The Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Court has allowed Awami Workers Party candidate Baba Jan to contest the by-elections in Hunza from behind the bars.

On May 18, Baba Jan was declared the official candidate of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) by the returning officer of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly constituency Hunza 6. Baba Jan is in jail serving a life sentence.

This is the first time in the history of the Hunza Valley that a political activist will contest general elections from jail.

Gilgit-Baltistan is a Himalayan territory administered by Pakistan.

The government of Gilgit-Baltistan called general elections for June 8. Baba Jan is contesting his home town constituency, Hunza 6, and to everyone’s surprise, his nomination papers were accepted by the Election Commission. This decision was widely hailed and sweets were distributed by youth in many areas.

Baba Jan is a member of the AWP federal committee. He is also chief organiser of the Progressive Youth Front (PYF).

Baba Jan and his group boycotted the last general elections in 2009. The Pakistan People’s Party won the seat but has lost most of its credibility during its five years in power.

There are now 11 candidates contesting the constituency. These include the three main Pakistani parties — the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto dynasty, and Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf, led by former cricketer Imran Khan — and the Shia political party Majlis Wahdat Ul Muslimeen.

Prison authorities’ behaviour towards Baba Jan has changed for the time being and he is being treated as an important personality.

Baba Jan is one of four climate change activists in Gilgit Jail sentenced to life imprisonment. The others are Shakrullah Baig, Iftikhar Hussain and Mahar Ali. They were charged under anti-terrorist laws. None of them has any record of terrorist activities or promoting terrorism.

They each received two life sentences. However, the Appellate Court (Supreme Court) of Gilgit-Baltistan declared them not guilty in one case where they were given a life sentence earlier by an anti-terrorist court. Due to this decision, six other activists arrested with them were released.

Baba Jan was arrested in 2011 and remained in jail for nearly two years, before he was released on bail on June 27, 2013, after a massive national and international campaign. He was rearrested when an anti-terrorist court sentenced him to life imprisonment in September last year.

Baba Jan is not a terrorist. He is simply a motivated social activist who had the courage to raise his voice for the sake of his people. For this, he along with his associates was imprisoned and tortured by the authorities in Pakistan.

A massive landslide hit Attabad on January 4, 2010, which killed 19 people and blocked the Hunza river so formidably that a 23 kilometre artificial lake was formed. Three villages in Gojal, North Gilgit, got submerged rendering thousands of people and families homeless. The lake also disrupted communication and trade between China and Pakistan. Baba Jan was in the forefront of agitation to seek compensation and a new life for these hapless people.

Several mass demonstrations across the valley demanded fare compensation for all those affected. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan agreed to pay some 500,000 rupees ($5000) to each family.

However, the government did not pay compensation to all those affected and people protested when the Chief Minister was visiting the area. Police opened fire and killed a father and son.

There was mass anger against these police killings. For four days, the people of Hunza occupied the city of Ali Abad in protest. Baba Jan was the main leader of this non-violent mass action. The main demand was to register a case against the police officers responsible for the killings.

Finally, a fake police case paper was shown to demonstrators and people went back to their homes. This was an unprecedented mass action but the leaders were made to pay a heavy price afterwards.

Baba Jan and 100 others were arrested for allegedly ransacking a police station and torching a government office. He was charged with sedition and subjected to severe torture for three days. The police cases were withdrawn against all apart from Baba Jan and 11 others who refused to go for conciliation with the government.

There were strong protests all over Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan against the arrests and the case became well known.

The Senate Committee on Human Rights asked the chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan to explain why the youth leader was tortured and kept in jail.

Progressive parties, student and youth organisations as well as human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, campaigned for the release of the 32-year-old activist who has become a symbol of struggle in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Rallies were held and protest letters submitted at Pakistan’s embassies in several countries including Indonesia, France, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Australia. Prominent intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali also endorsed the campaign by signing a petition.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, the youth consider him as “their Che Guevara”.

Although in jail, Baba Jan is a strong voice against forcible occupation of 5800 square kilometres of the territory by China and the annexation of Kohistan and Chitral into Pakistan. Kohistan has been integrated into the Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa even though historically it is part of Gilgit-Baltistan.

“People have been kept as slaves here. In order to strengthen the clutches of that slavery, outside forces and local government have instilled fear. Government is bluffing people and human rights institutions by setting up a puppet system here. This set up has no political and constitutional base,” Baba Jan said before going to jail.

The Pakistani state has created a volatile Sunni-Shia religious sectarian divide in Gilgit-Baltistan. Baba Jan is a strong voice against religious extremism and sectarianism.

One of the main campaigns by Baba Jan while in jail was to unite the Shia and Sunni prisoners. Due to united protest, jail authorities were forced to give fresh milk, bread and meat to all prisoners and medical doctors started visiting the deserted jail hospital.

However, Baba Jan has had to pay a heavy price for uniting the prisoners across religious lines — a case was registered against him of inciting the prisoners. Anti-terrorist clauses were included in the police case.

But if he wins the seat, there will be strong pressure by the people for his and his comrades’ release.

Baba Jan has had become the most popular candidate on social media in the valley. The acceptance of nomination papers has generated great enthusiasm among young people. Several youth committees have been formed by young people who are not even members of the AWP or PYF.

Leaders of the AWP planned to visit the valley to speak in public meetings for Baba Jan’s election campaign. If he wins the seat, this will result in the emergence of a new left in the valley linked with mass struggles.

Gilgit: The Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Court has allowed Awami Workers Party candidate Baba Jan to contest the by-elections in Hunza from behind the bars. The decision was announced today by Justice Wazir Shakil while hearing an appeal filed by the party’s lawyers against rejection of Baba Jan’s candidature papers.

The incarcerated leader of the AWP had obtained the second largest number of votes in the previous election.

His candidature had been rejected by a returning officer last week, against which the AWP had filed an appeal in the court

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