Interview: Baba Jan Hunzai
By: Kiran Nazish.
Sub Jail Jutial, Gilgit, G-B. -- BabaJan said he had never imagined torture would bring him so close to death, so many times. And yet not close enough to have him give up on his cause. As he continues to raise voice against the atrocities that the Government of Pakistan has been imposing -- on the victims of the Attabad lake, and the country at large; there are protests on the streets on Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Pindi and Peshawar campaigning to ‘Free BabaJan.’ There has been international support for this 35 year old Sr leader of Pakistan Youth Front G-B, with petition signed by human rights activists globally including Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Sadia Toor and many more. There have been more banners raised for the ‘Free Baba Jan’ campaign than for the victims of Attabad tragedy.
Rights activist Baba Jan and two other youth activists Amir Khan - 37, and Iftekhar Hussain - 34, have been in jail since August 2011. Formerly called the Hunza Five, two of their mates in the jail were released early June this year. Their arrest that marks a year this August was made based on the Anti Terrorism Charges against them for leading the mass movement across the country against the inaction of the government during the Attabad incident.
During his first private interview in the visitors room here in Sub Jail Jutial, BabaJan maintained strictly that he committed no crime, when he protested against the Government’s prolonged and tiring indulgence in human rights abuse. “It is not ignorance anymore, it is a deliberate violation of the rights of common man. And this cruelty needs to be shattered.”
For about the first 40 minutes of this interview, he spoke with great intensity and articulacy about the human atrocities that are faced by prisoners, most of whom, he said “are illegally detained (against court orders).”
Appearing noticeably malnutrition, he limped back and forth in the visitor’s room, enumerating the challenges that people of Gilgit have been facing since the 2.5 years of the Attabad incident. The signs of torture still resident on his arms, his shaved skull and swollen feet compelled me to interrupt him and ask about details of torture he has gone through in the multiple jail experience.
Nervously he showed some of his scars. Advocate Ehsan Ali, Baba Jan’s lawyer, later confirmed details of recurrent torture, physical and mental abuse.
“His ear lobes pulled with pliers, his body hanged upside down and beaten with wooden stick and chairs. His shoulder long hair shaved off. And an abusive language by jailers, who’d say horrible things to mentally torture him” said Ehsan Ali.
Baba Jan Hunzai; is a voice that was raised for the victims of Hunza Valley, when their homes were flooded away in the 2010 land sliding. The newly formed lake called the Attabad lake displaced 1000 people who lost their homes, livelihoods and access to the world – the incident called the Attabad incident. When these displacements did not get government’s attention, and the offer for help from China was declined by the Govt, the hungry and homeless came on the streets to protest and demand for reimbursement.
Eventually the government looked into the issue and compensated the aggrieved families. However 25 of these families were still overlooked and denied compensation. This is what gave way to the serious remonstrations of the people. Baba Jan who has been known in the G-B community for his ostentatious determination, strengthened local people to demand a solution for their problems and eventually annoyed the government enough to out him into jail for being a “terrorist”.
What had happened the day you were arrested?
When a 22 year old student, Afzal Baig was killed in front of his father, Mr Baig (Afzal’s father) protested and wailed at his innocent sons killing. The police pierced his body with a dozen bullets and killed him on spot.
Both father and son were victims of the Attabad lake and were peacefully protesting at a collective demonstration with the other victims of the lake, asking the Government to compensate them.
As we protested at KKH, and had been rallying across the country to raise awareness about the Attabad victims, the police arrested us on strict terrorism charges, including attempt of terrorism. There was a ‘criminal case’ registered against me under Anti Terrorism Act (ATA).
And this is how the government treats its citizen. Most prisoners here with me in jail have done no crime except to speak.
People don’t speak out many times just because of fear. Why shouldn’t we stand with the people who have been maltreated, beaten up and killed. This is a massacre.
The police says you have been training prisoner “terrorist activity”?
Well all I have been doing is gathering the Sunni and Shia sects in the jail in a single group and making them sit and breathe with each other. I have tried to make them understand each others problems instead of fighting based on sect. And I am glad that there are great developments in the prison now. They now indulge into long conversations with each other, which was almost an impossible thing to imagine when I had come here exactly one year ago. Some of them also share their meals with each other, which they otherwise thought of as a sin.
The police and the government has long taken advantage of the sensitive Shia-Sunni relationship in Gilgit-Baltistan. Agencies deliberately create fights among the people so that G-B stays as instable as possible.
