[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/10/08/clinton.europe.russia/art.clinton.gi.jpg caption="With U.S. attention focused on Pakistan's security issues, will Hillary Clinton be able to press Islamabad's rulers to address a controversy involving rural poverty and modern-day slavery?"]
E. Benjamin Skinner
As Hillary Clinton pays her first visit to Pakistan as Secretary of State, an unfolding hostage crisis will test the Obama Administration's rhetoric on human rights in the region. Officials at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad say at least three landlords have held as many as 170 bonded farmworkers at gunpoint on their estates in the country's southeast Sindh province since late September. With U.S. attention focused on getting Pakistan to deal with huge security issues to Washington's satisfaction, will Clinton be able to press Islamabad's rulers to address a controversy involving rural poverty and modern-day slavery?
The crisis began after the workers' advocates successfully petitioned three district courts to declare as illegal the debts that the landlords were using to compel the workers into indentured servitude. Those debts average around 1,000 Pakistani rupees — roughly $12. The hostages, a third of whom are children, some as young as 4 months old, are landless peasants, known as haari in Urdu. According to Ghulam Hyder, a spokesman for Pakistan's Green Rural Development Organization, the landlords have killed one hostage already and are threatening to kill the others unless they drop the cases and return to work. The landlords also abducted Amarchand Bheel, an advocate for the laborers, as he traveled to court to plead their cause.
A 2004 study by the International Labour Office (ILO) estimated that there are up to a million haari families in Sindh alone, the majority living in conditions of debt bondage, which the U.N. defines as modern-day slavery. Last fall, Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper quoted the labor minister of neighboring Punjab province as saying that landlords hold millions of forced laborers in "private prisons" across the country.
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