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A Week in the Life of Asim Qureshi

A Week in the Life of Asim Qureshi

Issue 84 September 2011

Asim Qureshi campaigns for detainees to ensure they get their due rights. The post-9/11 situation has created many challenges for him. 


In my role as the Executive Director of Cageprisoners, the majority of my responsibility comes down to the project management of casework and conducting research. Typically, I will get a call from someone who knows about a detainee from somewhere around the world and is aware of the work that Cageprisoners do. They will tell me about the detainee—it could be someone in Somalia who has been arrested on suspicion of links to Al-Shabab, or it may be an individual in Pakistan who has undergone enforced disappearance, or it could even be a UK resident who has had their house raided.


Specific cases in Pakistan are those relating to enforced disappearance, where people are arrested and placed in incommunicado detention. In such cases, we will contact a range of human rights organisations in the country who will then contact and support the detainee’s family, as well as gather all the details around the case and report back to us. Occasionally, with cases in Pakistan, we will use our ties with Supreme Court judges and human rights lawyers to try and sort out matters outside the courts. However, in Pakistan, the authorities can move detainees between different regions of the country, thereby taking them out of the jurisdiction of a habeas corpus petition. All in all, our approach has to change depending on how the landscape forces us to—I remember once having to give an ‘incentive’ to gain access to a prison in Kenya.


I joined Cageprisoners in early 2005 as a volunteer. I came from an international human rights law background, and after travelling around the West Bank, I knew that I wanted a career in this field. Cageprisoners felt like a right fit, and once I had joined, I approached the Muslim community in order to raise funds. We have grown hugely since then, from having only me as a paid member of staff to now having four others, as well as accommodating interns.


I used to travel around the world researching different cases, but since we have built a team, I let them do the majority of the fieldwork. It suits my role to be more grounded and co-ordinate everything from our base in London. Once in a while, I will travel to a different country to do consultation work. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union got in touch with us because they wanted to use our expertise to help them understand the situation in Pakistan.


The sad reality is that many of the detainees we speak to are Muslims, though others have been impacted. In Nairobi for example, I came across a Christian grandmother who was detained as a potential terrorist after working with some Arab guys, and a four-year-old girl who had been imprisoned and interrogated for an entire month by the authorities over her father’s links to terrorism!


Three cases have stuck in my mind—Aafia Siddiqui, Shaker Aamer and Babar Ahmed. Aafia’s was the first one that I took on, and the case gained a lot of momentum. Shaker is the last British man in Guantanamo, and Babar is a close friend of mine. In a way, these three cases are representative of the range of cases that we have—Aafia’s is linked to secret detention and the brutality of the US justice system; Shaker is detained in Guantanamo Bay; and Babar’s case reminds me how anyone can be affected by these allegations, even those closest to us.


We recently pulled out of the UK Torture Inquiry, along with nine other organisations. Inquiries are supposed to be open and public, but in this situation, the victims and their legal representatives had no way of challenging the security agencies. Torture is internationally prohibited, and perpetrators can be prosecuted for it anywhere in the world. But here, the agencies have carte blanche and we were put in an untenable situation. It is completely unacceptable, and we had no other choice but to pull out of it.


I hope one day I am out of my current job. I envisage a future where Cageprisoners does not need to exist and everyone is presented with their full legal rights. When I first started working at Cageprisoners, it was about helping people in desperate situations. Once I had my first child, I realised the real reason is that we need to work to build a safer future. It is important to understand that when you abuse people, they become disenfranchised. And in times like these, it is imperative that we understand how people perceive justice and injustice. 

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