Appeal for international solidarity: Free Baba Jan and 11 other political activists and stop the abuse of anti-terrorism

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By Awami Workers Party July 11, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On the 8th of June 2016, the Supreme Appellate Court in Gilgit-Baltistan upheld the decision of an Anti-Terrorist Court in GB in September 2014[1] and sentenced Baba Jan (central leader of the left-wing Awami Workers Party - Gilgit Baltistan) and 11 other activists[2] to 40 year prison terms under the Anti-Terrorist Act.[3] The three-member SAC bench gave a two-to-one split verdict on the state’s appeal against the unanimous decision of the Gilgit Baltistan Chief Court two-member bench to acquit Baba Jan and others of terrorism and violence charges in April 2015. Despite what the severity of the sentence appears to imply, Baba Jan and his companions are not militants who had taken up arms against the state – they are progressive political activists and organizers who had simply raised their voice for the plight of displaced persons of the 2010 natural disaster in Attabad, Hunza and organized them against government corruption and delay in payment of the compensation funds and their resettlement. During a visit of the then-Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, the local police, in order to disperse the protestors, opened direct fire on them, killing an internally-displaced person (IDP) Afzal Baig and his son Sher Baig, which triggered violent protests. Baba Jan and his comrades demanded justice for the killing of unarmed and peaceful protestors. The irony is that Baba Jan has been sentenced for protesting the deaths of protesters by the same state apparatus that killed them. But the police officer responsible for gunning down the protesters is roaming freely and got a promotion instead of facing trial. The timing and consequences of the SAC June 2016 verdict is very crucial, in the context of an ongoing by-election campaign for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly in the Hunza-6 constituency that Baba Jan was contesting behind bars from the AWP's platform.[4] Despite his incarceration, Baba Jan's campaign had attracted thousands of young and working class men and women in Hunza and was widely tipped to upset the candidates of the mainstream parties, causing a great deal of consternation among the ruling elite in the region. Earlier in an election held for the same seat in June 2015, Baba Jan had finished second behind the ruling party PML-N’s candidate, in an electric campaign which had brought thousands on to the streets and left mainstream parties like PTI, PPP and others, in the dust in the final count.[5] The case against Baba Jan has proceeded with utmost opacity and lack of transparency and is based on the absence of examination of the actual evidence; a judicial inquiry into the killings that led to his conviction has remained unpublished under government pressure. The utter flimsiness of the case against Baba Jan and the timing of the Appellate Court’s decision right before the election makes it clear that his sentencing is a stark incidence of political victimization. It is worth noting that the Pakistani federal government remains in control of all major decisions in the disputed region, including the appointment of the judges via the Prime Minister’s executive orders and on the recommendation of the Establishment. Baba Jan’s case is a damning indictment of the system of governance in Gilgit-Baltistan, which continues to be ruled not through any form of popular representation but a coercive neo-colonial state apparatus, where any whisper of dissent is brutally suppressed. Gilgit-Baltistan is constitutionally not a part of Pakistan and was only granted a pseudo-provincial status and a local legislative assembly with limited legislative, financial and governance powers, through a Presidential Self-Governance Order in 2009, which has no constitutional cover and legal base. All the powers rest with the GB Council comprised of four Pakistani federal ministers and an equal number of representatives from GB with the Prime Minister as its Chairman. Hunza-6, an important constituency of GB because of its geo-strategic location, natural beauty and rich resources, is located on the Pakistan-China border and served as the main link between the two countries. With the launch of the $46 billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC), the importance of this road link will multiply manifold for the two states and their private capitalists. The government and its capitalist allies understand well that Baba Jan will bring with him the concerns of the working men and women of the region to the assembly (otherwise dominated by the elite) and not allow for corruption in the multibillion dollar project or the usurpation of the region’s rich natural resources. The sentencing of Baba Jan and his companions is a travesty of justice and demands a widespread review of Anti-Terrorism legislation in