On June 9, the Supreme Appellate Court (SAC) in Gilgit-Baltistan upheld the life sentence of Baba Jan, the popular leader of the leftwing Awami Workers Party (AWP) from Hunza valley, and 11 of his comrades. An anti-terrorism court (ATC) had earlier found them guilty of ransacking a police station and damaging government property during political riots at Aliabad in 2011.
The decision comes days before a local by-election he planned to contest, amid an international campaign calling for his freedom. A large number of people who disagree with Baba Jan’s political ideology also believe the allegations made against him are false and politically motivated.
A three-member bench of SAC – consisting of Chief Justice Rana Muhammad Shamim, Justice Javed Iqbal and Justice Shahbaz Khan – upheld the ATC verdict by two judges to one, with Justice Shahbaz Khan deciding in favor of the political activists.
“I cannot comment on the decision, but we were not expecting this,” said Advocate Nazir, one of the lawyers pleading Baba Jan’s case.
Baba Jan will not be able to contest the elections
The ATC had said in its verdict that the prosecution was able to prove that the 12 accused men were “guilty of vandalizing property, attacking public servants, and ransacking arms and ammunitions from the police station”. Each of the convicts were also fined Rs 100,000 by the court.
“We strongly condemn the decision. It was politically motivated,” said Farzana Bari, civil rights activist and a member of the AWP. “It is an attempt by his political rivals to move Baba Jan out of their way.” She said it conveyed a stern message to the people of the area, that “the politics of Baba Jan, who speaks for the rights of locals, is not acceptable in the region”.
Hailing from the Nasirbad town in Hunza valley, Baba Jan is a leading figure of the AWP, which was formed in 2012 following the merger of Labour Party, Workers Party and Awami Party.
On January 2, 2010, a massive landslide killed around 20 people and blocked the flow of Hunza River for almost five months, turning Attabad village into a lake. Baba Jan organized the displaced people to lobby the government for compensation and rehabilitation.
On August 11, 2011 a large number of Attabad victims took to the streets. Police tried to disperse the protesters at Aliabad, where the convoy then chief minister Mehdi Shah was on its way on the highway. When the protesters resisted, police began using teargas. Then, two protesters – Sherullah Baig and his son Afzal Baig – were shot dead. The killings led to riots in Hunza valley. In Aliabad, a police station was ransacked and government buildings were looted. Police registered a case against the rioters and arrested around one hundred people. All but 17 of them were released.
According to AWP spokesman Farooq Tariq, “Those who agreed to join PML-N were freed.”
In September 2014, an ATC declared five of them innocent, and sentenced the remaining 12 – including Baba Jan – to life imprisonment. A judicial probe was also carried out, but its report was not made public.
After the SAC decision, the local leadership of the AWP called a press conference and vowed to renew their struggle for the release of Baba Jan and 11 other people. The PPP and the PML-N had been blaming each other for the riots, they said, and that was proof that Baba Jan is innocent. On June 12, AWP activists gathered at Nasirabad in solidarity with Baba Jan.
Baba Jan had contested the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly elections from behind the bars in 2015. He was the runner up in the GBLA-6 constituency, which was won by now-governor Mir Ghazanfar Ali, who belongs to the PML-N.
The AWP had announced that Baba Jan would contest the by-polls scheduled on May 28. On April 30, the returning officer rejected his nomination papers on the grounds of his conviction. Four days later, a court accepted an appeal by Baba Jan’s lawyer against the rejection. But days prior to the election, the SAC ordered postponing the by-polls for three weeks. According to local media, the decision was made to “first complete the hearing of pending criminal cases against Baba Jan”.
The SAC verdict means Baba Jan will not be able to contest the elections, Advocate Nazir said. “However, we have submitted a review petition.”
For political analyst Amir Hussain, that means a missed opportunity “to show the world that we respect dissenting views expressed through the ballot”.
According to veteran journalist Abdul Jabbar Nasir – who says he strongly disagrees with the politics and the ideology of Baba Jan – “the decision was not fair”, especially when the by-polls were approaching.
But he also criticized the AWP for not pleading the case of its workers in a strong way. “The party supports Baba Jan for political reasons, but it did not even bother to hire some leading legal experts of the country for the case,” he said.
The AWP has announced countrywide protests, calling for the judicial probe of the Aliabad incident to be made public, and a review of Baba Jan and his comrades’ conviction. Source