Nazir Afzal: Speaking out
This is the first part of a four part interview by Sadia Humayan with Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor and activist for women and children’s rights.
Nazir Afzal OBE, the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northwest England, has his fair share of enemies. On one side, he has had to contend with men from his own Pakistani Muslim community who have attacked him for being a vocal and a prominent critic of forced marriages, and so-called honour based violence. Concurrently, he has also faced aggression from the far-right groups who have hounded him for being Muslim and defying their narrative. He describes himself as a feminist, believing his maleness is his strongest asset to challenge sexism.
I first got in touch with Nazir Afzal over three years ago and have been following his work closely since. His unwavering mission to lend his voice to the voiceless has only gained more traction over time. At that time he had recently resigned from the position of the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northwest England. He was in the process of gearing up for his new role in London as the Chief Executive of the Country’s Police and Crime Commissioners.
To my surprise, Afzal was swift and forthcoming in his response. A couple of months later, he greeted me into his newly-refurbished, sparsely-furnished office in Westminster. He told me it had recently suffered a bout of flooding, inundating his entire office. It felt like a fresh beginning in every way.
Although I had arrived armed with questions, I quickly discovered that I could just leave him to talk without much prodding. There was an eloquent and comprehensive flow to his words and story. Although he often spoke on serious matters, he also threw in straight-faced humour for good measure.
A major development since our last meeting had been Mr Afzal’s resignation from his role as the Chief Executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC). Subsequently, he has taken up the responsibilities as Chief Advisor to the Welsh government on gender-based violence… amongst a long list of other ventures.
Nazir Afzal is one of that rare breed of people whose analysis and views are regularly sought after on wide ranging issues. His work on gender-based violence and gender equality often correlates with his efforts to be a bridge between white and South Asian Britons, especially valuable with anti-Muslim hate on the rise. His media profile has steadily increased as he has been appearing on TV and radio to offer his nuanced and informed stance on topics such as the recent Streatham terror attack, the stripping of citizenship from British citizens who had fled to join ISIS, and most recently to explain the decision of the CPS in the case of the death-by-suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack. This effectively makes him a popular go-to-person on many contemporary issues.
He has a reputation for venturing into uncharted territory and potential minefields, where crimes are linked to culture, religion and tradition. ‘My life has always been about trying to make a difference,’ he said. His appearance on a televised Question Time on BBC One after the Manchester terrorist attack in May 2017 won him many accolades: but it came at a personal cost. He had to resign before taking part in the programme. The Board at the APCC asked him to keep his views to himself, but Afzal decided that speaking up was more important than safeguarding his job.
Afzal’s priority is tackling cases involving violence against women, and the sexual exploitation of children. Until 2004, he had not been aware of forced marriages or so-called honour crimes happening in the UK. ‘People make assumptions because of my brownness or my Muslim faith that I know something about forced marriages but I knew nothing then,’ he said. It was when he was approached by a group of women with compelling recounts that he set himself on a mission to confront this growing problem.
Afzal first assumed nationwide prominence as Chief Crown Prosecutor for the Northwest during one of the most horrifying cases of sexual abuse in modern British history. The Rochdale child sexual exploitation scandal, as it came to be known, opened the floodgates to a litany of stories of young, vulnerable people, mostly young girls, being systematically preyed upon by older men, and where those in a position to stop it turning a blind eye. This enabled him to help communities that the conventional justice system ignores, giving a voice to the voiceless.
He led a successful prosecution of Islamist extremists for the crime soliciting murder when they called for terrorist attacks and the killing of British soldiers during 2006 protests, sparked by the publication of Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. He was responsible for the successful conviction of former BBC presenter Stuart Hall. This list of high profile cases is by no means exhaustive.
Nazir Afzal was born into a Pashtun family a year after his parents migrated to Birmingham in 1961. They had left the capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, now known as KPK, Peshawar. He is one of the seven children, and was the first to attend school. ‘My father and my grandfather provided catering services to the British Army in India. When the British Army went to Burma, Cyprus and Gibraltar, my father went to work with them providing catering services as the chai walla. This is the only thing I have in common with Barack Obama. His father was also a caterer to the British Army. When my father moved to the United Kingdom he worked in the factory trade. Both my parents wanted to move to the UK because they felt there were greater opportunities here for their children and I’m sure they were right.’
Afzal grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when racism was prevalent in Britain. The concepts of multiculturalism or religious radicalism hadn’t yet entered the country’s lexicon.
‘There was a lot of racism but it had nothing to do with your faith. I just looked different. I was bullied at school and was racially abused on a daily basis. It was the way things were in the 1960s and 1970s. I put up with it. Credit goes to my parents particularly who simply said to just get on with it. In part, this is where my resilience comes from. It was a world where one wondered whether one would come back home safely. But the benefits of living in the UK far outweighed the negativity.’
