On June 9, 2016, the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) sentenced Baba Jan and 11 other activists to 40-year prison terms in a case based on trumped up charges of terrorism, rioting and assault.
The court was hearing the state’s appeal against the GB Chief Court’s decision that acquitted Baba Jan and others of these charges. The Chief Court had set aside Baba Jan and others’ convictions in the matter by an anti-terrorism court in September 2014.
Their ‘crime’ was that they had raised their voices for the thousands of families affected by the massive landslides of 2010. The landslides had caused an artificial release lake in the Attabad area of Hunza in 2010, rendering homeless thousands of families. Baba Jan and other activists had mobilised the people of the region, holding scores of demonstrations, to seek fair compensation and social support for these families.
At one of these demonstrations, a police contingent had opened indiscriminate fire at the protesters, killing two locals, Sher Afzal and his father. It is important to note that the report of a judicial commission formed to probe the matter and place responsibility for the killings has yet to be made public. The reluctance of the authorities concerned to release the report highlights their malafide intentions in the matter.
Baba Jan and his colleagues were arrested during a protest against the killing of the two locals on August 11, 2011, when the Chief Minister of Gilgit and Baltistan was visiting the area Following the arrest, he was detained for two years during which he were tortured by the police and military.
The timing of the June 9 verdict raises suspicions about its fairness and impartiality. Baba Jan was scheduled to contest a by-election for Hunza-6 constituency in the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly on May 28, 2016.
On the same day, Zafar Iqbal of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (that governed GB before the current PML-N led government) had approached the Supreme Appellate Court seeking directives for Baba Jan’s disqualification on grounds that he had been convicted by an Anti Terrorism Court. It is widely known in the Hunza-6 constituency that Iqbal is working in collusion with the PML-N contestant, a son of the GB governer and a member of the traditional ruling family of the region.
Completely ignoring the fact that Baba Jan’s conviction had been overturned by the Chief Court, the Appellate Court directed that by-elections be postponed till a decision was reached in the GB government’s appeal against the Chief Court’s decision. This was unexpected, since the Election Tribunal of the GB had already accepted Baba Jan’s nomination papers and allowed him to contest the election from jail.
The judicial bigotry and prejudice of favoring the ruling elite is an attempt to sabotage the wishes and aspirations of the local populace, who favor and sympathise with Baba Jan. The judiciary which should be a bastion of equality and equity is itself allowing the usurpation of basic human rights. How can the people of GB expect justice from the institution which itself is not just and neutral?
Constitutionally, GB is not a part of Pakistan. It was given the status of a province with limited self-governance in 2009, including the right for the people to elect their representatives to the GB legislative assembly. However, the Pakistani federal government remains in control of all major decisions related to the region. The judges to the Chief and the Appellate Courts are appointed by the Pakistani prime minister. Whosoever comes to power in Pakistan co-opts local elites and remotely controls the region through them.
In August 2011, 25 out of the 457 families whose land was affected by the formation of Attabad Lake took to streets in Aliabad. Police wanted to disperse the protesters to clear Karakoram Highway for Chief Minister Mehdi Shah who was visiting the valley. Hence tear gas was used and gunshots were fired. During the firing Sherullah Baig and his son Afzal Baig were killed, further agitating the protesters who then torched government offices and looted a police station in Aliabad. Baba Jan was arrested and tried by the Anti Terrorism Court on charges of sedition, when all he had done was agitate against police excess.
For two years Baba Jan was in jail and denied bail. An international campaign for his release supported by intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, and protests far afield as Holland and Japan and locally in Lahore, Islamabad and Gilgit were finally successful in getting him bail. During those two years he was tortured on three occasions along with Iftikhar Hussain, who has been in jail for four years and has also been sentenced to life imprisonment in the same case. Meanwhile, the DSP that ordered the firing has been promoted.