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Lahore: Protest Held for Release of Political Prisoners of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

January 1, 2020

The family members of Comrade Baba Jan and several other activists, answered the Free Baba Jan Committee’s call to hold a protest at the Lahore Press Club on Sunday 29th December, 2019. The demonstration aimed to bring attention towards the delaying of the right to fair trial by consistent postponing of appeal hearings in relation to the decision taken on 5th September, 2014 to impose life-imprisonment on the 14 young men hailing, by an Anti-terrorism Court in Gilgit city.

One of the other issues that this protest aimed to highlight was that of the inhumane treatment of political prisoners in the form of physical & mental torture, deprivation from medical facilities and lack of other facilities like heating-making the survival of the prisoners difficult.

It goes without saying that the most highly asserted and fundamental demand of the protest was the immediate release of the GB14.

Moreover, it was also demanded that the report of the judicial commission assigned to this case be made public as the people have the right to know, especially, the families affected by this case including that of the 22-year old Afzal Baig and his father Sher Ullah Baig who belonged to one of the Internally Displaced (IDP) families of the Attabad Disaster and were shot dead in broad-daylight. Those attending the protest expressed their rage at the non-deliverance of justice to the aforementioned victims.

Protesters including two sisters of Comrade Baba Jan and young activists living in Lahore, chanted slogans urging the authorities to release GB14 immediately.

At around 3 PM on 29th December, 2019, a protest was held at the Lahore Press Club, demanding that the 14 political prisoners of Gilgit-Baltistan, also known as GB14, be released immediately. A nephew and two sisters of Comrade Baba Jan, Comrade Jia and Comrade Nazneen-a prominent female activist who had led her brother’s election campaign back in 2014,- immensely increased the importance of the demonstration through their presence and their flaring speeches.

Are the 14 political prisoners of Gilgit-Baltistan terrorists or heroes?

Comrade Jia declared, while speaking at the protest, that her brother and 13 other prisoners of Hunza Riots case of 2011, did not commit any act that could be called terrorism. She further added, “the 14 young activists had only raised their voice for the victims of the Attabad Disaster and demanded justice for Afzal Baig and his father Sher Ullah Baig.” Afzal Baig and his father were shot dead during a peaceful protest on 11 August, 2011 in Aliabad town of Hunza, by the police. Videos of the killings have been shared several times on social media. 

In January 2010, a mountain-side collapsed into the Hunza River and created what is now known the Attabad Lake. As the lake formed, village after village was submerged. In total, over 1000 people were displaced and over 25,000 were cut off from the rest of the country (the lake had destroyed the one road that connected the area to Pakistan).

The Attabad Lake formed through one of the worst natural disasters faced by the community of the Hunza region in recent memory. It is now a famous touristic attraction.

The plight of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan was ignored. Baba Jan, toured the country lobbying for the government to drain the lake and create transport facilities for the affected. The Pakistan People’s Party government acted too late. The lake is now a permanent feature of the area. To offset the protests of the displaced, the government promised monetary compensation to the affected people and support in their resettlement.

However, for many, compensation never arrived. An official list of those who were to receive compensation named 457 families. Over a hundred of these families did not receive their compensation, until recently.

On 11th August, 2010, around 200 people, including the members of 25 families affected by the disaster, protested for the rights of the affected people to promised compensation, as the then Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Mehdi Shah, was visiting the town of Aliabad, Hunza. The police, instructed to remove the protesters by any means, started with a baton-charge and then proceeded to use tear gas, before opening fire with live ammunition. Their first victim was Afzal Baig, a 22-year old student. When his father Sher Ullah Baig tried to retrieve the body of his son, he too was shot. Both died. The valley erupted and a police station and other government buildings were burnt down by the protesters.

Baba Jan arrived 6 hours later. He organized the protesters in a peaceful manner and they were promised an investigation and firm action against the police officers responsible for the killing. The protesters waited for the government to act. It acted a week later. Arrest warrants were issued for over 100 protesters including Baba Jan. While, most of those arrested were released, Baba Jan and 11 other protesters were kept in jail on-and-off for 2 years, while, two others absconded and have been able to obtain bail later. Baba Jan was granted bail in 2012, while another activist, Iftikhar Hussain’s plea for bail was denied.

