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Punjab land dispute has led to deaths and torture - HRW

[Pakistan] Protesting farmers sit in a church compound. IRIN
Punjabi tenant farmers at a sit-in protest against moves by the army to evict those who reject new terms that deny them land rights
Pakistani paramilitary forces have killed at least four Pakistani farmers, tortured dozens of others and arrested hundreds more in a violent dispute with tenant farmers over the ownership of fertile land controlled by the Pakistani army, according to a report issued on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The four-year-old dispute over the ownership of a large tract of land between Pakistan's military and farmers whose families have tilled it for generations has eluded resolution despite the killing of up to seven farmers in several face-offs. The most recent incident was on 9 May when hundreds of farmers confronted military land managers and a large posse of police who wanted them evicted. The dispute began when the military altered a 1913 contract under which the army supplied seed and fertilizer to the tenants, who then gave the army half their crop. The change, which the military said it initiated after concluding that "corrupt civilian managers were stealing some of the army's share", transformed the farmers from sharecroppers with rights into rent-paying farmers. "Lower productivity and corruption both amongst the farmers and the civilian staff of the farms' management forced the army to switch from the defunct sharecropping system to one of contract," Maj-Gen Mahmood Shah, director-general of the Remount, Veterinary and Farms Corps, which oversees Okara and 23 other military farms, told IRIN. As sharecroppers, the tillers could not be evicted, as rent-payers they could be and feared they would be. The move sparked a rebellion among villagers. Angered by the change, which they said was intended to evict them from the land at Okara Military Farms - a 17,000-acre grain and dairy operation 380 km south of Islamabad, many tenants refused to pay their rent, staged a number of protests, several of which turned violent. Okara Farms were originally set up by the British in 1913 to feed their colonial Indian army troops and horses - similar to the purpose it now serves for Pakistan's military. The situation has grown more tense. While some tenants have begun paying rent, many still refuse. Paramilitary rangers quite often prevent movement in and out of several villages to put pressure on protesters. The army has cut off water to the fields of rebellious tenants, sent troops to surround their villages and arrested hundreds of protesting farmers, some of whom said they or their relatives had been tortured to force them to pay rent. National and international human rights groups have accused the army of using torture and coercion to force farmers to surrender their rights to land their families have tilled for generations. "The Pakistani rangers, in conjunction with the Pakistani army, have set up torture cells in Okara. They have tortured children as young as eight and nine. We have formally interviewed at least 30 children, but I met a lot more, a considerable number of children who have been tortured. All of this is an attempt to force farmers into signing contracts that the army wants them to sign," Ali Hasan, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IRIN from its London office. Seven villagers have died in clashes with police or paramilitary forces since the protest erupted in 2000, leaders of the tenants' movement say. The president of the organisation running the campaign, Anjuman-i-Mazarain Punjab, Khushi Dola, said impartial observers have confirmed that the paramilitary rangers have been terrorising tenants in Okara. But the Pakistani military holds the "miscreants of the Anjuman-e-Mazarain, Punjab" responsible for the violence. "AMP is exploiting the simple people through their strategy of 'fear and hope'. It is instilling in the minds of the former tenants the fear of eviction and loss of rights under the Punjab Tenancy Act. They are also giving false hopes about getting them proprietary rights as a consequence of this movement," said General Shah. Although the army claims to own the land, this is disputed by tenant farmers, some legal experts and the provincial government of Punjab, said to be the actual owner of the land. The army pays a token fee to use the land, and two years ago the province refused an army request to transfer title to the property free of cost, according to a copy of an April 2001 letter from the Punjab Board of Revenue. But despite this, the courts have not supported the tenants' claim to the land either. In 2001, the high court in the provincial capital of Lahore ruled that in refusing to pay rent to the army, the farmers were "in possession of the property without any lawful basis". "The issue is that there are two parties fighting over land which doesn't even belong to them," a newspaper quoted Ayesha Siddiqa-Agha, an Islamabad-based military analyst for Jane's Information Group, as saying. A committee is probing "loss of life and other issues of Okara military farms tenants" and will submit a "confidential report" to the upper house of the parliament, the Senate. Farhatullah Babar, a senator from Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and a member of the committee, said: "We must stop treating the tenants of military farms as people of a lesser god." But the army continues to deny anyone has been killed or harassed in Okara. "There has been no manhandling or torture of people by soldiers. This is propaganda being waged by some NGOs who are trying to make it a political issue," Colonel Ghazanfar Ali, in charge of the military farm, told IRIN. Human rights activists see the issue as fundamental to the struggle for land rights in Pakistan. Retorts Joint Action Committee, a grouping of NGOs working for people's rights: "The denial shows a stubbornness that has gravely hindered a solution to an issue that has led to violations of the fundamental rights of hundreds, and caused acute concern at home and abroad. There is no record of any superior court granting Okara farmland to the military either. So steps towards resolving the entrenched situation need to be taken without delay."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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