Farmers in their field in the outskirts of Islamabad in this 2008 file photo. Pakistan's security forces have been criticized for arresting thousands of protesting tenant farmers in Okara district, Punjab province. (Photo by AFP)
Caritas and human rights organizations have condemned heavy-handed measures used by Pakistan's security forces against farmers protesting for land rights in Okara district in Punjab province.
"Farmers are not terrorists, but they are very afraid," said Farhan Lawrence, Executive Secretary of Caritas Pakistan Faisalabad, who also comes from Okara.
"The government should reach a compromise because these people have no other means of livelihood," Lawrence told ucanews.com.
Tenant farmers held a protest in Okara April 15 over the arrest of Mehr Abdul Sattar, general secretary of the Anjuman Muzareen (tenants association) of Punjab.
Security forces responded with arrests and used tear gas to disperse the protestors. Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the Awami Workers Party, told ucanews.com that a 17-year-old protestor died due to a reaction to tear gas.
Police went on to arrest over 4,000 protesting farmers who are tenants on military-owned farms.
There remains a heavy military presence in the area and, due the Easter terrorist bombings in Lahore, the province has banned the assembly of more than four people in public.
At the heart of the dispute, the farmers are demanding ownership of 27,000 hectares of farmland currently owned by the military. Farmers from 22 villages have been tenants on the land for generations.
In 2000, the military changed the nature of the farmer's lease, which was based on a crop share agreement, to one where they would have to pay an annual rent with no occupancy rights.
Father James Archangelus, a parish priest from one of the villages in the disputed military farm area, said the situation was a turning point for the farmers and their bid for the land.
"The situation has become very serious now," said Father Archangelus who added that the church holds a neutral stance over the dispute.
Asma Jahangir Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights criticized the state's heavy response to the farmer's protests.
"What is the criteria being used to determine legitimate threat to national security and law and order?" Jahangir asked.
Zohra Yusuf from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the government should not deal with the farmers under the anti-terrorism framework and to instead respect their right to peaceful protest and the freedom of assembly.
"Employing strong-arm tactics and using the National Action Plan against terrorism to crack down on the farmers pressing for land rights and a fairer distribution of agricultural resources appears to be aimed at pushing them against the wall for demanding their rights," stated Yusuf.