October 23rd, 2020

Bureau Report


Two out of 14 political prisoners arrested from Gilgit Baltistan over flimsy charges about 10 years ago were released on bail by the courts on Monday after their families carried out massive protests and a sit-in in Hunza around two weeks ago.

The families of the political prisoners had organized a sit in in the Aliabad area of Hunza in the first week of October under the banner of the Aseran-e-Hunza Rihai Committee. The protests were held as the date of the planned elections are approaching in Gilgit on November 15. Before long the sit-in swelled into a massive dharna as people from all walks of life including local youth, traders, lawyers, rights activists and representatives of all political parties joined in. The Rihai Committee then moved to call for an election boycott in Hunza if the prisoners were not released before the election day. Following assurances from the local administration that all the prisoners will be released before the 30th of November the dharna was called off.

In January 2010 after the flooding of the Attabad lake because of melting glaciers, which subsequently destroyed hundreds of villages in Gigit-Baltistan, locals as well as climate activists and affectees began protesting for due compensation for around a thousand families displaced by the natural disaster. As the movement – led by Baba Jan – gained momentum local authorities responded with repression.

On August 11, 2011 policed baton-charged and tear-gassed a gathering of protestors in Aliabad Hunza leading to a scuffle. The police fired into the crowd killing a man and his son on the spot. The shooting caused widespread rioting in Hunza and several police stations were attacked, following which the police began lodging terrorism charges against many of the leading activists including Baba Jan.

Senior lawyer and legal counsel to some of the families, including Baba Jan’s lawyer Advocate Ehsan confirmed the release of two of the activists.

“Both the released activists were severely ill and we had applied for their bail on medical grounds,” he said. “The courts finally heard our plea. One of those released was physically very sick and had already been shifted to Karachi for treatment; he was  later released from hospital. The other prisoner, Salman, had also become mentally unstable due to years of incarceration so the courts allowed his bail as well.”

Ehsan states that members of the establishment had been overtly pressurizing the courts and the administration to keep these activists behind bars and the recent dharna had helped release some of this pressure from the courts.

“Everyone that lives here knows who is behind these arrests,” he says. “The local administration and even the courts are powerless in front of certain ‘state actors’.”

Speaking about the other political prisoners Ehsan says that they had “applied for the bail of three other activists from the anti-terrorism court and they expected some good news during the first week of November. Regarding the rest of the prisoners they have filed a ‘review petition’ in the Supreme Appellate Court to get the decision overturned.

Ehsan says he is hopeful that finally after 10 years these prisoners will be able to go home.

Zahoor, a local activist and a friend of the released political prisoner Salman attests to the fact that Salman had become ‘mentally sick’ due to prolonged imprisonment. He also criticizes the local political parties especially the PPP over their ‘hypocrisy’.

“The Pakistan People’s Party was in power back in 2011 when these activists were arrested and now their candidate has the audacity to ask for votes in their name?” he questions. “Local political parties have used the issue for votes but have never seriously done anything for the release of these prisoners.”

Local youth also alleged that PPP activists were involved in nominating people out to the police in the aftermath of the Aliabad killings.

“Things in Gilgit Baltistan are not straight forward,” says Advocate Zahoor Ahmed, a candidate for the Gilgit Baltistan legislative assembly from the PPP. “Yes, I agree that the PPP was in power in 2011 but in matters such as these intelligence agencies take over and the political leadership even the Chief Minister has little or no authority.”

Although Ahmed agrees that the PPP mishandled the case in the past, now he believes things will be different.

“I admit that mistakes were made and things could have been handled in a better manner. But now we are doing all that we can to help with the release of these prisoners. No one in Gilgit Baltistan believes that these people deserve to be behind bars,” he concludes.