Unlike the rest of his family members who were involved in the family business, Afzal was allowed to continue with his studies. ‘My family left me to my own devices because they could see I had an aptitude for studies.’
His choice of career partly stemmed from the exposure he had received from his father’s community work, and partly from the childhood he experienced in Birmingham’s close-knit Pakistani community. This ultimately developed his sense of justice. Afzal learnt from a young age to counter racism and bullying with words. He realized that jealousy, greed, insecurity and intolerance were the actual motivators to commit a crime and saw the legal path as the way to effect a positive change.
‘Maybe because my father was doing a lot of advisory work for immigrants in this country, I thought law was a better career for me. My family actually wanted me to do medicine or engineering. The view back in the 1970s was that at some point Britain will get fed up of us immigrants and send us back home. And so my family’s view was that we needed a skill that could be useful back in Pakistan. We didn’t need more lawyers because there were plenty of lawyers in Pakistan but we needed more doctors and engineers. But I persuaded my father I wanted to do law.’
After completing his law degree from the University of Birmingham, Mr Afzal went on to train as a solicitor before starting work in a firm of solicitors doing general practice. It was here that he discovered his true passion for criminal law.
An opportunity arose in London for the budding lawyer and Afzal’s illustrious career in prosecution began. When he joined the CPS in central London, he was exposed to very high-profile cases from the word go. ‘A job opportunity arose for a Prosecutor here in London in 1991 and I decided I would pursue it. I left Birmingham and moved to London to become a Junior Crown Prosecutor. I was very fortunate because in those days you would be just left to get on with it. Because I was working in central London, I was dealing with the most high profile cases even though I was still junior in rank. I was dealing with serious and organised crime, international trade corruption, serial killers and all sorts of very serious offending. I was dealing with it myself often, and they trusted me. I grew into it as an individual with experience. More importantly my relationship with judges and police was developing very fast because of where I was working. I progressed, and within six years I was leading a team of London prosecutors here in Westminster again dealing with the most high-profile and serious cases around the corner from here.’
Afzal learnt early on that being media savvy would go a long way to spread awareness about the issues he was involved with: ‘I used the media to talk about my cases because I realised, perhaps before many others, that prosecuting in a vacuum is not enough. You’ve got to try and stop it happening in the first place. You’ve got to talk about it to people and explain what you’re doing to help them understand the decisions being processed.’
He became the Chief Prosecutor in London. ‘I qualified with Higher Rights of Audience which meant I could conduct trials in the Crown Court. I was the first to do that as the prosecutor in this country. I started doing Crown Court trials in 1998. Then I took a year out to work on policy issues, because I realised there was a gap in my knowledge. I needed to get more involved in the drafting of legislation, the drafting of laws and advising ministers. I was still working for the prosecution service, but I took a year out doing that specifically. Then I applied for a role that in effect made me the chief prosecutor in 2001. I was the first non-white person, the first assistant chief crown prosecutor and the first Muslim at that grade, and at one point the youngest ever. I chose that as an opportunity and I was leading and managing 500 lawyers and 500 administrators. It wasn’t just the casework as it became more and more important to me to try and stop the offending and protect victims.’
For this fast-talking prosecutor, it has always been about protecting the victim.
‘In the tail end of 2010, I went to take over as chief prosecutor of Midlands. At that time, every county had their own chief prosecutor but we decided to regionalise. So I was responsible for the Northwest of England, which was about five million people, around 100,000 cases a year. I managed 800 lawyers and paralegals.’
The present…and the future
His new freedom of sorts has given him the opportunity to fully utilize and build on his public speaking and media portfolio and to speak up where he feels the need. ‘I no longer work in the government service and therefore I am able to speak up in ways that previously I couldn’t do.’
In a recent radio interview when asked whether he has ever considered going into politics, Afzal expressed his lack of interest. ‘I can make a difference in the things that I do. I’m helping other countries improve their legal systems. I’m busier than I probably ever have been and I’m literally not answering to anybody and that is a wonderful position to be in. Right now I’m absolutely satisfied with the things that I’m doing and I feel that I can bring the change.’
In the final analysis, Afzal’s faith and heritage have contributed to his achievements. He has achieved many firsts: the first Muslim to be appointed as the Assistant Chief Crown Prosecutor in London in 2001, and later as Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northwest England in 2011 – essentially making him Britain’s most senior lawyer within the CPS and the first Muslim to be appointed to such a senior position. He was the first South Asian man to campaign for women’s and girls’ rights and against forced marriages, FGM and so-called honour killings. He was awarded an OBE in 2005 for his public service and involvement with communities.
I point out how effectively he has employed his religion in his pioneering work. His simple answer is: ‘My faith refines me rather than defines me.’
His memoir, The Prosecutor, is out on 16th April.