the country as well as a revamping of the neo-colonial mechanisms of governance in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Awami Workers Party and its affiliated political organizations ask for your help in highlighting this issue, to call for justice for Baba Jan, the uncovering of the actual murderers in his case, and to call attention to the widespread abuse of national security legislation to deprive citizens of basic legal and political rights in Pakistan and its administered territories. Our stance We the undersigned, Call upon the Gilgit-Baltistan authorities to ensure the immediate release of Baba Jan, along with those 11 others wrongfully convicted on 25th September 2014 as well as the abrogation of the life-imprisonment terms by the Anti-Terrorist Court in Gilgit, upheld by the Supreme Appellate Court in June 2016. Call for the publication of the findings of the judicial inquiry into the killing of protestors in Aliabad in August 2011 to be made public and for the police officials responsible for killing the two IDPs to be brought to justice. Call for revoking the application of draconian laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act in Gilgit-Baltistan, the use of which is unconstitutional in a territory which is otherwise not governed by Pakistan’s laws (and whose citizens are hence deprived of basic political rights, including representation in the Pakistani Parliament and right to appeal in the Pakistani Supreme Court). Call for the end of centralized, neo-colonial mechanisms of rule in Gilgit-Baltistan and the granting of powers of genuinely autonomous and self-reliant local government to the people of the region and the abolition of the GB Council and Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and transfer of powers to the local assembly. Call for ensuring fundamental democratic and constitutional rights to the people of GB and setting up of an independent judiciary as well as an independent judicial commission to appoint judges to GB courts on merit rather through executive orders. Background On January 4, 2010, a massive landslide at Attabad in Hunza blocked the Hunza River, killing 20 people damaging fields, orchards and injuring dozens more. In response, Baba Jan, then a member of the Labor Party Pakistan, embarked on a countrywide campaign to raise awareness about the situation, warning that whole villages would be decimated unless urgent action was taken by the government and humanitarian actors. His warnings were not heeded and the FWO delayed the opening and widening of the spillway. As a result, the Hunza River turned into a 22km artificial lake upstream, submerging four villages completely, partially displacing thousands of people and disconnecting road links between Gojal valley and the rest of the region as well as China and Pakistan. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan initially announced that the affected families would be given compensation. As the months passed however, thousands of displaced families failed to receive any assistance from the government. On 12th August 2011, over 200 families that had not been compensated blocked the main Karakoram Highway in Aliabad, in response to which police gunned down Afzal Baig and his father, Sherullah Baig.[6] The whole valley rose in protest as a result and burnt many government buildings in Aliabad. In retribution, the police registered cases against 100 protestors, including Baba Jan, who was not even present in Aliabad at the time of the protest. In September 2011, Baba Jan and several of his followers were booked and arrested under terrorism charges, and subjected to third-degree torture by a joint investigation team. While in jail, Baba Jan actively worked on improvement of conditions in jail and promoting inter-sect harmony between the Shia and Sunni prisoners, who were kept separately and not allowed to meet with each other. Baba Jan held several meetings with the leaders of the two communities there and convinced them to unite for their rights. As a ‘reward’, Baba Jan and four of his fellow party workers were separated from other prisoners and tortured, including beatings with sticks, crushing his feet under heavy boots for days in a row and denial of medical treatment, despite court orders to that effect. In the meantime, the judicial inquiry ordered by the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan into the killing of the protestors remained unpublished (till date), the police officer responsible for the killing of the two unarmed protestors was promoted to the rank of Superintendent, while hundreds of people displaced by the Attabad Lake disaster continue to live in camps and remain deprived of access to meaningful rehabilitation. A vigorous campaign was waged for his release by his supporters, which included protests around Pakistan and various parts of the world (with endorsements from intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali) and he was finally granted bail in October 2012 (even though other companions, including