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Pakistan: Baba Jan contests election from jail

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By Farooq Tariq, Lahore

May 25, 2015 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Baba Jan, a federal committee member of the Awami Workers Party (AWP), is contesting the election for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly seat (Hunza-6) from behind bars. He is in jail serving a life sentence handed down by an anti-terrorism court last year for raising his voice against police brutality and for the rights of Atabad disaster hit people.

This is the first time in the history of Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed territory administered by Pakistan, that an election campaign has been run from prison..

Elections for the 34-seat rubber-stamp assembly is going to be held on June 8, 2015. The provincial election commission’s decision to allow him to contest the poll has surprised many and triggered an enthusiasm among the youth, who consider Baba Jan a symbol of resistance.

Baba Jan and his group had boycotted the last general elections in 2009. The Pakistan People’s Party won the seat but has lost most of its credibility during its five years in power, because of corruption.

There are now 11 candidates contesting the constituency. These include the three main Pakistani parties — the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto dynasty and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, led by former cricketer Imran Khan, and the Shia political party Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen.

Prison authorities' behaviour towards Baba Jan has changed for the time being and he is being treated as an important personality. Baba Jan is one of four activists in Gilgit jail sentenced to life imprisonment. The others are Shukrullah Baig, Iftikhar Hussain and Mahar Ali. They were charged under anti-terrorist laws. None of them has any record of terrorist activities or promoting terrorism.

However, the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan acquitted them in one case. Due to this decision, six other activists were released.

Baba Jan was arrested in 2011 and remained in jail for nearly two years, before he was released on bail on June 27, 2013, after a massive national and international campaign. He was rearrested when an anti-terrorist court sentenced him to life imprisonment in September last year.

Not a terrorist

Baba Jan is not a terrorist. He is simply a motivated political activist who had the courage to raise his voice for the sake of his people. For this, he and his associates were imprisoned and tortured by the authorities in Pakistan.

A massive landslide hit Atabad on January 4, 2010, which killed 19 people and blocked the Hunza river creating a 23-kilometre lake. Three villages in Gojal, 130 kilometres northeast of Gilgit, were submerged rendering hundreds of families homeless. The lake also disrupted communication and trade between China and Pakistan. Baba Jan was in the forefront of agitation to seek compensation and a new life for these hapless people.

Several mass demonstrations across the valley demanded fair compensation for all those affected. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan agreed to pay some 500,000 rupees ($5000) to each family.

Police brutality

However, the government did not pay compensation to all those affected and people protested when the chief minister of GB was visiting the area. Police opened fire and killed one of the disaster-hit people and his son.

The incident triggered a massive protest against the police use of force. The protest continued for four days in Aliabad, the main town of Hunza. Baba Jan organised and led the non-violent mass action. The main demand was to register a case against the police officers responsible for the killings.

Finally, a fake case paper was shown to the protesters who dispersed. This was an unprecedented mass action but the leaders were made to pay a heavy price afterwards.

Baba Jan and 100 others were arrested for allegedly ransacking a police station and torching a government office. He was charged with sedition and subjected to severe torture for three days. The police cases were withdrawn against all except Baba Jan and 11 others who refused to sign the concocted confessional statement and accept the government offer.

There were strong protests all over Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan against the arrests.

The Senate Committee on Human Rights asked the chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan to explain why the youth leader was tortured and kept in jail.

Progressive parties, student and youth organisations as well as human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, campaigned for the release of the 32-year-old activist, who has become a symbol of struggle in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Rallies were held and protest letters submitted at Pakistan's embassies in several countries including Indonesia, France, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Australia. Prominent intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali also endorsed the campaign by signing a petition.

Although in jail, Baba Jan is a strong voice against national oppression, colonial setup, bureaucratic rule over GB, New Great Game’ occupation of resources by foreign powers and companies and annexation of Kohistan and Chitral into Pakistan. Kohistan has been integrated into the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province even though historically it is part of Gilgit-Baltistan.

“People have been kept as slaves here. In order to strengthen the clutches of that slavery, outside forces and local government have instilled fear. Government is bluffing people and human rights institutions by setting up a puppet system here. This set-up has no political and constitutional base”, Baba Jan said before going to jail.

Unity

The Pakistan state has created a Sunni-Shia religious sectarian divide in Gilgit-Baltistan. Baba Jan is a strong voice against religious extremism and sectarianism.

One of the main campaigns by Baba Jan while in jail was to unite the Shia and Sunni prisoners. Due to united protest, jail authorities were forced to give fresh milk, bread and meat to all prisoners and medical doctors started visiting the deserted jail hospital.

However, Baba Jan has had to pay a heavy price for uniting the prisoners. A case was registered against him for "inciting the prisoners" to improve jail conditions. Anti-terrorist clauses were included in the police case against Baba Jan.

Baba Jan has become the most popular candidate on social media in the valley. The acceptance of his nomination papers has generated great enthusiasm among young people. Several youth committees have been formed by young people who are not even members of the AWP or PYF.

Leaders of the AWP are planning to visit the valley to address public meetings for Baba Jan's election campaign.

If he wins the seat, there will be strong pressure by the people for the release of Baba Jan and his comrades. It will result in the strengthening of the AWP's links with the masses in the valley.

Finance appeal

You are requested to donate funds for the campaign of comrade Baba Jan.

Funds can be submitted from any bank on the given account

Account title: Aminullah Baig
Account no: 0285-257140105429
Habib Metro Bank Ali Abad Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan

[Farooq Tariq is general secretary of the Awami Workers Party.]

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