Gender, Politics, Race, News, Social Justice, Interviews

The powerhouse behind Adnan Syed’s retrial and “Serial” speaks out about the case, life, and hard-earned justice

"I don't owe anybody anything - you’re not allowed to say what I can or can't do, or what I can or can't say."

Rabia Chaudry is one of the leading voices surrounding Adnan Syed’s murder conviction case. It’s a story that’s captivated millions, with more plot twists and holes than you could ever imagine. The case was catapulted into the public sphere largely through Sarah Koenig’s hugely popular podcast, Serial.

Chaudry is one of the leading voices working tirelessly to clear an innocent Syed. Her book, Adnan’s Story: Murder, Justice, and the Case that Captivated a Nation, is described as “a testament to a thoroughly broken system that convicts tens of thousands of innocent people, and how the power of the media and public can move rigid institutions to bring about justice.”

Syed’s story is one many are familiar with.

In 1999, the high school senior Hae Min Lee disappeared after school one day and her body was found a month later in a city park. Shortly after, Adnan Syed, her former boyfriend and classmate, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Syed denies he has anything to with her murder but has been in prison for the last 16 years. A crucial alibi witness and misrepresented telephone records were left out during the trial that Syed to jail, and now his defense lawyer is demanding a re-trial.

We sat down with Chaudry to learn more about her as a person, Syed’s case, and the justice system.

Tell us who you are, and one thing most people don’t know about you: 

I’m a mother, wife, Pakistani-American, lawyer, activist, and a homemaker. I was painfully shy growing up. Really, it was my divorce that flipped everything on its head.”

You’re focused primarily on Adnan Syed’s case these days, even though you haven’t been let into the courtroom – what’s it like being on the outside looking in? What are your thoughts on how the case has been going?

“It’s been interesting. I’ve spent so much time on the case, even though it may not seem that way to people because I’ve never represented him [as a lawyer]. But I‘ve always been the one on the outside raising awareness [on the case], and his cheerleader whenever I was at the hearings.  

On the days I was shut out of the courtroom, I always made sure to tweet and retweet whatever I could. Obviously, I wanted to be there for the final decision, and I wanted to watch this story finally close after all these years. But honestly [my presence] didn’t make a real difference in regards to what happened in the courtroom.

I find it a little bit funny that the prosecutor pulled the move because it was a really shitty personal move. He’s either threatened, frightened, or a dick. Or all three. It says a lot about what he thinks about me, and it means I’ve done my job.”

What are your next steps after the Syed case wraps up? Do you have a plan in place?

“I’ve gone back to USIP (U.S. Institute of Peace), and back into my role of doing CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] work.

I’ll continue to work on my case as needed. Our podcast, Undisclosed, is going into its second season, looking at a new case. That’ll get launched in the summer.”

How do the opinions of others influence the work you’re doing, and is there anything you’d tell them in the process of your work?

“The opinions of strangers don’t matter to me at all. If you’re supportive, that’s great, but only the opinions of certain people – my mentors and close friends –  matter to me. Those are the people I reach out to when I need advice, and who will help me sort out whatever my difficulty is.

So yeah, the opinion of others has never been a consideration to me. But this is what I’d say to others: I think you should never go at anybody because you think you know everything. 

If you have actual sincere questions about me or what I’ve done, ask me respectfully like you would anyone else. But if you’re going to be abusive or insulting – you’re going to get it right back.

I would also say this: I don’t owe anybody anything. You’re not allowed to say what I can or can’t do, or what I can or can’t say. I don’t do [this work] representing anybody. 

You don’t have to like my work, you can do your own.”

How did your childhood influence your career decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

“My childhood was very pluralistic, even though most of my family and social circles were South Asian, they were religiously diverse, and that definitely impacted my work. 

My family knows how to be critical about where we’ve been and where we are without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. My mother always pounded into us that we have to make an impact with our talents, as an accountability to God. That definitely shaped my life and career.

Also, I would have gotten a different undergrad degree. I did pre-med for three years because I wanted to make my parents happy, but I wish I would have done something I could have excelled in loved more.”

Mr. Beans, your cat, has been developing his own cult movement – where do you see him going next?

“I don’t think he might go much of anywhere, seeing as he goes from the bed to the litter box to his food. Maybe he’ll star in kids books at one point, but for now, no other plans. He’s like Scaredy Cat, not Grumpy Cat, haha.

It’s a full-time job trying to brand him. People say he needs an Instagram and a calendar, but honestly, I have work to do.”

What’s your advice to young women like you, looking to take on large justice efforts?

“My advice to anybody wanting to do social justice is to recognize the talents other people have. Don’t try to keep everything in your control. Recognize what you’re good at, and recognize with what other people are good at.

Like, for example, Adnan’s case isn’t “my thing” – I’m just one part of a bigger movement. You have to recognize the power of coalitions and combined talents because it’s never going to be one person show. 

Pick a lane and stay in it. Let other people stay in their lanes.

Success is not a finite resource, so don’t feel like, “well, somebody already did this, so I can’t do it now.” If someone else is successful, don’t let it take from your success.”

Be sure to follow Rabia Chaudry on Twitter @rabiasquared, and catch up on her podcast UndisclosedThis interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

*Editor’s note: Due to a combination of Chaudry’s public awareness efforts and Serial’s immense popularity, huge pressure has been put on the judge to grant Syed a re-trial. However, the prosecutor is reported to have said, “this is not a popular position, but the state’s role is to do justice…[because] he did it” back in February. As of 3/29/2018, the retrial has been granted.