Asia and the Pacific

1 May 1995


Let us observe a period of silence. Not just to mourn the death of the 12-year-old Pakistani carpet weaver Iqbal Masih, but to examine our souls and question our values.

The death of Iqbal Masih is steeped in controversy and his blood is on many hands, not just those of the deranged farm worker who killed him in a brawl. The various versions of his death lay bare the dubious role of the media and the contrived politics of both the producers of carpets and the advocates of child labourers.

Iqbal's life was short and a mixture of exploitation and international attention. He was traded for a meager sum by his parents at the age of four to work in conditions of bondage in the carpet industry. He remained shackled to the loom until he was freed at the age of 10.

He then shot to fame as a symbol of, and a crusader against, child exploitation and traveled widely across the globe, even attending the International Labour Conference in Sweden last November, speaking about the horrible conditions under which children work in the carpet industry in Pakistan. He was used as an illustration of child exploitation by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) in Pakistan which is advocating for the boycott of carpets produced by children.

Iqbal was the recipient of the Reebok Youth in Action Award in December and received US$15,000. The Brandeis University in Boston offered him a full scholarship for a course in law. A world of opportunities suddenly opened up for Iqbal. In an interview shortly after the Reebok award ceremony, Iqbal said that he had turned the tables on his boss. "I'm not afraid of him any longer, now he's afraid of me."

On 19 April 1995, Mr. Ehsan Ullah Khan of the BLLF of which Iqbal was the President of the children's wing, claimed "We know that his death was a conspiracy by the carpet mafia." He also stated that a labourer had been arrested in connection with the shooting. In another article, Mr. Khan is quoted as saying that Ashraf, a labourer in Muridke was arrested and subsequently released.

According to statements of eyewitnesses, relatives and the police, Iqbal was shot dead by a villager whom he chanced upon while the villager was having sexual intercourse with a donkey. This statement is in contradiction to the statements of the BLLF which had earlier said that the carpet manufacturers were behind the murder.

Iqbal had allegedly received several death threats from the powerful people in the carpet weaving industry, who were angered by his outspoken opposition to child labour. The latest death threat was received just two weeks before his murder according to Mr. Khan.

A sample drawn from various newspaper reports illustrates the singular lack of consistency in the accounts of the incident from different quarters.

On 20 April 1995, a police report quotes Iqbal's cousin, Faryad Masih, as saying that Iqbal and his two cousins were traveling toward a relative's house. On the way they became embroiled in an argument with a man named Mohammed Ashraf, who pulled out a gun and opened fire.

Mr. Khan, however persists in his claims that Iqbal was killed by the members of the carpet weaving industry who had been threatening the young activist for months. He says, "I don't trust the police to investigate properly." Meanwhile human rights groups say that they are trying to determine who fatally shot Iqbal.

On April 28, Mr. Khan still alleges that Iqbal was killed by the people in the carpet industry though he has been unable to produce any evidence to support his claim.


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