As a trainee in-house lawyer at Northern & Shell, Salayha Hussain-Din got a little more than she bargained for when she was sent to negotiate with the Taliban for the release of reporter Yvonne Ridley. Jennifer Currie discovers being a trainee can sometimes involve more than just photocopying
Friday 28 September 2001 started out much like any other day for Salayha Hussain-Din, a trainee lawyer at Northern & Shell, the new owner of Express Newspapers.
As an average day normally involved proof-reading pages of gay magazine Attitude for libel, or drawing up contracts for celebrities due to appear in lifestyle magazine OK!, the 28 year-old was not prepared for the dramatic developments that would catapult her into the heart of a crisis taking place thousands of miles away.
Hussain-Din graduated in law from Hertfordshire University in 1995 and embarked on a Legal Practice Course at BPP Law School in London in 1999. She landed a training contract at Northern & Shell “by luck”, and has been thankful for her good fortune ever since. “The good thing about it is I don’t get lumbered with all the photocopying. It is very hands-on and you definitely get thrown in at the deep end. But I don’t think that is something to be afraid of.”
Hussain-Din’s fearless attitude towards her work was soon tested to the limit when news came from Pakistan that Yvonne Ridley, an experienced journalist on the Sunday Express, had been captured by soldiers from the Taliban regime after she entered Afghanistan without a visa or passport. Initial reports from a Pakistani news agency did not make it clear where she was being held or what state she was in. But with the US gearing up to take its revenge on the region for the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the Express Newspapers legal team was faced with a potentially lethal political crisis.
“All we knew was that they thought Yvonne was a spy. We needed to get some sort of confirmation about what had happened,” recalls Hussain-Din, an Urdu-speaking Muslim from Bradford, who is set to complete her training contract in November.
“I was asked to try and make contact with newspapers and authorities in Pakistan. The time difference made it very difficult, but by the end of the day we established that it was true, Yvonne had been captured,” she says.
Hussain-Din embarked on her training contract at Northern & Shell in October 2000, just a fortnight before the company swallowed up the high-profile Express Newspapers Group.
As a result of the Northern & Shell takeover, Hussain-Din was immediately involved in two major redundancy programmes, which saw her instructing specialist employment lawyers and negotiating with union officials. “Yvonne Ridley was one of the first journalists that I met when we took over The Express and so the whole thing became quite personal to me. It was painful.”
Maninder Gill, group legal director and Hussain-Din’s boss, called her at home over the weekend with some contact numbers for members of the Taliban and asked her to keep searching for information.
“I was fobbed off left, right and centre,” she recalls. “No one seemed to know what was going on.”
By the start of the new working week, a decision had been made to send Paul Ashford, the Express’s editorial director, to Pakistan to help negotiate Ridley’s release. Hussain-Din immediately volunteered to accompany him.
“I had no fears about going out there because I knew that if anything was to happen I could fall into the background,” she says. “I am the right colour and I speak the language. Okay, I have only been to Pakistan once and I don’t call it home but I have an enormous amount of affiliations with the place.”
With only a day and a half to prepare, Hussain-Din was extensively briefed on what was expected of her as the company’s official legal representative.
“We had to take documents over to prove Yvonne was not a spy. We grabbed copies of articles she had worked on, her contract of employment, and letters from previous employers and other establishments which verified that she was a journalist.”
After touching down in Islamabad, the pair’s first port of call was the British High Commission. “They knew about as much as we did,” she says.
“But we were lucky because of various contacts we had out there. Other journalists were very helpful and could talk us through the geography.”
To Hussain-Din’s surprise, setting up a meeting at the Taliban Embassy in Pakistan was much easier than she expected.
“I was briefed as to how I should behave in the meeting. I was already wearing traditional dress out of courtesy, but I was told I would have to cover up my hair.
My face, hands, and feet were the only parts of me that could be exposed. I was told not to offer my hand to shake, not to laugh and not to make eye contact.”
With traditional negotiation techniques now thrown out of the window, Hussain-Din knew she was venturing into difficult, unknown territory.
“It was like we were in complete darkness. We had to try to tentatively judge the situation,” she says. “Neither of us had been trained to deal with that kind of stress but I think the fact that we weren’ polished diplomats actually worked in our favour.”
The night before their meeting with deputy ambassador to the Taliban, Sohail Shaheen, the pair discussed the case and planned their approach. While Ashford would open the meeting and explain the situation, Hussain-Din was to talk Shaheen through each of the documents and would also inquire about the possibility of legal representation for Ridley in case she was taken to trial.
“We assembled the bundle of documents as if we were assembling a defence,” says Ashford. “And we had a very definite case to put forward, which was that Yvonne was what she claimed to be. We approached it in a very lawyerly way.”
