I am sharing the stage with Sir Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia. We are speaking on domestic adoption of international human rights norms at an international human rights conference in memory and celebration of Asma Jahangir, the globally revered Pakistani human rights lawyer who died on 11 February 2018. I was fortunate to have met her twice. She truly fought for Pakistan’s soul.
I am also on a panel on extra-judicial killings in the afternoon, speaking about the deaths of around 30,000 prisoners in Iran in 1988. The killings were ordered by a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former Supreme Leader of Iran. I have spoken on this crime against humanity many times and it is an appropriate focus as Asma’s last position was as Special Rapporteur for Iran. I close my eyes and am back in Geneva. It is February and in the Press Club where I moderated a full day of evidence on the massacre. I remember the father who spoke of being given the casings from the bullets that had killed his daughter and then asked for payment for the ammunition.
Back to the keynote. By now the sunrise is bathing my hotel room in warm gold. I wonder whether I might be able to fit in a swim before breakfast. There is no time. I respond to messages from family. I am fine; I love it here. And I do.
By 9am I am finished and sifting through emails. I am in the Court of Appeal in London on Wednesday 17 October, appealing heavy prison sentences meted out to anti-fracking protestors at Preston Crown Court. This appeal has been shifting over the past week as detailed information emerged supporting a ground of appeal that there could be an appearance of bias due to the trial judge’s family’s business connections with oil and gas and his sister’s pro-fracking public stance. I start redrafting the ground on apparent bias.
I move to Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) work. Communications relate to torture allegations in Jaw prison in Bahrain and a hunger strike, developments around the 1988 massacre, follow up on talks on human rights in Yemen, organising an event in Parliament on Turkey and its arbitrary imprisonment of journalists and lawyers, and organising the BHRC seminar at the Bar Conference in November. I have to book a flight back to London the next day and cut my time in Pakistan short to get back for the Court of Appeal. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Lahore to London on a Monday and so I book a flight via Doha.
I enjoy the keynote; relieved that the first couple of rows of audience didn’t seem to be playing games on their mobiles. I have a chat with one of the Swedish ambassadors who I had got to know the previous evening; we had bonded at Asma Jahangir’s family home listening to beautiful Sufi music. She is kind about my speech and supportive. The extra-judicial killing panel is alongside engaging speakers: a High Court Judge in Lahore, a human rights activist from Sri Lanka and a former senator from Pakistan. There is great energy in the room and insufficient time for all the questions.
I am hosted at lunch by the Australian High Commissioner, Margaret Adamson – another one of the sisterhood – and then head to the closing session. I particularly enjoy the speech from the Human Rights Minister of Pakistan – liking that she has green and purple hair. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari also joins the panel. He is the Chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party and Benazir’s son. He is mobbed as if he is a rockstar. But my admiration is reserved for Asma’s family – her daughters, Sulema and Munizae and her son and widower. They are focused and composed in the midst of their grief. Their hospitality is truly humbling.
In the evening, I head out with a new friend from the UN and two lawyers from a human rights NGO. We go for dinner in a restaurant flanked by Badshahi mosque and by the red-light district.
I’m up early to pack and catch up on the Court of Appeal case. I am tired when I get to the airport and in no mood for obstacles. My bags are searched twice before I reach the check in desk. I am struggling to contain my irritation. I am questioned as to my business in Lahore and so go into full credentials mode. The status of a barrister and of a QC sometimes helps through difficulties that can be encountered as a female travelling alone. The official listens to my CV without interest. I try a weak smile and am nodded through.
After around a three-and-a-half-hour flight I am in Doha. I go to the Qatar Airlines desk – remembering that it is by the giant model of a teddy bear – and forlornly ask the cost of an upgrade to business. Resigning myself to remaining in economy, I go back to redrafting the ground on apparent bias and putting the authorities together. It is taking me longer than I had thought but in Lahore I am four hours ahead of the UK. I realise that I am just two hours ahead now as I am in Doha.
I am now on the flight to London and contentedly stretch out on an exit seat with no one next to me. All is going well except I discover that countries like Saudi Arabia haven’t given permission for satellite. I check the map and factor in other countries where there is likely to be interference with wi-fi as I concentrate on finalising the documents for the Court of Appeal.
"My submissions are made over an hour and a half and there is a tense wait as the Bench retired. The court quashes the sentences and declares them manifestly excessive. Supporters burst into song"
I turn my attention to correspondence from Amnesty in Denmark. I am heading to Denmark next week to speak in the Danish Parliament about sexual offences legislation in England and Wales. There is a campaign to change the Danish legislation as currently the elements of rape necessitate use or threats of force. I then correspond with a lawyer in Colombia. My Spanish is getting rusty. I make a mental note to arrange some more classes over Skype with my teacher in Medellín.
Back in London I have a day before I am in the Court of Appeal. I head into chambers and work on the Court of Appeal case until 3.45am. I had received letters and emails from members of the public, including a moving petition from a Manchester Church Choir, outraged at the sentences. I am confident that the three men will be released but am concerned that the court may only suspend the prison sentences and not engage fully with the important right to protest.
In the morning, outside court, there is a demonstration against the sentences and people are making speeches. In court, the public gallery is full of supporters and family. The press bench is full. I feel comfortable; happy to be back in an environment which has become familiar to me over two decades.
The Lord Chief Justice indicates that the bias ground should be put back to another time, if required, as there has been insufficient time for parties concerned to respond. The entire case had been expedited. He states that the court can determine the appeal on the other grounds. My submissions are made over an hour and a half and there is a tense wait as the Bench retired. The court quashes the sentences and declares them manifestly excessive. The court imposes conditional discharges. The supporters soon burst into a freedom song. I am caught up in hugs by family, friends and supporters. When I leave court, it is raining. I do some television interviews and then head back to Doughty Street with my mobile happily pinging with congratulations from my wonderful chambers’ colleagues.
In the evening I attend an event hosted by Hello! magazine showing anti-female genital mutilation activist and friend, Hibo Wardere’s short film ‘Hibo’s Story’. Hibo’s event was full of celebrities. I try small talk and offend someone by asking whether she was in ‘Towie’. The Hello! photographer studiously avoids me. I am wearing my black court suit and my morning make up has slid down my face in the rain. I look exhausted.
This snapshot of my life over three days felt like one long day. I will remember it as the time I made it back from Pakistan to win in the Court of Appeal and nearly made it into Hello! magazine.
Kirsty Brimelow QC is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee and International Pro Bono Barrister of the Year 2018.