The Gilgit-Baltistan territory, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, has continued to witness a covert crackdown by the authorities.

The region is a part of Kashmir that’s been administered by Pakistan since the first war with India in 1947. Its legal identity and constitutional status have been under dispute for all that time. The occupation took place without the consent of the people and, for over 70 years now, the area has lacked a proper constitutional status, a working legal system – and the political autonomy that Indian-administered Kashmir had until earlier this month.

Lacking proper legal rights and a democratic set-up, the territory has faced a number of human rights violations over the years. Currently, over a hundred activists have been charged with sedition for demanding greater self-rule in the disputed territory. Students, social workers and political activists have also been languishing in jails.

The majority of people in Gilgit-Baltistan want the territory to be merged into Pakistan as a separate fifth province and oppose waiting to integrate with the rest of Kashmir – which is a virtual impossibility barring a gigantic shift in the military balance between India and Pakistan, or a highly uncharacteristic switch on both sides to a vastly different approach.

Residents have also been asking Islamabad to grant rights similar to those enjoyed by Pakistani citizens. However, Pakistan has been putting off that sort of merger for decades. “Pakistan fears that de-linking Gilgit-Baltistan from Kashmir will compromise its stance on the entire Kashmir issue, which may help India gain ground,” Ehsanullah Kakar, a social activist based in Islamabad, told Asia Times.

Climate of fear

According to the 2018 Human Rights Watch report on Pakistan, a climate of fear continues to impede media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups.

“Journalists increasingly practiced self-censorship in 2018, after threats and attacks from militant groups,” the report said. “Media outlets came under pressure from authorities to avoid reporting on several issues, including criticism of government institutions and the judiciary. In several cases, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that had aired critical programs.”

Baba Jan, a prominent political activist in the Gilgit-Baltistan territory and a founding member of the left-wing Awami Workers Party (AWP), is one of many activists currently jailed by the authorities.

He is serving a life sentence after lobbying the government to compensate the displaced people of the valley in the aftermath of a landslide. He had organized a protest demanding compensation, which turned violent and led to his arrest under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

According to a family member who met him, Jan said his only crime was to seek basic human rights for the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Human rights organizations have long demanded his release. An international petition for his release has also been signed by world renowned US linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, British political activist Tariq Ali, and anthropologist David Graeber.

‘Constitutional status’

The United Nations considers Gilgit-Baltistan’s continued occupation by Pakistan to be in violation of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) resolution of 28 April 1949, which said that all Pakistani military forces should vacate so that a plebiscite could be held. Since the Pakistan government didn’t accept the part about removing Pakistani forces, the plebiscite couldn’t be held.

As Pakistan is yet to grant full constitutional status to the region, Gilgit-Baltistan is neither a province nor a state. It has a semi-provincial status. The residents do not have a right to vote in the national elections, and limits on freedom of speech and expression have been imposed.

Pakistan changed the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan last year. It introduced the latest set of laws for the region through the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018. The new order repealed a 2009 order and annulled the Gilgit Baltistan Council, which comprised 15 members and had members from the federal government with the Prime Minister as the chairman. The 2018 order also eliminated the role of the Pakistan’s Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, which earlier looked after issues in the Pakistan administered Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan region.

Powers shifted to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. However, the prime minister has a final say on policies of the government in the territory and can levy taxes.

The Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, has been opposed by protesters from the region. They demand that the region should be declared as part of Pakistan instead of being administered through presidential orders.

“I have a Pakistani Identity card. Sadly, I can’t vote to choose my prime minister or representative in Pakistan’s National Assembly,” said Sohail Amin, an assistant professor at government-run college in Islamabad. She  is originally from Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the constitutional status of the region is an inseparable component of the ongoing Kashmir issue. Citing the international law applying to that overall issue it threw up its hands, recognizing the limitation of the court to decide on anything in the region.

“Let me tell you, the government of Pakistan will have to give constitutional status to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan very soon,” said Jan’s family member quoting him. “We will enjoy freedom of expression and speech like first-class citizens of any state do around the globe.”

Human Rights violations

A report by the Office of the United Nations Hight Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) revealed gross human rights violation in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Journalists in the territory continue to face threats and harassment in the course of carrying out their professional duties. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an anti-terrorism court in Gilgit-Baltistan sentenced journalist Shabbir Siham in absentia to 22 years in prison on charges of defamation, criminal intimidation, committing acts of terrorism and absconding from court proceedings.

On 21 November 2018, Gilgit-Baltistan authorities arrested journalist Muhammad Qasim Qasimi after he engaged in a verbal argument with a local police official.

The Inquilabi Socialists Karachi (ISK), a left-wing group based in Gilgit with branches and activists across Pakistan, alleged that the crackdown continues across Gilgit-Baltistan and no end is in sight.

On February 13, 2018, the police arrested Ehsan Ali, a well-known lawyer and activist from Gilgit-Baltistan. Ehsan, President of the Gilgit-Baltistan Supreme Court Bar Association and founding leader of Awami Action Committee, was also representing Jan in court. His arrest sparked countrywide protests and he was released soon after. Ehsan was arrested on the charge of sharing an allegedly “anti-religion” post.

The News, Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper, described his arrest as signaling a “crackdown on activists” and said, “The Baba Jan case has become a symbol for how the Pakistani state treats dissent and Gilgit-Baltistan and other peripheral regions in the country.

“Law-enforcement agencies are on a rampage across Gilgit-Baltistan. Even activists are being silenced for uploading pictures and posts on social media. Freedom of expression has been compromised while an atmosphere of fear prevails over the horizon of the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Not sure who the next target is,” Bilal Balti, a member of ISK, told Asia Times.

The Gilgit-Baltistan borders China, Afghanistan, and India. It borders Pakistan administered Kashmir to the south, the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the west, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the north, the Xinjiang region of China, to the east and northeast, and the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast.

The territory is of great importance to Pakistan’s alliance with China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an infrastructure project worth more than $50 billion, connects China to the deep-sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan through the region. However, the locals are yet to benefit from the road and infrastructure projects.

In 2006, people in Gilgit-Baltistan carried out a protest against the imprisonment of over 500 young men by security forces. The political crackdown and arrests were made against people protesting against the CPEC, which they said would only benefit China and Pakistan’s Punjabi traders.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), Pakistan’s “response to local dissent and alienation has been an overbearing security presence, marked by army checkpoints, intimidation and harassment of local residents, and crackdowns on anti-CPEC protest.”

The ICG also revealed that Pakistani intelligence officials have also warned journalists in Gilgit-Baltistan against criticizing the CPEC projects.

Pakistan’s policy of governing Gilgit-Baltistan with ad-hoc ordinances was first started by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto after she issued a legal framework ordinance in 1994 to establish the first assembly in Gilgit-Baltistan. In 2007, Retired General Pervaiz Musharraf issued another LFO in 2007 as the Chief Executive of Pakistan.

In 2009, the then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani issued an empowerment and self-governance ordinance, which was subsequently replaced by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s reformed package in 2018.

The ordinances and packages had no constitutional protection and therefore failed to grant locals citizenship or representation in the parliament.

(The author is a member of the 101 Reporters network)