Court of public opinion

Forthcoming trial of Pakistan’s top model Ayyan Ali captivates national media

Supermodel Ayyan Ali has been jailed for months after her arrest in an airport VIP lounge

Television news shows in Pakistan have been giving the legal saga of Ayyan Ali, the nation’s top supermodel, nearly wall-to-wall coverage. And supporters have popped up on social media calling for her to be freed. Ali, 21, a model for global brands like Calvin Klein, L’Oreal and Coca Cola, was a showstopper on the Pakistani catwalks in recent years.

But the show stopped suddenly for Ali on March 14 of this year when authorities arrested her in a VIP lounge at the airport in Islamabad. Investigators said she was carrying more than $500,000 concealed in special compartments in her luggage; Pakistani law prohibits any passenger from transporting more than $10,000.

Ali was charged with money laundering, denied bail and thrown in jail at Adiala, the central prison in the city of Rawalpindi. Since then, she’s made at least nine court appearances, her most recent on Monday, during which a judge yet again delayed the start of her trial until at least June 15 due to a strike by lawyers’ associations, according to Geo TV.

The mystery surrounding what exactly Ali was doing at the airport with more than half a million dollars is at the center of the case — and the endless flurry of conjecture in the media, according to The Associated Press. Authorities have released very few facts about the case against Ali and the press has had a field day filling that vacuum with sensational theories.

Ali has insisted the whopping sum of cash is hers. In the days after her arrest, one of Ali’s lawyers reportedly said the cash came from a legitimate real estate sale and that Ali had no plans to take it outside of Pakistan. Instead, the lawyer reportedly said, Ali was waiting to hand the money off to her brother before she boarded her flight. But then, police acting on a tip, swept in, searched her and placed her under arrest.

Many in the media have linked Ali to a band of other A-list Pakistani celebrities who allegedly use their fame as a guise to travel internationally and move large sums of illicit cash to offshore bank accounts, The Associated Press reported. A real estate magnate, Malik Riaz Hussain, who’s been linked to her and rumored to have let her fly on his personal jet in the past, made a TV appearance specifically to deny any connection with the jailed model.

“I have got nothing to do with her,” Hussain reportedly told Geo TV. “My plane was never used for her.”

She’s even been linked to Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s former president, who left office in 2013. Dawn, one of Pakistan’s most widely-read English newspapers, reported that Ali was accused of visiting Zardari while he was in office and that he laundered money through her. A spokesman for Zardari has denied the allegations, saying they have no “credence.”

After news of her arrest broke, The Guardian reported that many in the fashion world worried the award-winning 21-year-old model was manipulated and saw her as a potential victim. “My first reaction was there goes one more girl,” Maheen Khan, the grande dame of Pakistan’s fashion industry told The Guardian. “A lot of these girls come from very protected families and can be very naive. I think of her as a victim.”

No aspect of Ali’s ordeal hasn’t been chewed up and spit out, right down to the outfits she has worn during court appearances. At one point, prison officials were accused of giving her special treatment because she was showing up to court in designer clothes. But prison officials shot back noting that only convicted criminals are required to “wear prison stripes.”

Still, Ali has a loyal following and fans on social media are calling for her exoneration. Free Ayyan Facebook and Twitter pages have been launched and supporters on Twitter organize around the #FreeAyan hashtag.

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