November 5th, 2021
By Hamid Riaz
Tensions created by two incidents of killing in Naltar with strong sectarian undercurrents could be far from over as a Gilgit-Baltistan Anti-Terrorist Court (ATC) handed down strict punishments to 12 culprits — six each from the two clashing groups.
In the first instance, two youths, belonging to the Shia sect, were gunned down allegedly for playing music outside a mosque in Naltar Bala or Upper Naltar on May 25, 2020. The court has now handed over the death penalty to two of the accused along with a fine of Rs. 500,000. Four others have Been awarded jail terms of 12 years each. Three of the accused were granted bails by the court owing to a lack of evidence against them.
The second incident was termed an act of revenge sparked by the first one. This attack took place on March 25, 2021,when a jeep carrying passengers to Upper Naltar was ambushed by gunmen in Naltar Pain or Lower Naltar resulting in the deaths of six people including a woman.
Tahir Hussain, who was a brother of Farjad, one of the Shia youth killed in the May 25 killings, claimed responsibility for the Lower Naltar attack. Tahir also surrendered himself to the police after confirming that this was a tit for tat act. He and a brother in law of Farjad are among those who the ATA has now sentenced to death.
The two cases were clubbed together for a joint hearing, raising expectations of some kind of a resolution which would not be opposed by any side. The observers VoicePk.net talked to, however, spoke of seething underlying tensions that do not augur well for sectarian peace Gilgit- Baltistan.
*Qasim, a source close to the developments, told VoicePk.net : “When the jeep shooting took place three people including Farjad’s brother came forward and claimed responsibility for the attack but despite this an FIR was lodged by the police against 25 people.”
Qasim was one of these 25 nominated men. He claims that the investigation into the attack was carried out by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising the state’s intelligence agencies. “I was nominated in the FIR of the jeep shooting registered by the police on May 25 this year and was arrested the next day. Afterward, on May 27, I was shifted to what can only be described as a torture chamber. I was beaten in ways I can’t even begin to describe. And after 25 days of physical torture, I was inexplicably released. By released I mean I was thrown by the roadside in Naltar in an unconscious state,” said *Qasim, raising doubts about how the investigators had gone about dealing with the case.
Not only was Qasim caught up in the investigation of the jeep shooting but he was also present in Upper Naltar a year before when the two Shia youth were killed. He claims that the fact that he knew one of those killed was proof enough for the authorities that he was involved in the revenge shooting and that the families of those killed in the jeep shooting still call him sometimes to apologize for the torture he was subjected to.
Unlike Qasim, Israr the GB coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) appeared more satisfied with the proceedings. He believes that the decision will help bring down ethnic tensions in the area, though he says that rights bodies including the HRCP have looked at the incidents “broadly” and not gone into the details.
The decision, however, is in no way final. The accused have the right to make a series of legal appeals in the hope. of getting this decision over-turned. “Gilgit Baltistan does not have a history of awarding death penalties. In most cases, the death penalties are either over-turned or converted to life imprisonment sentences. Those condemned in yesterday’s hearing can ask the Chief Court (the GB equivalent of a High Court) and later the Supreme Appellate Court (the GB equivalent of a supreme court) for a review,” explains Israr.