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Pakistan Slave Labor Cited

January 8, 1999

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ Powerful landowners are keeping as many as 50,000 laborers as slaves in Pakistan, forcing them to work for free by day and chaining them to their beds at night, a human rights lawyer said today.

Asma Jehangir, founder of the respected Pakistan Human Rights Commission, pleaded with the Sindh provincial governor to arrest and prosecute the offending landowners.

She said Sindh Gov. Moinuddin Haider promised to investigate the complaints in the agriculturally rich southern province and acknowledged the problem. However, Ms. Jehangir told a news conference that she didn’t hold out much hope anybody would be prosecuted soon.

``Politically, these landlords are very powerful,″ she said. ``They are in every political party and they have influence in all the governments.″

It was not possible today to reach Haider for comment because he was traveling in interior Sindh with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and there was no immediate comment from the government or any landowners.

Last year, the Sindh provincial government conducted several raids with human rights organizations, rescuing hundreds of laborers.

Several landowners were arrested but later were released without charge.

In the past year, Ms. Jehangir said the Human Rights Commission has freed 7,000 peasants who were living as slaves in makeshift prisons operated by the big landowners.

``But that’s only a beginning,″ she said, estimating as many as 50,000 peasants are living as slaves in southern Sindh province, which produces cotton and sugar cane.

They sleep chained to their bed at night and before dawn each day are sent into the fields to work, she said. Some of those who have been freed are descendants of slaves kept by the same landowner.

``From generation to generation these farmers are kept as slaves,″ she said.

But releasing them often isn’t enough.

Without a place to go and protection from the authorities, Ms. Jehangir said that often they end up back with the landowners.

Unless the government provides shelter and assistance and prosecutes the big landowner, she said the peasants are not safe.

``Even when we free these farmers, they don’t have anywhere to go,″ she said. ``It is the duty of the courts not just to release the bonded farmers, but also to punish the landlords who are behind this cruel practice.″

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