Gilgit, Pakistan – The Pakistani government appears to be cracking down on dissent in Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous region of vital importance to Pakistan’s alliance with China.
Since last October, more than 50 activists have been charged with sedition for calling for greater self-rule in the region, which is controlled by Pakistan but claimed by India.
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Gilgit-Baltistan, which borders China, Afghanistan, and Kashmir, has not been granted full constitutional status by Islamabad – meaning that it is not an official province, and that its residents cannot vote in national elections.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was given a red-carpet welcome when he visited Pakistan this April.
China is expected to pour more than $46bn into the projects, which are the largest foreign investment that cash-strapped Pakistan has ever seen.
Islamabad and Beijing have had a military alliance since the 1960s, when the countries’ armies built the Karakoram Highway connecting China’s western Xinjiang province with Gilgit-Baltistan, which was called the Northern Areas until 2009.
Pakistan has used the region to launch several offensives in an attempt to wrest control of Indian-held territory in neighbouring Kashmir.
In 1963, Pakistan ceded part of the region to China – much to the chagrin of India, which has fought a war with Beijing over control of the area.
India maintains that Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of Kashmir, and belongs to it. Several United Nations Security Council resolutions have called for a plebiscite in Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir to determine their political status, and a small contingent of international military observers maintain a presence in Gilgit and Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
A trade route for China
Throughout its conflict with India, Pakistan has found China to be its only local ally, and India has long accused the two countries of building the Karakoram Highway to allow the movement of troops in the region.
The highway will become the main artery for the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a network of roads for transporting Chinese goods through Pakistan.
These development plans, argue activists in Gilgit-Baltistan, is why Islamabad is anxious to squelch dissent from residents of the region.
“China wants to send its goods through here, and Pakistan is looking for its own benefits,” claimed Baba Jan, one of hundreds of political activists in Gilgit-Baltistan who have found themselves at the centre of the government crackdown in the region.
I hold a Pakistani ID card, but I cannot vote for people in parliament. I cannot become prime minister or a member of parliament. I do not fit the description of a citizen, according to the constitution.
Last year, Jan was among 12 people who were given multiple life sentences by a special anti-terrorism court, which was set up to prosecute the Taliban and al-Qaeda, for charges that include sedition against the state.
The sentences came in response to protests that took place in the town of Aliabad in 2012, which criticised Islamabad for not following through on promises to provide aid to those displaced by a landslide a year earlier.
Police killed two men trying to disperse the protesters, triggering riots in which residents burned down dozens of government buildings in the region. Jan and more than 100 others were arrested, and Islamabad initially threatened to prosecute all of them in anti-terrorism courts for sedition.
“There is a fundamental right to protest in Pakistan, but it is not being given to us,” Jan told Al Jazeera from his prison cell in the city of Gakuch, where he is awaiting a ruling in an appeals court.
“We were never violent. We just stood in the road and talked to people,” Jan said.
This June, Jan ran his election campaign for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly from his prison cell, coming in second place.
The polls drew criticism from India, which called them “an attempt by Pakistan to camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation of the region”.
Pakistan, in turn, levelled the same charges against India, saying troops maintained an “illegal hold” on its portion of neighbouring Kashmir, and that polls there were “sham elections” held “at gunpoint” that violated UN resolutions maintaining the region was disputed territory.
More than 400 candidates stood for election last month to the 24-seat assembly, which has no powers to legislate important matters like how the region’s natural resources are used, or how trade with neighbouring China is conducted.
A central issue was the new China corridor, which Jan, along with a handful of other activists who ran for the assembly, see as a slight to locals.
“They should have asked people what they want,” said Jan. “Our environment will be destroyed. The local people were not given any option to give their input.”
Naeem, a truck driver in Gilgit, was also unhappy about the plan. “What are we going to get from this deal? We can’t even control our own border. Pakistan will collect customs from China, and it will go to Islamabad.”
In the lead-up to the polls, more than 50 activists were arrested and charged with sedition, said Israr-ud-din Israr, the local representative of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan .
Israr argued that the charge of sedition itself makes no sense in Gilgit-Baltistan, since Pakistan’s constitution makes no mention of the region, and in international fora Islamabad maintains that the region is part of the dispute with India over Kashmir.
Because of its disputed nature, Giglit-Baltistan has not been made a province, so the only laws that apply there are those extended by the prime minister.
Spokespeople for the Pakistani prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry did not respond to queries from Al Jazeera. The Ministry of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs, which manages the region, refused to give a comment also, as did local officials, including the District Commissioner, the highest local officer.
“How can there be sedition here?” asked Israr.
“I hold a Pakistani ID card, but I cannot vote for people in parliament. I cannot become prime minister or a member of parliament. I do not fit the description of a citizen, according to the constitution,” Israr stated.
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Last October, Israr and nine others were charged with sedition after they led a march to the UN observer’s office in Gilgit to deliver a letter calling for the organisation to look into the arrest of Bab Jan and other activists, whom they termed “political prisoners”.
The case against Israr and the others was thrown out by an appeals court, but the campaign picked up steam.
This February, 19 people who spoke at a seminar in Gilgit entitled “Gilgit-Baltistan in Light of the Kashmir Dispute” were arrested and charged with sedition, because they referred to the region as a “disputed” territory.
This June, eight activists were beaten and arrested by police as they attempted to deliver a letter to the UN observers in Gilgit calling the planned elections “illegal”, and demanding a plebiscite be held to determine the region’s political status.
“India and Pakistan are making chutney with us,” said Jan. “No one cares about the people here, their economy, their real problems.”