A judicial inquiry into the killing of Afzal Baig and his father was conducted. Its findings have not been made public but journalists who have seen it claim it lays the blame on the police force and local bureaucracy for the incident. 

Which kind of violence qualifies more as terror? Burning down empty buildings or making people kill themselves to escape experiencing or witnessing the pain and suffering awaited by the political prisoners? Who would punish the police officials who murdered a young man and his father? Security forces including those in-charge of jails, systematically violate the human rights of the prisoners who are also subjected to the most brutal forms of torture? Who would make these offenders within the law-enforcement agencies accountable?

Twice, Baba Jan and Iftikhar Hussain were picked up by government paramilitary forces from jail and tortured. First, starting on the 12th of September 2011, for three to four hours at a time daily for three nights, they were beaten with sticks and had their feet crushed under boots, while, Iftikhar had candle wax dropped on his genitals. Again, on the 28th of April 2012, Baba Jan was tortured. Police and Pakistani Rangers (a paramilitary force) entered his jail cell and beat him up. They then whisked him to an unknown location where he was again brutally beaten, and to humiliate him, shaved his head. He sustained fractured fingers but was denied medical treatment.

Comrade Baba Jan being transported to the Jail by a policeman.

Most of these activists were sole bread-winners for their families and loved sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and friends. Therefore, their families and those close to them are left traumatized for life and subjected to economic, emotional and psychological hardships. One of the accused activists named Fazal Karim committed suicide in 2014.

In her speech, Comrade Nazneen (another sister of Baba Jan) talked about Salman, a prisoner who has now lost his sanity due to torture, and is now under treatment at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in Islamabad. A sister of one of the other prisoners facing life-imprisonment also committed suicide this year as she was not able to bear living with the knowledge that her brother was suffering unjustly in jail. 

She went on to condemn the recent torture of Minhaj, who is one of the companions of Baba Jan in jail. He was suffering from chest pain and the District Hospital in Gilgit recommended angiography, a facility that is not available in GB. Upon the government’s refusal to take him for medical treatment, he observed a hunger strike for two days. He only ended the strike when District Commissioner of Ghizer, Superintendent of Police Ghizer District, the Superintendent of Jails and other officials met him and gave him assurances.

A few days later he was told that he is being taken for treatment but was instead taken to his uncle’s funeral in Hunza. After the funeral he objected against traveling in the police van as he experienced severe chest pain and demanded that he be taken to a hospital immediately, however, the station house officer (SHO) of Hunza District beat him on the head and he dropped unconscious in the middle of the road. Fortunately, he survived and was taken to a hospital for first aid. He is now back in jail and still bereft of medical care, which is a violation of the constitutional rights of prisoners.

            Last winter, Baba Jan also reported to be suffering from chest pain. He too was denied angiography, despite nation-wide protests demanding the government to provide him his right to medical care. He has still not been able to recover fully.

Comrade Iftikhar Hussain in Jail with a book in hand. He is known to be a voracious reader, as is Comrade Baba Jan.

Amidst slogans of “Sharam Karo Haya Karo, Baba Jan ko Riha Karo” (Have some shame and release Baba Jan), Haider Ali a young activist, remarked, “the state is supposed to be the mother but wherever you look around in this country and especially in Gilgit-Baltistan, those deprived of their rights cannot assert their humanness or they are forced to shut up. It is as if we are orphans. It is exactly because Baba Jan and his companions raised their voice in this repressive atmosphere and sacrificed their freedom that they have become symbols of resistance and heroes of the down-trodden.”

Comrade Iftikhar Hussain, senuor leader of Karakoram National Movemet (KNM) and one of those facing life sentence in the Hunza Riots Case of 2011.

The cardinal sin of the young men, which resulted in this punishment: Activism? Resistance?

