Meet Jas Uppal, a British lawyer fighting to save Indian citizens implicated in wrongful legal cases abroad and without the resources to bring themselves safely home. She started the ‘Free Sarabjit Singh’ campaign and has since then rescued several migrant workers who were treated mercilessly in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – without charging them a single penny.
Jas Uppal was horrified when she first came to know about the case of Sarabjit Singh – the Indian citizen who was detained in Pakistan. He was convicted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for alleged terrorism and spying. After a brief trial, he was sentenced to death in 1991 under charges of involvement in a series of bomb attacks in Lahore and Faisalabad that killed 14 people in 1990. Sarabjit’s family, on the other hand, claimed that he was a farmer living in a village near the border who had strayed into Pakistan by mistake. His sentence was repeatedly postponed by the Government of Pakistan because of the pleas of his family and civil societies. After being in prison for more than 23 years, he was attacked by fellow inmates in the jail and died in 2013.
“Initially, there wasn’t much information about what was going on. I contacted his sister. It took me ages but I found out what the issue was, and it didn’t make sense. The evidence seemed to be of very terrible quality,” says Jas, who is a lawyer living in England.
She then started the ‘Free Sarabjit Singh’ campaign to highlight the case and request human rights groups to intervene.
“I asked his daughter why she had not done something about this before. And I was not expecting the answer she gave me. She said ‘we thought he was dead.’ She had found out only five years ago that her father was still alive. But even then she had not been able to do anything because of lack of resources,” says Jas.
While working on the campaign, many other people contacted her for help with similar cases of human rights violations. “I realised then that there were many such people who did not get the required help or support from Indian authorities to fight their cases. This was because they had no money or approach,” she says.
With this thought, Jas started Justice Upheld – an organization meant to help people with genuine cases but no money or other resources to fight for themselves.
Born and brought up in England, Jas had never been to India except once as a child, even though her parents are from Punjab. It was only in 2008 that she went back again for her brother’s wedding, and fell completely in love with the country.
She started Justice Upheld unofficially in 2009 and got it registered as a British charity in June this year. Today, when someone approaches her with a case, Jas first checks if there is legal merit to it and whether it deals with human rights. She then checks the financial status of the victim and based on that takes up the case for free. Right now, Justice Upheld is working only with Indian nationals in different places in the world.
Jas comes across a number of heart wrenching cases.
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Like that of Jaswant Singh, an Indian citizen from a village in Punjab, who left for Kuwait to work as a driver in June 2014. Little did he know that he would actually end up working as a camel herder — without pay and any medical assistance. Within a few days of reaching Kuwait, he was sent to Saudi Arabia. But after reaching there he was left to work on a farm as a camel herder. His work there was more like that of a bonded labourer. He was not given anything to eat and the farm owners made him drink the water meant for camels. This led to a severe stomach infection that made him very ill. No help was forthcoming from his employer, who was holding on to his passport and would not let him go. But thanks to Jas, after working for more than a year on the farm, Jaswant was rescued with the help and support of Justice Upheld. He received medical assistance and is presently waiting for his formal documents in order to return to India. Jas is continuing to fight for him.
In a similar case of gross human rights abuse, many Indian nationals were unlawfully detained in Iraq. “I have cases of Indian migrants who got jobs through local recruitment agents that charge loads of money. But on reaching there they have to work as bonded labour,” explains Jas.
She has helped release many such people, who have then gone on to spread the word about her.
She takes up cases that people approach her with and also those that she hears about. Read about more cases where Jas has been involved, here.
“Can you imagine what it must be like when nobody can help you or wants to help you? And you spend a good 5-6 years of your life in prison…your access to justice denied?” she asks.
While she has been using her own money to run Justice Upheld so far, she is now looking for donations and is organizing a fundraiser for the charity. “I am looking for some kind of affiliation with human rights organisations in India. I would like to connect with them so we can do a lot more work,” she adds.
Her journey so far has been very challenging and frustrating. “Getting through to the Indian officials has been a very big challenge for me. People think I must be getting something in return for all this. That’s difficult to explain. They think I am related to the victim in some way. Additionally, my experience has been that people are always pleading (with Indian officials) to get things done. And I find that quite uncomfortable when people have to beg and plead to get things done.”
“My work is not about money. It’s about demonstrating faith. I think if something is about doing some good, it will work itself out. I have met so many people I would not have met otherwise. I am grateful for that. I have also been to India about eight times in a short while,” she concludes.