A life of service

Abdul Latif Afridi, the veteran advocate and rights activist, was killed on the Peshawar High Court premises

A life of service

A progressive voice has been silenced in Pakhtunkhwa. Abdul Latif Afridi, the advocate who dedicated half a century to politics, activism and legal service, was killed on the premises of the Peshawar High Court.

“Latif Lala”, as he was popularly known, was born on November 14, 1943, in Tirah valley in Khyber district. He received his law degree from Peshawar University and began a political career as a student. Afridi was part of the election campaign in support of Fatima Jinnah. In 1979, he joined Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo’s Pakistan National Party (PNP) and became its provincial president. In 1986, when the PNP merged with the Awami National Party (ANP), Afridi became its first provincial president. In the 1997 general elections, he was elected a member of the National Assembly on an ANP ticket.

Afridi campaigned against violence in the Pashtun society. He subscribed to the non-violent philosophy of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan, the founder of Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek. This made him a target of opposition from the Taliban. He was also actively involved in the Peshawar High Court Bar Association and the Supreme Court Bar Association. Thanks to his efforts, the ANP lawyers’ organisation, Magari Wakeelan, became a potent force. He served as president of the Peshawar High Court Bar five times and in 2020-21, he was elected president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

A highlight of his legal career was his contribution to the lawyers’ movement against Gen Pervez Musharraf. “The movements that originated in Peshawar, have spread throughout Pakistan and been successful,” he told me at the launch of the lawyers’ movement in Peshawar. He initiated the movement in the provincial capital and continued to lead it until Gen Musharraf was removed from power. During this period, he met with the dictator on several occasions. When Gen Musharraf imposed an emergency in 2007, an attempt was made to run Afridi over using a police armoured vehicle. One of his legs was injured and subsequently he had to use a cane to walk.

Afridi’s impact on the struggle for human rights will always be remembered. As someone who belonged to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and had grown up in a region lacking constitutional protections and rule of law, he was well aware of the challenges faced by its people. He referred to the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), as a “black law” and dedicated himself to its abolition. He created several forums and took the lead in every protest against the FCR. When efforts to amend these laws gained traction, Afridi, along with some other lawyers, took up a leading role in these efforts. He was often at odds with the administration due to his agitation against the FCR. He pleaded thousands of pro bono cases and was closely associated with UN special rapporteur Asma Jahangir and rights activist IA Rehman. Afridi stood for left-wing ideals. When the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) started in ex-FATA, Afridi joined it and amplified its voice. He presented the families of several missing persons in courts. When his long-time friend Afrasiab Khattak and MNA Mohsin Dawar founded the National Democratic Movement (NDM), Afridi joined the party. Khattak said after attending Lala’s funeral, “I informed those present at Latif Afridi’s funeral today that, just minutes before his martyrdom, he had warned the Pashtuns of the impending darkness of a new war. The most fitting tribute to Latif Afridi would be to stand and unite against the threat of war.”

Latif Afridi had a close relationship with journalists in Pakhtunkhwa. He would often provide legal assistance and fight their cases. Once, a senior police officer filed a defamation claim against me over a news report. Latif Afridi had an acquaintance with the officer but chose to support me. I ultimately won the case with his help. In many similar cases, he guided and supported journalists.

“Latif Lala”, who began his career with the non-violent politics of Bacha Khan, the founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek, ultimately fell victim to the violence of badal (revenge) that plagues the Pashtun society.

Enmities are not uncommon in tribal societies. These may result in acts of badal or be resolved through dialogue in a jirga. Afridi’s family, too, had several feuds, many of which were resolved through jirgas. However, some animosities had persisted. On January 16, the suspect, Adnan Samiullah, entered the Peshawar High Court bar room with the intent to avenge the murder of a family member. Afridi, 79, was sitting on his couch when Adnan Samiullah shot him six times. He was rushed to Lady Reading Hospital but passed away on the way there.

Afridi had used a bulletproof vehicle and had two policemen guarding him at all times due to the threats to his life. How was the suspect able to gain access to the bar room with a pistol? Adnan’s father, Samiullah Afridi, was a lawyer who became famous for representing Shakeel Afridi. He was later killed by unidentified assailants. The suspect is said to have believed that Latif Afridi was responsible for the murder. His family had also blamed Latif Afridi for the murder of an uncle, a judge of the anti-terrorism court. However, Latif Afridi was acquitted of these charges a couple of weeks ago.

The accused had studied law and had been visiting the bar room for an internship. Being a lawyer, he had free access to the bar room. The killing of Abdul Latif Afridi is an irreparable loss to the legal fraternity of Pakistan and the progressive movements of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer

A life of service