Candidate for the socialist Awami Workers Party (AWP) Baba Jan will contest a May 28 by-election for the assembly of the Pakistani-administered Himalayan territory of Gilgit-Baltistan from his jail cell.
Baba Jan has been described as a climate justice prisoner. In 2010, his home area in Hunza was devastated by climate change-fuelled floods and landslides. A protest movement developed against the misappropriation of relief funds. Police responded with brutality and protesters were killed and arrested.
As a result of his role in leading community resistance, Baba Jan has been in and out of jail since 2011. Since September 2014, he has been serving a life sentence.
He was tried in an “Anti-Terrorist Court”. Routinely used to persecute progressive non-violent activists, such courts are rarely used against terrorists. Most terrorist groups in Pakistan have links with the security establishment.
Despite this, considerable Western aid is given to Pakistan for “counter-terrorism”. Western aid for mitigation of the effects of climate change is non-existent.
Baba Jan stood in the Hunza 6 electorate in Gilgit-Baltistan general elections last June. He came second behind a candidate from Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League/Nawaz (PMLN).
The seat was vacated when the winning candidate was appointed governor of Gilgit-Baltistan. The PMLN will be running the governor’s son, Salim Khan, in the by-election. The May 8 Express Tribune said divisions inside the PMLN over this nepotistic pre-selection could benefit Baba Jan’s campaign.
Attempts by the returning officer to ban Baba Jan from running were overturned by courts.
His campaign is focussing on social justice issues, including farmers’ rights, opposition to land expropriations related to the Pakistan China Economic Corridor, opposition to the promotion of inter-communal violence, national self-determination and women’s rights.
The difficulties of campaigning from jail, as well as enjoying much less financial and institutional support than mainstream party candidates, is counter-balanced by the large-scale grassroots mobilisation of his supporters and Baba Jan’s reputation in the area.