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Captured by Commitment: One Man Frees Bonded Workers

Despite the hazards of his work, Shakeel Pathan is nothing if not persevering. Every morning he leaves his home in a suburb of Hyderabad, determined to free more of Pakistan's bonded laborers.

His determination, which helped put him back on his feet after a recent illness, helps him pursue what he considers to be the most important cause in life.

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During the past year alone, he has led groups of human rights activists to about 40 private jails where the bonded workers are kept and assisted local authorities in conducting raids. Mr. Pathan's fight against bonded labor has made him a household name in this industrialized city of 750,000 people near the Indus River.

As a result, victims of human rights abuses from across the country line up every morning outside Pathan's nongovernmental agency, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, seeking help. Many bonded laborers whom he helped release look upon him as a benefactor. In meetings with them, Pathan usually needs to tell admirers not to touch his feet, an old symbol of respect in Pakistan's rural society.

His fame, and his involvement in what many consider to be a noble task, comes at a price. He says he is constantly threatened by many landowners who are bitter over his efforts to release their bonded laborers.

"They are threatening to kill me. Messages come to me every day," Pathan says. In view of the high risks and his many enemies, his friends worry about him. But Pathan has no plans to abandon his work. He has already sold off an auto-parts business to work full-time on ending bonded labor.

And with widespread recognition that his work has brought him, some friends have suggested that he should enter politics. Pathan, however, is convinced that if he leaves his work, all the respect that he has earned will quickly fade away. "I would rather help these people out in the field where they need me," he says. "If I try to cash [in on] my popularity, these people will get lost, and I will lose their respect."

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