Khadija Shah with her baby, Malaika. (Photo courtesy of Reprieve)
Last year, Khadija Shah was apprehended under suspicion of carrying a suitcase that contained $4.75 million worth (approximately 63 kilograms) of pure Afghan heroin through Islamabad Airport. The 25-year-old Birmingham resident claimed to have been given the bag by two men, most likely members of a drug smuggling ring who had been complicit in grooming her for months, if not years.
Antinarcotics officers were notified that she would be carrying the shipment and she was arrested immediately. In Pakistan, the death penalty is applicable to anyone charged with carrying more than one kilogram of heroin, entitling Shah to be hanged—the country's preferred method of execution—63 times over. A moratorium on executions had been put in place by the Pakistan Peoples Party (formerly led by Benazir Bhutto) in 2008, but yesterday that was lifted, opening Shah up to the real possibility of losing her life. However, her trial opened in March and is still some way away from reaching a verdict. In the meantime, she's being detained at Pakistan’s infamously unhygienic Adiala jail, where she's been held since her arrest.
Enduring these circumstances would be traumatic for anyone, but Khadija’s story is exceptionally troubling due to the direct involvement of her small children. At the time of her arrest, Khadija had her five-year-old son, Ibrahim, and four-year-old daughter, Aleesha, in tow. She was also six months pregnant, and gave birth to her baby daughter Malaika during a one-day respite from prison in October last year.
The two older children were eventually released and returned home to Birmingham. But, to date, Khadija’s youngest daughter hasn’t spent a day outside of the prison’s walls, and there's no immediate timeframe set for her return. That’s because, in Pakistan, there is no legal prohibition against keeping babies in prison. Despite aggressive outbreaks of measles and tuberculosis, Malaika has also not received any form of immunization, while Khadija doesn't have access to sterilizing equipment, bottles, or formula milk. In a previous interview, she explained that there is no cot and that she and her daughter share a raised bunk. She also added that Malaika is often bitten by mosquitoes and keeps the other women in the cell awake most of the night with her crying.
(Photo courtesy of Reprieve)
The story struck me immediately. Without wanting to sound crass, I couldn't help but draw parallels between myself and Khadija: we are both 25, we are both from Birmingham, and we are both prone to considerable lapses in judgment. But for Khadija, the consequences of the latter have been devastating and potentially fatal. When we spoke last week, her answers were short and it seemed like she was struggling to put into words the strain of raising her child under such conditions, especially with the looming debate surrounding her own fate and the possibility that she will never return to the UK to see Ibrahim and Aleesha again. Through an exchange made possible by her lawyer and human rights NGO Reprieve, Khadija laid down the unconventional arrangement she has for accommodating to Malaika’s most basic needs:
“I am still breastfeeding. Every three months Prisoners Abroad gives me some money for basic food items and Pampers for the baby, who I keep clean. I usually try to keep our surroundings clean, too.”
She also told me that Malaika has been allowed a buggy inside prison, given to her by Khadija’s lawyer, staff attorney Mariam Kizilbash. “She also likes to play with empty wrappers of food items,” she adds. “She has some toys that the British High Commission gave to her.”
Khadija speaks to Ibrahim and Aleesha on the phone every two to three days—“They miss me, but never ask me where I am.” Whether the rest of her family has explained the circumstances to her older children remains a mystery to Khadija. Her best guess is that both children remain largely oblivious.
“I ignore things,” she goes on. “I ignore what's happening to me." When I asked her what keeps her strong, she answered, “If [Malaika] was not here, I would be crazy because things are very hard. She keeps me strong.”
While Malaika provides a source of distraction throughout the ordeal, her presence also raises several grave concerns: on more than one occasion the baby has suffered bouts of extreme high temperature and diarrhea. In Khadija’s view, it's only a matter of time before serious infection catches up with either or both of them. It’s a matter of urgency that Malaika be removed, but the trial is progressing with all the judicial efficiency we've come to expect from the Pakistani legal process; i.e. at the pace of a sloth with access to Xanax and a gavel. It will still be several months before Malaika is released and Khadija learns whether she will ever be able to return home with her.
A BBC report showing Shah before her first hearing, while her two oldest children were still out in Pakistan.
I spoke to a London resident—who asked to go under the name Saabir for anonymity's sake—who served a nine-year sentence for smuggling heroin from Pakistan to the UK almost a decade ago. He explained a little more about how Khadija, and many more like her, wind up in this kind of situation:
“These people,” he said, referring to the higher echelons of the drug trafficking clique who are likely to have targeted Khadija, “[who are] probably British Pakistanis over in the UK, would have charmed [Khadija]. The people handling her directly would have been paid small amounts of money themselves. She wouldn't have met any of the big guys, who—despite dealing in drugs—operate like professionals.
“She may have known, but easily may not have known, what she was carrying. They asked her to take the extra baggage, which happens a lot with British Pakistanis coming back to the UK from abroad [relatives often give them extra bags full of clothes to carry back]. She would have felt it was the least she could do. The fact that such a large amount of drugs were just stuffed in her suitcase means, to me, that the gang weren't that bothered if the drugs, or her, were caught. It would have been small to them – a drop in the ocean. They didn’t care about her; it was just a small gamble. If it pays off, they're quids in, and if it doesn't, they just go on to the next person. The fact she had kids, was pregnant, and spoke with a Brum accent was perfect cover for them.”
Like at least 24 other Brits, Khadija is paying the price of Pakistan's extreme position on drug smuggling, a wider issue in which the British government is deeply embroiled. Their $18 million donation last year to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) came under harsh criticism from human rights observers, who noted the dangers in helping to convict more people in a country that still exercises capital punishment. Rather than eliminating the problem, the increase in funding could simply see an influx in the number of cases like Khadija’s.
Regardless of whether the death sentence is eventually lifted permanently, the number of vulnerable people being convicted for unwittingly trafficking drugs will increase.
That Khadija and her young family have been exploited is undeniable, but her situation is not entirely devoid of hope. She remains philosophical and laughs when asked what she and Malaika would do first upon their release. “I dont know!” she replies, “I guess I'll decide later.” Before our short interview was over, she added: “I wouldn't want to say anything bad to [the true culprits]. I just know that they should be in jail instead of me.”
Follow Khadija’s case history by visiting the Reprieve website.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
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