By: Lauren Codling
FORMER chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal has reflected on his long career in law and revealed his motivation for helping victims of gender-based violence.
During an appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs last week, Afzal also spoke
of the racist bullying he endured while growing up in Birmingham and the threats he faced from far-right groups.
The 58-year-old revealed his connection with the women and men he has helped over the years too, including survivors of the Rochdale sex abuse scandal in 2012. In the past three decades, Afzal has worked with thousands of victims of honour-based violence, forced marriage and domestic abuse.
He told the programme he kept in touch with many of those he helped, regularly speaking to them over the phone or on email. The names of the victims are forever etched in his brain, Afzal said. “The victims don’t ever leave me, but they shouldn’t leave me because if they did leave me, I wouldn’t be doing them a good service,” he said.
In one of his most high-profile cases, Afzal was involved in the Banaz Mahmod murder in 2006. A 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman, Banaz was murdered by her father and uncle for leaving her abusive husband. As her family were responsible for her death, a charity had to organise her burial.
Afzal attended the memorial and said he visits her grave in south London. “I go there to remind myself why it is that I do what I do,” he explained. “I do not want people in graves, I do not want people having to suffer. I want people to learn from the mistakes that we made, and there were mistakes made by a number of agencies that allowed people like Banaz to die.”
When dealing with the most horrific cases, Afzal admitted it was difficult to keep his emotions in check. He said he tries not to cry in the presence of others to remain professional, but sometimes it is unavoidable. “But it’s important that my humanity comes out,” he added. “I’m not a robot. I have a daughter, I have children and I want our families to be safe and secure.”
And although Afzal has won a multitude of high-profile cases, he said he has never rejoiced over a verdict. “There is satisfaction that the job is being done properly and correctly, and there is satisfaction that more victims and witnesses will now hopefully come forward and they too will get justice, but I don’t have any elation,” he said. “I’ve never celebrated about a successful case because nobody should be harmed in the first place.”
At the start of his career, Afzal worked as a defence lawyer. However, he soon realised the role did not suit him, he revealed. On the day he resigned, he was advising a rape suspect in a police station. The alleged perpetrator read through the victim’s statement and Afzal said he saw him “visibly getting off on hearing her experience”.
He acknowledged the man had a right to a defence, but that he could not be party to it. “I walked out the door, literally,” he said. “We need people that can (do the job), but it’s not for me.”
Later, his passion for helping victims of gender-based violence became clear. In 2003, Afzal was appointed as the director of prosecutions for London and turned his attention to so called honour-based violence.
Being a man and a Muslim was helpful when taking on these crimes, he said. According to the women’s groups he worked with, no men were talking about the issue. Having Afzal on their side gave them an opportunity to engage with higher authorities in government.
It also gave him the chance to engage with the men who perpetrated the abuse. “I could call them out on what they were doing to women and girls, in our country, in our communities,” the British-Pakistani explained. “It may not look that way, but it was somehow easier for me to go to a particular environment – whether it’s a place of worship or a community centre – and to have it out with people about what they were doing that meant people were being harmed, than it would have been for a woman in those same circumstances.”
One of his first decisions after becoming a chief crown prosecutor was to initiate prosecutions in the case of the Rochdale sex trafficking gang, overturning an earlier decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Nine men were later convicted of sex trafficking and other offences, including rape, trafficking girls for sex and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child.
The decision triggered a wave of racist abuse, of which Afzal was the target. He was harassed by far-right groups and his family received death threats. Police installed a panic button in their home and his children had to take taxis to school.
Afzal admitted that the abuse severely impacted his mental health. He even questioned whether he wanted to continue in his profession. “They didn’t like the fact that somebody who was brown had brought this prosecution because I damaged their narrative, which was that everybody that’s brown is a bad guy,” he said. “These people were determined to destroy me.”
He even faced some pushback from the Asian community. While speaking at Rochdale Town Hall, he asked why no one said anything when they saw older Asian men hanging around young white girls. “Somebody stood up and said, ‘do you want us to be grasses?’ And I said, ‘no, I want you to be good neighbours’.” Afzal told Desert Island Discs. “However, the great news is that the vast majority of people absolutely understood (what I was saying) and they were as shocked about this as anybody else.”
It was not the first time that he had encountered prejudice because of his skin colour, however. Growing up in Birmingham, Afzal revealed he was regularly bullied by his peers. Despite the abuse, he said he did not tell his parents. On one occasion, bullies tore his school blazer apart and Afzal secretly used his mother’s sewing kit to fix it.
His silence was down to feeling protective of his mother and father, he said. “They had provided me with all the support, and I couldn’t give them my burden,” he said. “And sadly, thinking back, that was the case for the next 40 odd years – I really didn’t talk about how I was feeling.”
Afzal said he was very close to his father and mother, who passed away in 2002 and 2020, respectively. His mother was an “extraordinary” woman with an “enormous presence”, he said.
“I spent various weeks visiting her in Birmingham (when she was ill) and massaging her legs, and I realised for the first time, how small her feet were,” he said. “They were size three, and that struck me. Why didn’t I know this about my mother? And I think it’s because, to me, she was a mountain.”
Afzal has worked closely with government on forced marriage and gender-based violence, and his work has won him praise from across the country. He was awarded an OBE by the Queen in 2015 and has received honorary doctorates from three different universities.
Despite his achievements, Afzal said his four children keep him grounded. The solicitor recalled an instance when he returned from Downing Street after a successful meeting with then-prime minister Tony Blair, feeling “like (he) was floating on air”.
As soon as he arrived home, his four-year-old vomited onto his shoes. “That brought me down to where I needed to be,” he laughed.