Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

DPRU Q&As: Sarah Belal, Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan


Sarah Belal
Executive Director, Justice Project Pakistan


Time to read

6 Minutes

In the latest of the DPRU's Q&A series with death penalty experts from around the world, Sarah Belal, the Director of Justice Project Pakistan, tells DPRU Research Officer Jocelyn Hutton about her work representing the most vulnerable Pakistani prisoners facing the death penalty, at home and abroad.

What do you do and how did you get into defending those sentenced to death?

At Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), we defend the poorest prisoners facing the harshest punishments, both at home and abroad. This includes juveniles, the mentally ill, victims of torture, foreign nationals, and Pakistanis imprisoned abroad. 

I was thoroughly uninspired in law school, despite getting an excellent education there, primarily because it felt like just a mechanism to churn out corporate lawyers. I finished my studies and returned to practice law in Pakistan. One day, while reading the newspaper, I saw a letter by a man who was in prison who was going to be executed in a week. It was his last appeal to anyone out there who could help him. He described how he had spent 12-15 years on death row and was too poor to afford a lawyer. While he had been in prison, he had educated hundreds of prisoners. He had two daughters, his wife had died of cancer, and he really didn't know what else to do.

I remember reading that letter and feeling sick to my stomach. There was a human being in the world that knew he was going to die in a week and there was nothing that he could do about it. His name was Zulfiqar Ali Khan. I closed the paper and I thought, obviously someone’s going to write in and help him. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I eventually called the paper and gave them my number. Within 30 minutes, I got a call from Zulfiqar’s brother, who said that he was in Lahore and really wanted to meet me.

I said that there might have been a mistake, because I wasn’t experienced enough to take on a death penalty case but maybe I could give him the numbers of some of my mentors, who were big lawyers, and they would help. But he said that he wanted to come and see me. Within another 30 minutes, he turned up at my door with all these case files and said that I was going to help them.

I went to all of these people who were my heroes and the best lawyers in the country, and every single one of them said to me, “Don’t do this. This is an unwinnable case, there is nothing that can be done. Don't start your career by destroying your professional reputation on a case that you will lose.” And I remember thinking, what professional reputation? What practice? How can you go to sleep at night, knowing that you didn't try to save someone’s life when you had all the tools and the experience? Who cares if I lose?

So that's how I started. Zulfiqar was my first client. I went to see him in prison; that was my first prison visit ever. Nothing could have prepared me for what it was like. There were hundreds of people abandoned, forgotten and sentenced to die. In memory of Zulfiqar, we now run the ‘Zulfiqar Ali Memorial Internship Program’, with interns from all over Pakistan.

Why do so many Pakistani migrants end up on death row abroad?

When JPP began exploring and telling the stories of our clients, we noticed the nexus between indigent migrants, drug trafficking and exploitation. Over and over again, we heard the same story. We found that for the most part, overseas prisoners were just ordinary citizens, not hardened criminals. Their only fault was trusting someone and being betrayed while trying to build a better life for their family. None of the detainees interviewed for our report Through The Cracks had a previous criminal record, all had similar backgrounds of low literacy and great economic vulnerability, and all had to go through a series of actors with questionable intent. The labour migration system was unable to provide them with important information before their departure and similarly unable to offer them aid after their arrest. As low-wage migrant workers, they possessed little social capital to prevent their exploitation at the hands of experienced, fraudulent recruitment agents or as a result of faulty information passed down to them.

Pakistanis imprisoned abroad are at the mercy of local courts without access to lawyers, impartial translators, or consular assistance from Pakistani diplomatic missions. These Pakistanis face the harshest punishments in foreign courts due to their lack of understanding of and assistance with the legal process, incapability to communicate directly with the court, and inability to produce evidence from Pakistan in their defence, as we have detailed in our report Caught In A Web 

The family of a Pakistani woman detained in Saudi Arabia for drug smuggling.
The family of a Pakistani woman detained in Saudi Arabia for drug smuggling. Photo taken by Nade Ali as part of JPP's #WeMatter photo exhibit, highlighting the struggles of Pakistanis jailed abroad and their families.

What efforts are made to prevent migrants from falling into these traps?

Since the release of our report Through the Cracks, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other institutions such as the Federal Investigation Agency have taken steps to provide training on this issue. A draft bill, the ‘National Emigration and Welfare Policy for Overseas Pakistanis’, is in motion, which aims to address some of these concerns. Over the years, various governments have made multiple promises towards enacting a consular protection policy, reforming the recruitment regime and protecting Pakistani migrants. The Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis has signed bilateral agreements with several destination countries, including with Saudi Arabia in 2021. However, it remains to be seen whether such treaties will protect the most vulnerable.

To what extent do the Pakistani embassies in the Gulf states provide foreign nationals with their rights to special protection and assistance?

There is a constitutional duty on the government of Pakistan to protect the due process rights of Pakistani citizens detained abroad.[1] We argue that this makes it mandatory for the government of Pakistan to make forceful representations on behalf of Pakistani citizens whose rights are being compromised in foreign jurisdictions. In 2010, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs devised new guidelines for improving the mechanisms for securing the release and repatriation of Pakistanis detained abroad. These guidelines direct consular missions to take steps to discover all cases of the arrest and detention of Pakistani citizens abroad, to seek consular access to these individuals and remain in contact with them monthly, and to keep records of all such people. However, the Pakistani embassies lack the capacity and resources to follow these guidelines fully.

The Pakistani government has taken notice of the issue and has implemented some policy changes, as seen by the shakeup in the Pakistani embassy in Saudi Arabia in 2021, which was initiated by a number of complaints on the Pakistan Citizens Portal.[2] In the end, Pakistan signed a Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Saudi Arabia, and the Crown Prince agreed to pardon and send home over 2000 Pakistani prisoners. Under the active guidance of Zulfi Bukhari, the previous Overseas Minister, Pakistan also saw a number of prisoner repatriations from Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates. It is clear that the Pakistani government has the capacity to make repatriation happen when it chooses to make effective efforts for their citizens stranded abroad.

What do you think is the most effective way to lobby for the rights of foreign nationals on death row?

Other than what has already been said, it is important to establish partnerships with national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in foreign countries, in order to arrange regular visits to places of detention. Another highly effective strategy is to approach organisations such as the IOM and the UN, to arrange capacity-building training on human trafficking, effective detention visits and the international obligations of the government. Lastly, Pakistani High Commissions must be lobbied to build an effective network with local law enforcement and lawyers so that they are notified when Pakistanis are arrested or detained, can arrange jail visits and can secure legal representation for Pakistani nationals.

Lobbying at home includes pushing for the creation of a consular protection policy to provide adequate legal and financial support to foreign nationals on death row. This must be codified so that both the government and citizens know what their respective duties and rights are. Other steps include initiating strategic litigation, raising questions before the relevant parliamentary committees, holding consultations, and running public awareness campaigns of the issues migrants face.

Profile photo of Sarah BelalSarah Belal is Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit organization based in Lahore which represents the most vulnerable Pakistani prisoners facing the harshest punishments, at home and abroad. Sarah received her law degree from Oxford University in 2006, was called to the Bar in 2007 and gained rights of audience in the Pakistani High Court in 2008. In December 2016, JPP was awarded the National Human Rights Award, presented by the President of Pakistan.


[1] Pakistani Constitution, Article 4: ‘To enjoy the protection of law and to be treated in accordance with law is the inalienable right of every citizen, wherever he may be, and of every other person for the time being within Pakistan.’

[2] The Pakistan Citizens Portal is a government-owned mobile application which allows users to submit complaints.