IN 1978, on an oppressively hot day several months into his sentence at the Mianwali central jail in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem received the letter that would change his life. Earlier that year, Nadeem and a handful of producers and cameramen had donned black armbands and occupied the Pakistan Television Corporation, the government station where they worked, as part of a union protest. This was considered treason under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s autocratic regime, and Nadeem, as the leader of the PTV union, was sentenced to a year of hard labour. The letter, from a member of Amnesty International in Texas, assured the 32-year-old that the human rights agency would support him.
Nadeem recalled the moment in an interview for the book Amnesty International: The Human Rights Story. “Suddenly I felt as if the sweat drops all over my body were drops from a cool, comforting shower,” he said. “The cell no longer was dark and suffocating.” After Amnesty’s letter, which significantly changed the prison authorities’ behaviour towards him, Nadeem became regarded as a prisoner of conscience. In 1980, not long after being released, he went into exile in London with the organisation’s help. Nadeem returned home to Lahore eight years later, but has also spent time in the United States and Hong Kong—and flourished creatively in each of these places, with the support of a variety of international human rights and arts organisations.