Pakistan: Political prisoner says 'protests saved us from torture'

July 28, 2012
Baba Jan addressing displaced people in the Hunza Valley before his arrest in September 2011..

Two leaders of the Labour Party Pakistan and the Progressive Youth Front (PYF) narrowly escaped torture by a special interrogation unit due to prompt protests in Pakistan and around the world, Farooq Tariq, LPP national spokesperson for the LPP, told Green Left Weekly.

Baba Jan and four comrades were jailed last September for standing up for people's rights in the Hunza Valley, in the remote province of Gilgit-Baltistan, after their villages and farmlands were flooded in 2010.

The prisoners have become known as the Hunza Five. They are seen by many around the world as political prisoners in the struggle over the global climate crisis.

After months in jail without trial and several rounds of torture and assaults, two of the five, Baba Jan and Iftikhar Hussain, are still being denied bail hearings. Amir Ali and Rashid Minhas were released on bail on July 2 and Sher Ali was released earlier.

When Baba Jan’s lawyer went to the magistrate with the bail application in July, the police inserted new charges under draconian “anti-terrorist” laws. This meant his case could be only heard by a special anti-terrorist court.

On July 19, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) consisting of police and intelligence officials came to Jutial Jail, Gilgit, where Baba Jan was being held, to interrogate him and Hussain.

Fearing that the intention would involve to torture, other prisoners resisted the attempts to shift Baba Jan and Hussain out of the prison.

However the JIT returned the next night and snatched them away to an unknown location.

Demonstrations were rapidly organised in several cities and protests were fired off to Pakistani embassies around the world. Local newspapers reported the fears that the two political prisoners were being tortured by the "anti-terrorist police" unit in an undisclosed location. Even Radio Australia reported the story.

On July 23, more than 800 locals demonstrated in the Hunza Valley. They defied the intense fear stoked by authorities after they fired on protests last August.

The area is also under severe military clampdown and governed by draconian “anti-terrorist” regulations, which are not used against real terrorists.

This was the first mass protest in the valley for months. The elders of the area gave three days' warning to the government to release Baba Jan or face a march to their offices.

“The younger brother of Baba Jan said they had expected only 50 to 100 to join the march and were awed by the numbers that turned out,” Tariq told GLW in an internet interview on July 25.

“A protest camp was organised at Nasir Abad, one of three main small towns of the Hunza valley. Originally it was planned to last just an hour, however, it remained a place for speaking against the imprisonment for Baba Jan for over six hours.

“More than 800 attended this camp and many spoke out in solidarity with the Hunza Five”

After this extraordinary protest, Baba Jan and his comrade were returned to the jail by the JIT.

They had been put under a lot of mental stress during their interrogation in a bid to pressure them into joining one of the parties that work with the government and to stop raising the rights of the people. When they asked Baba Jan what he thought of their suggestion, he told them that they should leave the territory as they no longer had any business there.

At this, the officers became enraged and roughed them up.

“I have spoken to Baba Jan since then,” said Tariq. “He told me that it was local and international pressure that ensured that they were not physically tortured, although they were kept in a dark cell.”

“He told me that out of 16 nominated persons from the jail in the latest case, he and Iftikhar were picked out by the JIT for interrogation. This was clearly a message that these left activists are being targeted.

“However, the immediate reaction all over forced the JIT to produce them and assure the judge that they were not being tortured.”

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