The suburban neighbourhood of Bahria Town in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is billed as a utopia.
At 46,000 acres, the city-within-a-city under construction is more than three times the size of Manhattan, to be complete with posh apartments, parks, a zoo, schools, restaurants and the world’s third-largest mosque. Its developer has hailed it as a model city, designed to house one million people when finished.
But the elite community became a site of chaos and destruction earlier this month.
While indigenous rights groups and villagers were protesting outside the neighborhood, which they claim was built on land stolen from them, videos circulated on social media of masked men setting the entry gate on fire, then rushing in and torching cars and vandalising shops on June 6.
In the coming weeks, 156 people were arrested and charged at an anti-terrorism court.
But some say they are being falsely blamed for the violence. “I wasn’t even there during the protests,” Jansher Jokio, a 27-year-old laborer accused of terrorism, told VICE World News. “But I know why I was named. It’s because I’ve been resisting Bahria Town for three years.”
Jokio is one of the thousands of villagers who have been arrested or charged over the last eight years for protesting what they call illegal land grabbing.
At 46,000 acres, the city-within-a-city under construction is more than three times the size of Manhattan. This elite community became a site of chaos and destruction earlier this month.
Kazim Mahesar, a lawyer who has advocated for villagers like Jokio for five years, told VICE World News that the authorities are indiscriminately punishing indigenous villagers and activists. Among those arrested were children as young as 12, said Mahesar, who is part of a legal team challenging the arrests and charges at the local high court. The next hearings are scheduled for July 7.
Mahesar said that the police also registered an “open” criminal complaint against 50,000 protesters without naming anyone, a move he called a “threat strategy”. A volunteer legal team is currently challenging the police complaints.
Since 2013, villagers and indigenous farmers have alleged being pressured into surrendering their land to develop Bahria Town Karachi, which is owned by Pakistani billionaire Malik Riaz. On the other side of the wall are residents who called the neighborhood “heaven.”
“Bahria Town Karachi has provided what others can’t, not just to the rich but also low-income people in the form of jobs,” Bahria Town Karachi resident Sidra Najeeb told VICE World News.
The June 6 incident shook many like her. “It was like I, and my home, was being attacked,” she said. “Whatever the issue is [between the villagers and Bahria Town], it’s not right to destroy such beautiful property.”
Land rights activists say Bahria Town is illegally occupied and amounts to a “modern form of colonisation.” On the other side of the wall are residents who called the neighborhood “heaven.”
After the recent violence, Riaz tweeted a statement maintaining that the Karachi development is legal and asked for “justice” against the “act of terrorism”.
“We did not illegally grab any land,” he said. “If anyone can prove illegal occupation of even an inch of land, we will be responsible. We have faced investigation before, and we will again.”
But villagers who spoke with VICE World News said they were coerced into giving up land they had occupied for decades to house Pakistan’s rich. Land rights activists say Bahria Town is illegally occupied and amounts to a “modern form of colonisation.”
Jamaal Khan, a 46-year-old farmer, said that nine generations of his family lived on about 20 acres of land until it was grabbed in 2018.
“The security guards told us they will go to any lengths to take our land,” Khan told VICE World News. Now, a slick Bahria Town road and apartments have been built on it, he said. Khan’s family members, in the meantime, have been slapped with terrorism charges for their alleged involvement in the June 6 violence, accusations that they have denied.
In 2018, the Supreme Court deemed part of Bahria Town’s land occupation “illegal” and ordered an investigation, which ended after the developer offered to pay $6.5 billion as settlement for 16,896 acres of the prime suburban land, about a third of the total size of Bahria Town Karachi.
But the developer has so far paid only $360 million, a fraction of the settlement, and has requested delaying future payments, citing its losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many villagers, including Khan’s family, have demanded compensation for the land they lost and joined demonstrations for justice.
“Without the involvement of political personalities, this wouldn’t have gone forward,” she told Pakistani news outlet Centrum Media in June. She said the police and the developer were seeking to portray the protesters “as state enemies, insurgents and terrorists to invalidate their cause.”
Bahria Town officials did not respond to multiple queries from VICE World News.
The alleged land grab by Bahria Town Karachi has continued despite the protests, said Hafeez Baloch, a land activist and a member of the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance.
“Last month, villagers told us that they’re encroaching upon more land,” Baloch told VICE World News. “This is very similar to what’s happening in Palestine. They even built a wall around the villages to pressure them into giving land.”
But the Pakistani police’s enforcement actions, including the use of anti-terror laws, could silence the dissent, said Abira Ashfaq, a lawyer who represents villagers around Bahria Town Karachi.
“The definition of terrorism in Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 is very broad and is not compatible with any reasonable understanding of that term. It simply defines it as an act that instills terror in some sections of the society,” Ashfaq said.
Advocate Abira Ashfaq said that the police imposed anti-terrorism laws against villagers because Pakistan’s courts are “opaque, harsher and pro-criminalisation.”
She said that the police, instead of invoking regular criminal laws, chose anti-terrorism laws because Pakistan’s courts are “opaque, harsher and pro-criminalisation.” Police officials did not respond to multiple queries from VICE World News.
Jokio, who has been fighting for his land since he was evicted by local police in 2017, said his first terrorism charge came in May after he was arrested over a clash between villagers and Bahria Town Karachi guards.
“The guards hit me with the butt of a gun, pipes and sticks,” he claimed. “After a few blows, I fainted. When I came to, I was at the police station and there was a terrorism charge against me.” Jokio was released soon after.
Mahesar, the lawyer, claimed that thousands of people who protested against Bahria Town Karachi peacefully have been charged for terrorism since 2014.
The violence on June 6, Baloch said, was a conspiracy to sabotage their movement. “When the violence started, I saw that the cops and guards were retreating. They allowed the people to be violent,” he said.
Bahria Town resident Najeeb, on the other hand, claimed that the vandalism was caused by the protesters. “I wouldn’t blame the villagers because they are just puppets in the hands of the village leaders,” she said. “It’s a conspiracy because Bahria Town is doing so well.”
Initially contained within Karachi, protests against the development have since spread across Pakistan, with demonstrators calling for justice for those who lost their homes to the project.
On June 27, thousands turned up on the streets in at least 17 Pakistani cities in solidarity with the Karachi demonstrators, and some opposition politicians have called on the federal government to compensate the victims of forced displacement.
“When the struggle started, we knew this would not last just a day or two,” Baloch said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
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