Now that they see them living in harmony with each other in the jail, it annoys them. Anything that has to do with protest and raising voice becomes terrorist activity for the government. They are not ashamed of maltreating citizen on the first place, they even charge them with fake cases of terrorism and then torture them for the crime of speaking, calling them terrorists.
They also say you have created a support system within the jail, which is why the JIT (Joint Investigation Team) had to relocate you several times. How many supporters do you have?
Well, firstly the JIT “abducted” my fellow Iftikhar Hussain and myself on 20th July for the same reason too. It happened many times. They take us to torture further, whenever our fellow prisoners start supporting me. Let me assure you, they never had to relocate us because we creating any nuisance in the prison, but only the fact that they can’t deal with listening to our demands.
Its funny what they say each time they have to pick us up to torture us. It must really frustrate them to have us alive even after so much torture that my fellows in jail have gone through with me. I do have supporters yes. They support my idea of speaking out against human rights abuse.
Every prisoner supports me.
Have you not been organizing prison rebellions?
They don’t give meals for several days. Most prisoners have their families deliver food to cook, but there are no stoves. After a week of protest by the prisoner, they provided a single stove. Then for two days there was no gas.
The prisoners speak out of hunger.
Various prisoners need immediate medical attention. In spite of court orders the administration does not allow them to be treated. Neither do they provide them medicine. One of my friends here is a cancer patient and has a court order for chemotherapy, but he is denied that right too. He is literally on the ground. They don’t provide beds to prisoners who are ill, not even to serious patients. Do you think witnessing all this wont outrage fellow prisoners?
They speak out of pain.
Some officials made visits to Gilgit, including the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani. Were these visits any fruitful?
Well yes, all those. PM Visit was interesting. It was heavily highlighted in the media and that was the only successful part of the visit; the media coverage that is. There was nothing actionable done by the government. Essentially the visit was futile since there was no public gain out of it.
But didn’t he give some significant donations, including the distribution of Benazir Langar (Rashan)?
During the protests the Red Cross and Agha Khan Foundation had set up camps and had made provisions for rashans (food an supplies) to help the victims of the Attabad lake. PM Gillani took those provisions to inaugurate the Benazir Langar and acquired some photo-op. Locals were watching and observing all this, and since protests were going on, the environment allowed them the confidence to retaliate. The protesters included both men and women, who walked down the valley and landed at KKH (Kara Koram Highway). They were eventually beaten up. Since journalists were equally threatened, no media could report on this, as clearly. Benazir Langar was a mere redistribution of rashans.
About that, has reporting been fair on the series of these incidents so far?
That is also very interesting. There has always been lack of coverage about G-B issues, in the mainstream media. We do have local paper who cover issues according to their own bias. The sectarian divide in G-B highly controls the way coverage is given to the issues of common man.
Our own protests were not covered in the mainstream, and only local paper and online papers like Paamir Times would give us proper reporting. That really disconnected G-B from the rest of Pakistan.
What do you want the government to do?
It is very simple. The government should give the people what they deserve. Reimburse the losses they incurred due to the failure of Government’s negligent behavior. Eventhough some destruction had been speculated and warned by months prior to the land slides, the state did not take any precautionary measure.
Shahra-e-Karakoram, the road that conjoins small towns and villages to the main cities has been in-operational. Since all the banks, businesses and hospitals are only in the main cities; local citizen from these towns and villages have to face great difficulty making it through the mountains. Especially patients who need to get to the hospitals mostly never make it in times of emergency. The government needs to look into this.
There have been protests for you across country. Are you aware of them? What would you like to say about that?
Yes certainly. My advocate and mentor Mr Ehsan Ali has been filling me in with details. I would like to thank every student, journalist, activist, citizen who has stood up for this cause.
I would like to thank members of the Progressive Youth Front, Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), Carpet Workers Union, National Trade Union Federation, International Socialists and everyone else who has raised voice for me.
Like our famous leader Karl Marx had said “Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form.” I would say keep going on.
What would you do when you get out of jail?
I will continue to work for the cause of the people. I will make sure their problems are heard by the government and help them stand united against violence and neglect.
*G-B: Gilgit Baltistan is in the north of Pakistan and was annexed with Kashmir. It shares a link route with China through the KKH (Kara Koram Highway).
Kiran Nazish is a journalist and activist based in Pakistan.