But the first hitch occurred at the Taliban Embassy, when they found that their meeting was not on the agenda.
“By this point we had had quite a stressful couple of days. So when we were told there was no meeting I completely lost the plot,” Hussain-Din recalls with a grin. “The gravely polite thing went out of the window as I realised that the meek woman approach was not going to work. I had tried to be charming, but that hadn’t worked, so I was assertive – but not aggressive.”
Her tactics paid off and the meeting with the deputy ambassador went well.
“He took in everything I said about the bundle of documents. Then I went on to tell him that Yvonne was a mother and he said, ‘We have mothers, wives and daughters too, we are just as human as you. I cannot make any promises today, all I can do is convey your message and let her know that you have been’.”
Hussain-Din also established that Ridley was entitled to legal representation and was surprised and pleased when Shaheen offered to recommend some Islamic Shariah law specialists.
Under intense emotional pressure, she tried to appear as cool and calm as possible. “I knew I had to be practical, methodical and had to articulate my arguments in concise language. The time constraints made it extremely stressful and so I just tried to bring it back down to basics,” she says. “I realised it was important to be human.”
A couple of days after the meeting, the pair heard rumours that the Taliban were planing to release Ridley and quickly made their way to Peshawar, on the border with Afghanistan.
“It was a godforsaken place,” Hussain-Din says grimly. Aware of the mounting tensions in the region and feeling “very uncomfortable”, she wore a scarf “like a long sheet” over her face to deflect the staring eyes. “You rarely see any women there, and any you do are burka-clad.”
Attempts to make contact with the Taliban Embassy failed and once again Hussain-Din felt she was being fobbed off. “After the exhilaration of thinking Yvonne was going to be released, we just kept meeting dead ends. The news in the UK was that she was about to be shot. There was a really tangible sense of tension and we were stuck there. Then that night the bombing started.”
It was at this point that Hussain-Din’s family began to fear for their daughter’s safety.
“Paul wanted me to go home too. But I used my old arguments about how I would be able to fall into the background,” she says firmly. “So we were authorised to stay out there for a bit longer. It really wasn’t as scary out there as it all sounds.”
Stuck in Peshawar and miles away from their next scheduled meeting at the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad, the pair felt they had slid back down to square one again.
“We had come so close but I really thought Yvonne had slipped through our fingers. I have never felt that sense of despair before. Now that the bombing had started we thought she would never be freed.”
Further complications arose when they made inquiries at a nearby Red Crescent office and were trapped for more than four hours while protesters rioted outside.
“We sat and drank coffee while tear gas was thrown around outside. Now everybody was trying to pull out of Afghanistan and we were still trying to get news to Yvonne.”
Ridley’s release the following day was as swift and unexpected as her capture and she was immediately whisked away from the border by the British Embassy to the relative safety of Islamabad.
“I saw Yvonne the next day,” Hussain-Din recalls with a smile. “She was really surprised to see me, as she had been told the company’s head of legal had come out to Pakistan.”
If there was a prize for the best understatement in the world, Hussain-Din would be a prime contender. “I don’t think what I did was really that interesting. It was just a glamorous PA role,” she says without the slightest hint of irony.
Ridley happens to disagree. “Those two took on the role of international negotiators and they succeeded where other newspapers have failed. And it was a complete baptism of fire for them both,” she says.
“They did not speak down to the Taliban at a time when they were ostracised by most of the world, which surprised and pleased them [the Taliban]. Their approach had a huge impact on securing my release. I owe them my life.”
28 September 2001: Sunday Express journalist Yvonne Ridley enters Afghanistan disguised in a burka, without a passport or visa. She is caught by Taliban soldiers just a few miles inside the country and is held in a compound in eastern Afghanistan.
2 October 2001: Paul Ashford, editorial director, and Salayha Hussain-Din, a trainee in-house lawyer at Express Newspapers, fly to Pakistan to aid efforts to free Ridley.
4 October 2001: Afghan authorities claim the journalist is to be put on trial for illegally entering the country. After being held in solitary confinement for the first seven days she is moved to a prison in the Afghan capital Kabul.
5 October 2001: Prime Minister Tony Blair flies to Pakistan for diplomacy talks about the growing unease in the region and says he is doing all he can to secure Ridley’s freedom. The team from Express Newspapers meet with a Taliban official in their Pakistan embassy.
6 October 2001: The Afghanistan Islamic Press Agency reports that Ridley is to be freed. Ashford and Hussain-Din leave Islamabad and head for the border.
7 October 2001: The Taliban claim Ridley has been released and is on her way to the border. The US begins its military response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September. Many fear the bombing will jeopardise Ridley’s safe release.
8 October 2001: Ridley is handed over at the foot of the Khyber Pass and is taken to Islamabad. Ashford and Hussain-Din drive through the night to meet her.