On Sunday 26 November, at 4:35pm, in the sleepy town of Royston in Hertfordshire, my old friend and human rights colleague Shahzad Akbar heard a knock on his door.
He responded, thinking this was a normal Amazon delivery time, whereupon some coward threw sulphuric acid at his face. His large glasses probably saved his eyesight.
A fire engine then soaked Shahzad with a hose and, for the first time, Addenbrookes hospital had to use the procedure put in place after Russia’s attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal with the nerve agent, novichok.
Official involvement by members of the Pakistan government in this despicable act is sadly rendered obvious from recent history: Shahzad was a minister in the government of Imran Khan, told to root out corruption.
This did not make him popular with those who are corrupt.
When Khan was deposed, Shahzad left the country rather than face the fate of Arshad Sharif, the journalist whose strident criticism of corruption apparently prompted his assassination.
Shahzad came to the UK where he and his young family are legal residents, and where he continued to pursue the human rights work that first made us friends. But Shahzad was pursued to Royston.
Khan, the popular politician who reached the age of 70 without a criminal record, is currently facing over 200 charges ranging from blasphemy to treason, all designed to disqualify him from running again.
In one of them, the prosecutors want Shahzad to testify against his old boss – but he has pointed out time and again that their version of events would require him to commit perjury.
This did not deter those whose vision of the ‘rule of law’ is apparently to break it. In May, they kidnapped Shahzad’s brother Murad.
For a few days, officials insisted falsely in court that they knew nothing about it, until an assistant to the prime minister told a press conference that he was “inviting” Shahzad to come back to Pakistan, whereupon his brother could be freed and even given his medication.
It was obvious to anyone in England that this constituted the old-fashioned crime of ‘hostage taking’, practised more often by Middle Eastern terror groups than a supposedly friendly government.
The Hatfield police therefore initiated a criminal complaint and this compelled the British police to have a quiet word with Islamabad, telling the perpetrators to behave.
Murad was released, and the kidnappers should have learned that they simply cannot do this kind of thing and expect the Hertfordshire constabulary to turn a blind eye.
It seems that the lesson went unheeded.
Two weeks ago, the Pakistan high commission sent Shahzad an irrelevant letter, merely to show they had found his home address. Then the coward struck on that Sunday.
Within 12 hours of this outrage, the authorities in Pakistan underlined their intent by raiding Shahzad’s house in Islamabad, trying to seize his brother Murad once again.
All this is simply barbaric, and should shock the people of Pakistan. Shahzad’s four-year old daughter avoided a dousing in acid purely by chance. She had been waiting eagerly in the doorway, hoping the knock heralded a delivery for her birthday.
“Two weeks ago, the Pakistan high commission sent Shahzad an irrelevant letter, merely to show they had found his home address”
Before this, the local police had rated the danger to Shahzad as ‘LOW’ because nobody in England could believe that Pakistan would be stupid enough to carry out a political crime on British soil.
The deranged people who ordered this assault have changed the equation: now, what is to stop them from taking a leaf out of the Modi play book and moving up to murder?
Just as the Canadian government is believed to be in possession of intelligence linking Indian officials and diplomats to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June; so the British National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Hertfordshire police already have plenty of intelligence pointing to official Pakistan involvement in the attempt on Shahzad Akbar.
Rule of law
The police have been warned that this madness may escalate to homicide. Therefore, last week the former British minister David Davis called upon home secretary James Cleverly to summon the Pakistan high commissioner to chastise him.
Sir Oliver Heald KC, Shahzad’s Conservative MP, contacted Lord David Cameron, the foreign secretary, to express similar concerns.
Nobody in the UK can accept what has been done. Meanwhile there is a British legal team standing by to force the issue on several fronts.
This is not a discussion we should be having. I have been to Pakistan many times. I am very fond of the country, its people and many of its judges. I have sought to protect many innocent Pakistanis who have been threatened by drones in Waziristan or rendition flights to Guantánamo Bay.
Indeed I am now in Texas visiting Aafia Siddiqui with her sister Fowzia. Perhaps nobody has suffered more injustice than she has. She was abducted from Karachi in 2003, along with her three children, wrongfully suspected of being some kind of senior agent for Al-Qaida.
One child, Suleiman aged 6 months, was dropped on his head and apparently killed; the second, Maryam aged 3, was taken by the US and forcibly adopted into a Christian American family; the third, Ahmed aged 5, was put in an Afghan prison and told henceforth his name was Ali.
Aafia herself suffered torture in Bagram air force base, Afghanistan, for five years. She is now serving 86 years in an awful American prison on bogus criminal charges. I am going to use the law to get her home, if it is the last thing I do.
We are – or should be – all committed to the rule of law. No government should indulge in criminal acts, emulating some back-alley thug. The people of Pakistan deserve better than the sordid crime this week in Royston.
While the offences of the past can be put behind us, we cannot allow them to be repeated. Call off your dogs!