Iftikhar Hussain, have remained in jail since). In the time since then, Baba Jan, now a senior leader of the newly-formed Awami Workers Party, remained active in organizing the people of Gilgit-Baltistan through peaceful means on various issues, including mass protests on the issue of wheat price subsidies in early 2014 and protesting the sale of the region’s natural resources to Chinese companies. In September 2014, an Anti-Terrorist Court sentenced Baba Jan and 11 others to 71 years in prison in three different cases related to the Aliabad riots without considering the actual judicial inquiry into the killings. Five other accused suspects, who were affiliated with the ruling party PMLN or forced to join it, were exonerated from the charges. Following the announcement of his sentence on the 25th of September, Baba Jan voluntarily surrendered himself to authorities in G-B three days later and has been behind bars since. In April 2015, a two-member bench of the Chief Court in Gilgit Baltistan overturned Baba Jan’s conviction by the ATC in one of the cases related to arson. In May 2015, Baba Jan announced his decision to contest elections from behind bars for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly in Hunza (GBLA-6) from the platform of the Awami Workers Party – Gilgit Baltistan. Over a period of two weeks, historic scenes were witnessed in his election campaign in the Hunza valley, with thousands of his supporters spilling out into the streets under the red and white flag of the AWP. His campaign was funded entirely by grassroots donations and featured the participation of thousands of women – an unprecedented phenomenon in a region where women’s political participation had historically remained low. Ultimately, the ruling party’s candidate (Mir Ghazanfar Ali, the former Royalty of Hunza) used administrative muscle as well as widespread pre-poll rigging tactics to ensure his victory, while Baba Jan stood a close second, defeating the candidates of mainstream parties like the PPP, PTI and others. In April 2016, by-elections for the same seat were announced after Mir Ghazanfar Ali assumed the post of GB Governor. Once again, Baba Jan stood for election from the AWP platform and another campaign was launched, with even greater mass support this time. The size of Baba Jan’s election rallies caused much consternation among the mainstream parties. A returning officer, on the objection of Zafar Iqbal, one of the candidates, rejected Baba Jan’s papers. He challenged the Returning Officers decision in the Chief Court which allowed him to contest the polls, rejecting the Returning Officer’s decision. Right on cue, Zafar Iqbal, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party (known to be working in collusion with the PML-N candidate and governor’s son Saleem Khan) lodged an appeal against the candidacy of Baba Jan in the Supreme Appellate Court on the grounds that he was a convict. Hearing his petition on May 25, three days before the election was to take place, the SAC directed the election commission to postpone the election until a decision was taken on the government’s appeal against the Chief Court’s decision.[7] On the 9th June 2016, a three-member bench of the SAC overturned the Chief Court’s April 2015 verdict exonerating Baba Jan and upheld the conviction of Baba Jan and 11 other political activists, sentencing them to 40-year prison terms on charges of terrorism, rioting and assault. A call for solidarity: Baba Jan has always maintained a stratagem of protest that is non-violent and peaceful, and his commitment to the rights of the poor has won him the support of thousands among the working masses of Gilgit-Baltistan and around the country. It is tragic and ironic that extremist and sectarian terrorists belonging to banned organizations are released and allowed to operate freely in the region while popular, non-violent activists are handed out life sentences while being denied the right to appeal. This letter is a call for solidarity and assistance for our campaign to release our comrade Baba Jan & his 11 political companions imprisoned through draconian anti-terror legislation. Voices that speak against exploitation can never be silenced, not by bullets, jails or threats of violence. We ask all those who stand against oppression anywhere and believe in the fundamental right of expression to join us in our campaign for the safe release of those victimized for struggling for people’s rights in the colonially-governed region of Gilgit-Baltistan. We urge you to raise this case at all relevant forums and assist us in this struggle for the recognition of people’s basic human and political rights. Notes [1] [2] The sentenced include Iftikhar Hussain son of Muhammad Ishaq, Irfan Ali s/o Arman Shah, Baba Jan s/o Abdullah Baig, Aleemullah Khan s/o Taighoon Shah, Sher Khan s/o Hamadullah Baig, Rashied Minhas Anees s/o Abdul Mateen, Sarfaraz s/o Ghulam Musa, Musa Baig s/o Abdul Rehman and Shukrullah Baig s/o Amanullah. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]