Free Baba Jan!

by Dianne Feeley

October 21, 2014

Baba Jan and 11 other activists from Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan were sentenced to life imprisonment by an anti-terrorism court on 25th of September. Anti-Terrorism courts function as a parallel legal system that allows the party in office a way to speed up cases against its opponents. These 12 people are not terrorists!

Baba Jan.

The story begins in 2010, when severe flooding led to the destruction of Attabad village and the death of 19 villagers. Blocked by the collapse of a mountain, the river rose and six villages further upstream were partially or completely destroyed. As the result of the flooding, around 460 families lost their homes and livelihoods; thousands more were affected. Relief camps set up downstream from Attabad.

A year later, when the province’s Chief Minister was scheduled to travel along the road, the displaced blocked it to demand compensation. The police responded by firing water canons, tear gas and bullets. They killed a young student, Afzal Baig. His father, Sher Baig, and other members of the community – all unarmed – then charged at the police. In retaliation, the police shot Sher Baig.

The whole Aliabad valley rose in protest at the murder of these two. Government buildings were burnt, several police and governmental officials were given a beating, and ammunition was looted. Miles away a police station was also burnt.

People then appealed to Baba Jan, often referred to as the Che Guevara of Gilgit-Baltistan, to help them. As he had not been there, he went first to the hospital to see the injured and dead. Persuading people of the need for a peaceful protest, he encouraged villagers to bring the dead to the road the following morning and demand that those officers responsible for the murder be held accountable.

Although the Chief Minister agreed to this demand, Baba Jan and 100 others were charged with rioting and destroying government property. For two years (2011 – 2013) Baba Jan was in jail, tortured on three separate occasions. Bail was granted only after a national and international campaign for his release, supported by intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali. Meanwhile, the officer that ordered the firing was promoted.

When the verdict was announced, Baba Jan was in Islamabad to attend the Awami Workers Party congress; he immediately returned and turned himself in. Baba Jan was reelected to the AWP’s federal committee. Newly elected AWP chair Fanoos Gujjar will go to Gilgit to express solidarity with those arrested.

More than any other province, except Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan is at the mercy of the governmental bureaucracy and the military. Constitutionally, its status has been tied to that of Kashmir and is therefore “disputed.” This means its people have no representation in the national assembly; the provincial assembly, on matters of importance, is toothless. With no restrictions on governmental, military, or police power, abuse of power has been standard operating procedure.

We must demand that Baba Jan and the 11 others facing life imprisonment be freed!

Please sign the petition to free Baba Jan.

Dianne Feeley is a retired autoworker in Detroit and an editor of Against the Current.