Pakistan: Use of anti-terror laws against peasants' movement

Asia Human Rights
July 20, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

The Pakistani state's black brush is being used to paint any dissenting voices as terrorists under the National Action Plan. It is now been directed towards the ongoing peasants' movement in the heart of Punjab province. Enabling conditions in the security framework has allowed the state to create an atmosphere of repression and impunity in the Okara Military Farms. It forms a narrative that demonises the peasants and allows for unbridled violence under the guise of national security.

On July 17, 2016, in the dead of the night, police vans snaked their way into Chak 4-L. At approximately 2am, some 80 policemen made a forced entry into the house of Mehr Abdul Jabbar. He is the younger brother of incarcerated peasant leader Mehr Abdul Sattar. They broke down the front door, indiscriminately opening fire, shattering cupboards and other household equipment. In 15 minutes they departed but left behind a cloud of uncertainty and fear that spread among the villagers jolted awake by the gunfire.

Within half an hour, several private television channels broke the 'news' that the Okara police had rescued six hostages from Jabbar's house. They found a good deal of Indian currency and ammunition, including hand grenades.

A charade was necessary to feed the narrative: Sattar was an anti-state agent working for India, that he had a cache of illegal weapons at home and that he was harbouring criminals in his house, who had shot at the police. Police were lauded as heroes for successfully freeing 'hostages' from the peasant leader's house.

Sattar was arrested on April 15, 2016, accused of being a foreign agent working for the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The allegation was tied to Sattar's visit to Nepal in 2007. He attended a meeting of the South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) as secretary of the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee. To provide weight to this accusation, the police staged a raid at his house on July 17, claiming that they found INR 85,000 there. This apparently is all the proof required to brand someone a spy and an anti-state agent. Due process is lost.

Hundreds of villagers, on tenterhooks after hearing the gunfire, gathered around the house in the aftermath of the raid. Jabbar's wife, who was at home with her children when the policemen broke in, explained to them that while they had not harmed her or her children, they had taken away clothes, cell phones and had ransacked the house. One of the policemen took pictures and made videos of the house.

This raid comes barely a week after the same police claimed to have killed six AlQaeda 'terrorists' on July 12 at the house of the younger brother of another peasant movement leader in Kulyana Estate. The case was further skewed by the fact that the police had murdered the terrorism suspects at another location - the dera (a private place for meeting guests) of Major (retd) Faqeer Hussain. Villagers in the area vouch for the time the 'encounter' took place (2am) and explained that it was not carried out at Malik Naeem Jhakkar's house. Malik Saleem Jhakkar, a peasant movement leader, has been in jail for the last two years. In his absence the Police moved into Naeem Jakhar's house seizing his tractor and animals.

A week after this incident, on July 19, the Shuhda Foundation of the Lal Mosque mullahs claimed that two of those allegedly killed at Jhakkar's house had been in police custody for over a year. The statement, coming from unlikely quarters, only strengthened what the peasants of Kulyana Estate have all this time been trying to explain - they had nothing to do with terrorists.

The Anjman Mozareen Punjab (AMP) has long opposed brutal Islamist militancy, calling for civilian state intervention to protect the lives of citizens. Events unfolding this month, speak of a blatant attempt by the state to box in leaders of the AMP with the same extremist elements the peasants have opposed. Attempts have been made in support of the powers that are trying to build a case for the persecution of peasants and the undermining of the AMP's struggle for land ownership rights.

This encounter, if staged, is revealing the dangerous tactics police and intelligence officials are employing, to implicate and criminalise peaceful political activists.

Furthermore, they speak volumes of the extent of the misuse of the National Action Plan and anti-terrorism laws. The police appear to have adopted a no-holds-barred approach to prove that the arrested, five main leaders of Anjman Mozareen Punjab - Mehar Abdul Sattar, Nadeem Asharf, Malik Salim Jakhar, Hafiz Jabir and Shabir Sajid - have been funded by foreign elements including foreign intelligence agencies.

The peasants' struggle is not a recent occurrence nor has the brutality emerged out of a vacuum. People arrested for leading the movement, have been demanding their rights to own the land they have cultivated for more than 16 years. Peasants of the Okara Military Farms have lived in and tilled the land there since 1910. State accounts have been contrived around the movement. They want to criminalise their demand of the right to own the 68,000 acres of land they have been attached to for generations.

Since 2001, the police have registered 348 cases against the tenants of Okara. Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act is added to create extra pressure and to tighten the noose around the movement. Most of these cases were registered in the aftermath of protests by tenants against state injustice. Where women are mostly spared in times of war, the women peasants in Okara have been dealt the same hard blows as the men. The reason-because women peasants had organised and mobilised in a manner unprecedented in any peasant movement in the Punjab.

More importantly, never before had any segment of the have-nots, the oppressed and the financially and politically weak, dared to challenge the most powerful institution in the country. Peasant farmers of Okara have stood up to the administration of the Military Farms and the military officers there.

Hundreds of criminal charges later, the accusations directed against the peasants have been repudiated. As many as 11 tenants in their struggle for land ownership rights have lost their lives to state brutality. Not a single casualty has been reported by those wielding the guns. There has never been an attack on the oppressors by those oppressed - yet the brutality continues unabated.

Security agencies' blundering attempts to connect peasants to terrorists in their custody speaks volumes of their desperation to see the movement meet an early end. The staged encounter on July 12, is one of the tactics the state has employed to turn public sympathy away from the peasants. It is an attempt to snatch away their moral and ethical claims to lands the state elite would like to own.

Decimating the peasants' movement would be the first step.

The aftermath of the police encounters and the staged raids has created an environment of apprehension among the tenants. With their leaders in prison, the tenants now fear that the wrath of the security apparatus will be turned on them.

The basis of the movement pits the tenants in opposition to the administration of Okara Military Farms which demands share-cropping rights. Tenants have argued that the land does not belong to the military but to the provincial government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, chairman of the political party in power in the Punjab, had earlier promised to extend land ownership rights to the tenants.

It was after the tragic mass murder of children by religious extremists at an army-run school in Peshawar that the security apparatus was given a free hand to rein in terrorists and extremists. Two years after the incident, the National Action Plan has now been directed towards the most vulnerable segments of the society to silence those who dared raise their voices for their rights to be honoured.

Despite warnings and remonstrations from human rights quarters, including the National Commission for Human Rights and the Senate Committee on Human Rights, the violence does not appear to have abated. It has worsened with the peasants of Okara in the middle of this brutal onslaught.