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At Age 12, A Prominent Activist Is Gunned Down

April 18, 1995 GMT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ A 12-year-old boy who won international acclaim for highlighting the horrors of child labor in Pakistan has been shot dead, and one activist said he believed the boy’s death was linked to his crusade.

Iqbal Masih was gunned down Sunday as he and two friends rode their bicycles in their village of Muritke, near the eastern city of Lahore, said Ehsan Ullah Khan, chairman of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, which opposes child labor.

``We know his death was a conspiracy by the carpet mafia,″ Khan said today, referring to the owners of carpet-weaving factories that employ large numbers of children in Pakistan.

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A laborer in Iqbal’s village, about 144 miles southeast of Islamabad, has been arrested in connection with the shooting, Khan said.

Police could not be immediately be reached for comment on the slaying or the arrest.

Iqbal had received several death threats from people in the carpet-weaving industry angered by his comments about child labor. The latest threat was about two weeks ago, Khan said.

Iqbal, who worked as a carpet weaver under abysmal conditions from the age of 4 to 10, had attracted widespread attention in recent months.

At an international labor conference in Sweden in November, he spoke about the conditions that child workers face. In December, he went to Boston to receive the Reebok Youth in Action Award.

Iqbal wanted to be a lawyer and had planned to use the $15,000 prize money for school. Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., gave him a standing offer of a full scholarship when he was ready for college.

``He was so brave. ... You can’t imagine,″ Khan said.

Iqbal was sold by his parents at age 4 and was shackled to a carpet loom for the better part of six years. When he was freed, he still owed his boss 13,000 rupees. He earned one rupee a day.

In an interview shortly before the Reebok ceremony, Iqbal said he had turned the tables on his old boss.

``I’m not afraid of him any longer. Now he’s afraid of me,″ Iqbal said.

Factory owners prefer children because their tiny fingers can make the smallest, tightest knots. Also, they seldom complain about abuses.

An estimated 6 million children age 14 or younger work in Pakistan, according to the Human Rights Commission, an independent group. They work in carpet factories, brick-making plants, on farms and as servants.