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Life imprisonment to Baba Jan and Awami Workers Party’s first federal congress open roads for Left-wing political ideology to extend its reach

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"Free Baba Jan; abolish the anti-terrorism courts; and end political victimisation" were some of the main slogans chanted by a handful activists of Awami Workers Party (AWP) outside Lahore Press Club last week, calling for the release of the prisoners charged of terrorism in Gilgit-Baltistan.

A local anti-terrorism court of Gilgit sentenced Baba Jan, one of the key activist and representative of the AWP, to life in prison along with 11 other campaigners of rights of the marginalised of the northern underdeveloped areas.

The issue, stirring small scale protests and national public disapproval, activated the party’s committed supporters to come out on the streets in different cities and take up the matter in AWP’s first federal congress, held in Islamabad last week. The AWP -- a product of late 2012 amalgamation of three Left-wing parties Awami Party, Workers Party and Labour Party -- expressed determination to continue its struggle for the revival of working class’ politics and the unity of progressive forces in Pakistan.

Jan, in his early 30s, who is leading Progressive Youth Front in Gilgit, and the other sentenced protestors will spend 40 additional years in prison, besides paying 500,000 rupees in fines, according to the verdict. Further, the convicts’ properties and earnings will be used to reconstruct buildings damaged and assets put on fire on August 11, 2011 in Aliabad, Hunza. The protestors were charged with attacking and vandalising government buildings in Aliabad after police killed an unarmed man and his son who were Internally Displaced People (IDPs) belonging to the disaster-hit Ayeenabad village of Gojal Valley, upper Hunza.

The AWP launched #FreeGB12 (Free Gilgit Baltistan 12 activists) campaign on twitter after the verdict on Jan and other activists. They held peaceful protests and raised voice for the IDPs who were not given any financial compensation by the GB government.

Abid Minto says the party was an outcome of years-long struggle to resurrect the Pakistani Left. He believed with this new united platform, Pakistani Left was now on its way to becoming a strong political force.

In January 2010, a mountain collapsed into Hunza River, creating Attabad Lake. As the lake formed, village after village was submerged. Over 1000 local people were displaced and over 25,000 were cut off from the rest of the country. Many families did not receive financial compensation that allegedly went to the families supporting the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Following the protests, a case was lodged against Jan and others. Jan remained in jail for two years (2011-13) and was granted bail after a series of protests and national and international campaigns by his party supporters such as Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali. He presented himself before the police after the verdict was announced. His party denies allegations of burning government properties.

"We demand immediate release of Baba Jan and 11 other activists from GB," Qalandar Bux Memon, a comrade who teaches at a Lahore’s private university and is organising the campaign demanding the activist’s release, told TNS. "These are political prisoners and their sin is giving awareness to the marginalised communities of their areas about their rights." He said the AWP always called for intellectual and political freedom. "This campaign would continue."

Also read: The marginality of progressives

The recently held national congregation of the AWP reiterated the commitment to broaden the party network and grab more space on the political canvas of the country. The party, a blend of slums’ residents, trade unionists, farmers, and students among others, want rights for the poor, marginalised, land redistribution for workers and peasants, reduction in the defence budget and reallocation of the government spending to address issues relating to health, education and unemployment.

Abid Hasan Minto, President of the AWP, said the party was an outcome of years-long struggle to resurrect the Pakistani Left. He believed with this new united platform, Pakistani Left was now on its way to becoming a strong political force struggling for socialism, equality and justice in the country. "Mainstream parties have practically neglected the working class," he said. "We don’t want a revolution that does not involve workers rights. The AWP would revive the Leftist traditions and engage youth to deal with contemporary challenges."

"The party is preparing an anti-capitalist, anti-feudal, anti-patriarchy and anti-imperialist youth force to achieve transformative changes in the country." Minto said the party is struggling against the neo-colonial imperialist onslaught and its control of Pakistani financial institutions. The party is also fighting against the rising extremism and social and economic crises faced by Pakistan.

Related article: Shrinking space for liberals by Rubina Saigol

Interestingly, in a recent ardent appeal, made on twitter, Chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilwal Bhutto welcomed and encouraged all leftwing parties to join the political process. "If a PPP sympathiser desires to attend a political event, I would suggest him to attend the AWP Congress (recently held in Islamabad)."

The AWP, on its official social network websites, appreciated Bilawal for realising that AWP is a genuine alternative force determined to end social, economic and ideological oppression in Pakistan.

Interestingly, Bilawal is extending support to a party (AWP) which is demonstrating against political victimisation and calling for the release of political prisoners in GB, where his party rules. "Bilawal’s statement seems contradictory. We are struggling against feudalism and the PPP represents feudatory," said Sajid Baloch, an AWP protestor outside Lahore Press Club, adding, "the PPP acted too late on the Attabad Lake issue."

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