stay on. By April next year he decided to apply for asylum, or else the period of their visa would have run out. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights assigned his case to the large New York law firm, Davis Polk & Wardwell on a pro bono basis. The attorneys at the firm worked with a few students at the asylum clinic at Columbia University to prepare the case. “The facts were easy to verify because it was extensively covered by the local and international press,” says Bernadette Bernard, who was the lead attorney on the case.
Rizvi was granted asylum in June. By that time the Rizvis were destitute. They abandoned New York for Chicago, where they have relatives and friends. They arrived a week before September 11, and settled into a one-bedroom apartment. Rizvi immediately began looking for a job, but none of the human rights organizations he contacted offered him a position. “They said you are overqualified for the positions we have. That was so weird,” he says. “It seemed like excuses to not hire me,” he says.
By November the family was so desperate for funds that Rizvi took the overnight cashier’s job at a 7-Eleven near his home. “I had to do something for us to survive.”
Their situation gradually improved: in January 2002, Rizvi landed a job handling medical records at a Chicago hospital. His his pay was twice what he made at the 7-Eleven. His wife was lucky too: Scholars at Risk, a University of Chicago-based network for persecuted academics, helped her find a part-time job at Loyola University, to teach a course on the history of Afghanistan. Friends and relatives helped the family with furniture, and clothing.
By September 2004, when the Rizvis were getting over their feeling of despondency and had regained some stability, the hospital laid off people. Rizvi was one of them. His wife’s job was contractual with low pay and not enough to support them. His relatives continued their support but he was feeling unworthy. “How long can you live on someone else’s largesse even if it’s your sisters’?” he asks rhetorically. Yumna was 9, and in school. Rizvi got some odd jobs working in department stores but nothing beyond a few weeks’ contract. He decided that New York would offer more opportunities. And so the Rizvis came back to the same city they had left as destitute and much the same position. “My wife told me that I had repeatedly destroyed her career by my actions,” he said. “I did not show it, but I was shattered within.”
Human rights activists in New York say Rizvi’s experience is not unique. “Activists from other countries come here and expect to find similar jobs in organizations here,” says a human rights activist, also from Pakistan, who has lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years and knows about Rizvi’s hardships. “But most of them have limited resources. So, unfortunately, the attitude is that you have to fend for yourself.” She says that American human rights groups often help other activists escape oppression in their countries, but are not able to help them once they arrive.
Yet, one would expect more opportunities for him, given the 40,000 strong community of Pakistanis at Coney Island Avenue. However the community is fragmented between various sects, and is largely conservative. A local human rights activist, who works in the Allama Iqbal community office, tells me that there are more than a few members who are against Rizvi. “They would argue that he was too liberal in his beliefs, and went against Islam.” he says.
Rizvi’s last job was working at Popeye’s Chicken in Chicago, where he thought he would go crazy. “I was like where the hell am I?” he said. “What am I doing among these chickens?” But the same job provided a place to start in New York. His old manager called up another in the city and Rizvi was back at Popeye’s. He hated it. But then his luck changed. A Pakistani-American whom he met through a mutual friend hired him at Montgomery Capital, a mortgage company in New Jersey, to manage paperwork related to mortgage applications. It was tedious, but it got him out of working at the food joint. He worked there till 2007, managing to earn enough to move to a two-bedroom house in Brooklyn near 18th Street. Meanwhile he had become good friends with Malik Naveed, who ran a real-estate business near Prospect Park.
Naveed convinced Rizvi to join his firm. “You are qualified and respectable,” Rizvi remembers Naveed telling him. Rizvi began his new job seeking tenants for rental properties in Brooklyn. Around the same time, his wife decided that their daughter’s school was not good enough. She had gone to Long Island to visit a couple of Yumna’s friends and meet with their parents, who said that the school there was much better in terms of teaching and facilities. They moved there in 2008 and rented a $1600 a month apartment. Naveed promised that Rizvi would get a raise soon.
Instead the company went bust as the recession hit and housing prices crashed. Rizvi was out work. Again. The family had just bought a car. His credit card debt had soared to over $18,000. “I tried to be strong but it was like bad fortune had gripped me, sometimes easing its grasp only to throttle me later,” he says in an even, baritone voice.
The café has gotten noisier as more customers have crowded in and it is harder to hear him speak. I can see people waiting in line, hoping that some of us will leave. It has been over an hour. Rizvi’s coffee cup is still half-full.
Rizvi started working at a Hess gas station near Massapequa, in Nassau County. He was luckier this time. Lisa Tour, who was the district manager, noticed the older man filling gas and asked him his story. After verifying his credentials, she decided to make him a manager and assigned him the gas station. Suddenly, his pay was doubled to $30,000 a year. Meanwhile, his wife had found a job with the Open Society and their combined income was over $60,000. For the first time in 12 years, the Rizvis told themselves that they had restored some semblance of the life they had left behind. He has repaid more than half of his credit card debt and his priority is to pay off in full by August this year.
I ask him if he is happy now.
“Well, it’s okay, at least I am stable. But if the situation in Pakistan were better, I would go back in an instant,” he says. The Rizvis are now American citizens, and their daughter is going to Georgetown University in the fall, to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree in international relations which includes a course on human rights. She seems to be interested in both of her parents’ disciplines. Rizvi flashes a broad smile when I point this out. “She has a much brighter future inshallah,” he says.
Rizvi is planning to go to Pakistan soon, but with the duties of the gas station beckoning 24/7, it’s hard to plan. His wife and daughter are going sooner – they will be there after the May 11 elections. Naseem will be back soon after but Yumna will stay for three months. She plans to work with local journalists and human rights organizations to understand their problems and challenges in the field from ever-rising extremism. She plans to be back before university begins in the fall.
“I was a fool – I did not have a financial back-up plan in Pakistan,” he said. “I told my daughter that she should never fall into that hole. You can be a human rights activist there, but need a day job to take care of your bills. We were just idealists, not realists.”