“Baba Jan! Baba Jan! Baba Jan ko raha karo!” A diverse group of roughly 100 protesters chanted at a rally, as they marched all the way from Aabpara Chowk to the Islamabad Press Club on July 6 and demanded for the release of Baba Jan.
The protesters – members of the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), Progressive Youth Front Lahore, National Trade Union Federation, Carpet Workers Union, International Socialists, and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) – were marching to demand justice for Baba Jan, an LPP activist who had been detained and repeatedly tortured by the Pakistani government since the previous year.
The Baba Jan saga
It all began in Gilgit-Baltistan, January 2010, when a climate-change induced a devastating mountain landslide into the Hunza River, causing the spontaneous formation of a lake, now known as Attabad Lake.
Hundreds of Gilgit-Baltistan villages were swept along with the crumbling mountain, and submerged into Hunza River, leaving over 1,000 displaced, with no access to the rest of Pakistan because of the damage done to the Karakoram Highway.
According to The Free Baba Jan Campaign, which consists of many LPP members, after the formation of Attabad Lake, it was Baba Jan who led the Gilgit-Baltistan community, lobbying the government to compensate the displaced people of the valley and solve their problems in the aftermath of the devastating landslide. He organised protests that led to the Pakistani government’s final agreement to compensate the displaced victims of the landslide.
Eventually, a list of 457 families was compiled for compensation, but 25 families had yet to be compensated by the government.
It is the struggle for the rights of these 25 families that turned violent and led to the eventual arrest of Baba Jan.
According to activists involved in the movement, things took a dramatic turn on August 11, 2011 in Aliabad, when the police used violent means to disperse the protesters. They began with a baton-charge but then progressed to release of tear gas, finally opening fire at the crowd. Two unarmed protesters were killed – Afzal Baig 22, and his father, Sher Ullah Baig as he was trying to retrieve Afzal’s body. In the aftermath of these deaths, Baba Jan arrived to organise more protests and put pressure on the police to investigate the Baig killings. But campaigners for Baba Jan related that facing pressure; the police arrested Baba Jan and his fellow activists instead and charged them for violating Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act.
A Labour Party Pakistan press release states that Baba Jan has been treated brutally in jail and tortured cruelly: “Baba Jan was subjected to torture for three to four hours at a stretch: beaten with sticks, and his feet crushed under heavy boots for three days in a row. He was denied treatment for his many injuries, despite the orders of the court.”
Since then, many activists have been released on bail, but five men remain. Including Baba Jan, these five have become known as the Hunza Five. Two out of the five activists, Rashid Minhas and Amir Ali, were released on bail on June 27, but the other three – Iftikhar Hussain, Ameer Khan, and Baba Jan – remain in prison.
Why is Baba Jan’s case, an example of human rights violation, not getting picked up by mainstream media? To date, only two media organisations have consistently covered Mr Jan’s case and a vast majority of other reports that are coming out on the issue are tagged as biased since they come from sources like local newspapers in Gilgit-Baltistan or the Pamir Times which is a not-for-profit online “news and views blog” initiated by the youth of Gilgit.
For Aman Kariapper, a member of the LPP, the reason for media overlooking Baba Jan is “the lack of organisation and other weaknesses of Left parties in general, and specifically in the Labour Party, as well as a corporate media ‘system’ that has an agenda that diverges from the idea of projecting the voice of the oppressed”.
However, LPP Spokesperson Farooq Tariq explains that even though Baba Jan is not receiving much media attention, “the case is getting more attention via social media like Facebook, and international human rights organisations like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.”
Zohra Yousuf from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also explains that because the issue is based in the marginalised Gilgit-Baltistan, and Pakistan is currently facing such a large number of problems, Baba Jan’s case is continuously overshadowed by other pressing issues, and pushed back.
Baba Jan, a ‘terrorist’
For those following the case, the biggest irony is that Baba Jan has been arrested under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act.
A young activist for Baba Jan expressed his anger eloquently: “It is shameful how the government is using the Anti-Terrorism Act against a Pakistani activist. The Act is being misused systematically to redefine protesters as terrorists. ‘Terrorist’ is a powerful word, and it certainly does not apply here.”
And the LPP in its regular press releases strongly condemns such violation of due process and human rights – especially on the alleged killing of the Baigs by the police.
Part of the problem is of visibility. Another protester explained: “Because the injustice being committed against Baba Jan is mostly evident in Islamabad only, the anger felt by many other people all over the country does not get registered.”
On July 18, the campaign to free Baba Jan stated that the Anti-Terrorism Court dismissed the bail application on the basis that the court was never officially informed of the ATA charges that were filed against Baba Jan on June 28 for rioting in Gilgit Jail in late April.
The bail appeal would normally wait for the joint investigation team (JIT) to complete its report and submit it to the Anti-Terrorism Court but an LPP spokesman, Farooq Tariq, stated that “Baba Jan and another activist, Iftikhar Hussain, were abducted from Gilgit jail on July 20 by a JIT and are being tortured and kept in illegal detention.”
And as the legal team fights out its battles, the campaign plans to build the pressure. The campaign’s next move is to begin a mass movement in Gilgit-Baltistan for the release of the Hunza Five. But if this bout of campaigning would make it to mainstream media, remains to be seen.