AFTER nearly 10 years of incarceration and an incredible struggle for justice, political activist Baba Jan, along with other activists, has been released from jail in Gilgit. He had been sentenced in 2011 to 71 years in prison for ‘inciting’ people against the Gilgit-Baltistan government. Baba Jan’s release is indeed welcome news; thousands of people participating in a sit-in last month ahead of the GB elections were given assurances by the caretaker set-up that he and other political prisoners would be released within two months. Baba Jan’s tale underscores the harrowing reality of activists in the country who put their lives and personal security at stake to fight for their community. That he was arrested, reportedly tortured and subsequently convicted for being ‘anti-state’ and a ‘threat to the public’, is not only deeply ironical but also outrageous. He was arrested a decade ago as he led a protest for his community that was struggling for compensation after being displaced by a devastating mountain landslide that formed the Attabad Lake. The disaster spelled doom for the residents of the Gojal Valley, where villages were either entirely or partially submerged. Nearly 20 people were killed and around 6,000 displaced. It is clear today that Baba Jan was a political prisoner, for he would not have been released had he actually been a threat to the state. As his party, the AWP, said, Baba Jan and the other activists were “punished for speaking up for the affectees of the Attabad Lake disaster and for the rights of the working people of GB over their own resources”. In any civilised society, his fight for a justified cause would have been welcomed. Instead, he was labelled a terrorist and left to languish in a jail cell. Although he is a free man today, his time in prison has come at a huge cost to him and his family, and indeed the wider community.

Such activists provide an essential service to communities during crises. They also give people hope when the authorities have forsaken them. To reward his struggle with a prison sentence was sheer cruelty. The human rights ministry must look into Baba Jan’s case and his unfair imprisonment. While nothing can compensate for the years he has lost due to a frivolous case, perhaps the human rights ministry can be persuaded to intervene and prevent such arrests of political activists on trumped-up charges.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2020

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