Ali Nawaz Chowhan made a decision nearly three years ago that he thought threatened his life. It was May 2015, and he had been chief justice in The Gambia for 14 months. Before that, he presided over human rights cases at the International Court of Justice at The Hague for seven years.
On this day in Banjul, The Gambia, he acquitted a widely disliked admiral of treason. The country’s president, Yahya Jammeh — who was only removed from power after a parlous shock election in 2016 — was bent on removing all perceived enemies and was less than satisfied.
At noon the same day Chowhan made the decision, he returned to his room. Instead of sitting at his desk as he usually did after lunch, he moved to watch the BBC’s coverage of the events in The Gambia. As he walked to the TV, the mirror and curtain bar that hung high above his desk fell onto where he had just been sitting.
“That thing was there for two years,” he told me recently. “And all of sudden after that judgment, it falls on me… It would have killed me.”
“So I left The Gambia, because I was quite afraid I may be assaulted.” He said he wasn’t sure the secretary wasn’t also involved. News reports at the time called his departure a “removal,” and there was no mention that he was afraid for his physical safety. He was still pondering the incident when Dawn reporters came to him for a profile five days after the incident, he said. “I didn’t want to make too much of a scandal out of that.”
Although several outlets labeled him “retired,” he was quick to correct. When he left The Gambia, he knew another job awaited him. Pakistan had just created a national commission for human rights (NCHR), and he was at the top of the list of contenders to lead it. He’s now been in the position for two years. When we met last month, that was what I really wanted to talk about.
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