Baba Jan, and, Iftikhar Hussain are well-renowned community activists. Baba Jan is the former Vice President of the Awami Workers Party, the founding chairman of the Progressive Youth Front and the Chief Organizer of the Awami Workers Party Gilgit-Baltistan. In 2013, Baba Jan, was granted bail and resumed his activism. He successfully campaigned for the ‘wheat subsidy’ to be restored for Gilgit-Baltistan region in 2014.  For his efforts, his bail was withdrawn and he was sentenced to life imprisonment, along-with, 11 others. Undeterred, in summer 2015 he stood from jail to be a representative in the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly from Hunza constituency. Without funds and hindered by jail, he nonetheless, managed to gain second highest number of votes in the elections. The seat became vacant again in 2015. Baba Jan was set to run but was not allowed to. His strong showing had scared the Government of Pakistan and the election was delayed multiple times on various pretexts until Baba Jan was convicted and became automatically ineligible to run.

Comrade Baba Jan leading a march in Hunza, accompanied by activist and intellectual Ejaz Karim.

While, most people who learn of the plight of the GB14, rush to support them, there seem to be a few others who realize the truth but have decided to compromise.

Several intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur and Aziz Ali Dad have signed petitions appealing for Baba Jan’s release. In the last 8 years numerous protests have been held for the prisoners’ freedom, throughout the country and in many countries worldwide.

The President of Pakistan Arif Alvi and former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar met Baba Jan’s family on separate occasions. Referring to this, Nazneen asked: “Both the President of Pakistan and the former Chief Justice agreed that Baba Jan should be released. What hidden forces are keeping him behind bars?” 

A Portrait of Comrade Baba Jan, sketched by Shahid Akhtar Qalandari , a renowned musician and artist, of Hunza. This portrait was drawn and shared on social media, to show solidarity and support when Comrade Baba Jan was suffering from chest pain but the government refused provision of angiography and other appropriate treatment, last year.

Nazneen appealed to the media saying, “You go on and on about the beauty of Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan. Therefore, it is your responsibility to also make everyone aware about our problems”.

Demands for life, safety, justice, an end to the use of violence against helpless inmates and safeguarding the constitutional rights of prisoners.

The protesters called on the Government of Pakistan to: publish the findings of the judicial inquiry into the killings of Afzal Baig and Sher Ullah Baig, bring to justice those who are responsible for the police violence and provide humane treatment in prison through provision of constitutional and fundamental rights including heating facilities, medical facilities and visitation rights. They demanded, above all, that the sentence be abrogated and asserted. According to one of the student activists present at the protest, said, “it is contrary to all concepts of justice that murderers be promoted into higher stations within the police force, judicial reports be kept secret from families of the victims and community leaders be imprisoned for life without fair trial.” 

These activists who had come to express their solidarity with the GB 14, also appealed to activists locally and internationally to protest the decision of the court, which is punishing innocent citizens and letting the police go free. They said that Baba Jan and the other activists are being made an example of to keep the people of Gilgit-Baltistan from protesting for their political and human rights. 

At the end of the protest, solidarity was professed yet again through slogans of “Aseeran ka haq hy, Azadi” and “Teri Jaan Meri Jaan, Baba Jan Baba Jan”.

Protestors chanting a slogan expressing solidarity and love with Comrade Baba Jan and his fellows behind bars.

The Free Baba Jan Committee is a group of activists dedicated to raising voice for Baba Jan and other activists imprisoned in the Hunza Riots Case of Aliabad, Hunza, 2011.

It is hoped that other activists and comrades in other areas of Pakistan and throughout the world will join hands to raise their voice for the freedom of Baba Jan and 13 other companions. If they go unchallenged, the police and other authorities will continue targeting Comrade Baba Jan, Comrade Iftikhar, Comrade Aleemullah Khan and their companions through unimaginable cruelty. If such state policies go unchallenged, then any one of us could be subjected to the same treatment by the repressive regime. In an atmosphere such as the one we are faced with, where the greatest deed of selflessness and service may be the greatest act of resistance for the state, the GB14 teach us to be courageous and undeterred in the face of oppression. 

#FreeBabaJan #FreeIftikharHussain

#FreeGB14 #FreePoliticalPrisonersOfGB

Contact the author at @fairyworshipper and justanotherlocal@gmail.com

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