ISLAMABAD: The Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights has expressed concerns regarding the plight of the Okara farms tenants, and recommended that cases against them should be withdrawn.

The Okara Military Farms were developed during British colonial rule, in the latter half of the 19th century, in order to protect the subcontinent from an attack from the northwest. People were encouraged to settle in the area and told that land would be transferred to their names – an offer that never materialised.

The land, which was owned by the British army, was automatically transferred to the Pakistan Army after partition. The army, which used to receive a share of the produce, introduced a contract system during the government of Gen Pervez Musharraf, and farmers were directed to pay rent in cash. It was also decided that the military could vacate the land at any time.

From time to time, the military demands the land, leading to resistance from tenants. Cases of terrorism, extortion and robbery are registered against those who allegedly refused to vacate the land.

Senators deplore financial irregularities in Okara farms, say mly not ready to respond

National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) member Chaudhry Mohammad Shafique told the Senate standing committee on Tuesday that over the last two months, eight cases were registered under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). Some of the suspects were elected nazims, and had contested elections for the provincial and national assemblies.

“There is a human rights issue because of the excessive use of authority. As many as 60 women were arrested in a day, which is not acceptable,” he said, adding that the image of the army was also being damaged at the national and international level.

He said 348 cases have been registered against farm tenants over the last 15 years.

“Allegations in a number of cases have been rejected by the courts, but no compensation has been given to suspects who faced cases and spent time in jail. Who will accept the responsibility, because the state was the complainant in those cases? The state should be very careful while filing such cases against people,” he said.

Pakistan Peoples Party Senator Farhatullah Babar said it had been claimed that action was taken against the tenants because an amount was recoverable from them.

He added that the auditor general had said that he found nine cases of financial irregularities in Okara Farms, but the army was not ready to respond to this. Mr Babar said the terrorism cases should be withdrawn.

Senator Sitara Ayaz added the trend of registering terrorism cases against average citizens needed to end lest it keep the goals of the National Action Plan from being achieved.

However, a representative of the Punjab government contended that the cases were genuine and there was evidence against the tenants, and the anti-terrorism courts were hearing cases.

“Courts have given physical remand of the suspects, which means the allegation and proof against them carry weight. It is the discretion of the court to approve their bail or not,” he said.

The Okara deputy commissioner said that most people were ready to make an agreement with the administration, and there were only a few people creating law and order problems.

Maj Gen Abid Nazir claimed that the army had not done anything, because of clear instructions from the chief of army staff not to take action against civilians. “Out of 1,276 tenants, as many as 201 have started paying the dues. In the Renala farms, 207 out of 230 have reached an agreement,” he said.

The committee chairperson, Nasreen Jalil, said the committee recommends withdrawing the cases against tenants, and addressing the matter through dialogue.

An elected representative from Okara Cantt, Mohammad Shahzad Shafi, who attended the meeting, told Dawn that eight cases were registered against him.

“I decided not to seek bail, because the day I will get bail, the administration will register another eight cases against me. Our women were arrested and many of them remained in lockup for over a month,” he said.

Zafar Iqbal, who also attended the meeting and belongs to the Christian community, said the army and the administration were trying to divide people on the basis of religion, and fomenting division between Christians and Muslims.

“It is unfortunate, and it will become a huge problem for the country, because one day riots will held between Muslims and Christians,” he said.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2016