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Kashmiri Journalist Aasif Sultan Granted Bail After Years Behind Bars

Sultan was languishing in jail since August 2018 when he was arrested by the police for allegedly harbouring terrorists at his Srinagar residence.
Aasif Sultan. Photo: X/@AminaaKausar

New Delhi: Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan has been granted bail by a court in Srinagar and released from jail nearly two months after he was arrested under the anti-terror law by the J&K Police, his lawyer and family said on Wednesday, May 15.

The 2019 John Aubuchon Press Freedom awardee was languishing in jail since August 2018 when he was arrested by the police for allegedly harbouring terrorists at his Srinagar residence. The arrest marked the beginning of Sultan’s prolonged ordeal in captivity.

“He was granted bail by the NIA court in Srinagar on May 10,” Aadil Pandit, Sultan’s lawyer, told The Wire, adding that the journalist has been reunited with his family.

In his defence, Pandit argued before the NIA court that the authorities had no direct evidence against Sultan who was “not even remotely connected with the commission of offences alleged in the FIR”.

Sultan was arrested on March 1 this year. An FIR was filed against him by the Rainawari police under Sections 147 and 148 (rioting and punishment for rioting), 149 (offence committed by any member of unlawful assembly) 336 (endangering human life) and 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code, besides Section 13 (advocating, abetting or inciting unlawful activity) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

According to police, the case relates to the 2019 incident of rioting when 26 inmates, including Sultan, allegedly ransacked the barracks of Srinagar’s Central Jail over an argument with the prison staff which later turned violent.

Reports said that the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran had led to the flare-up, a charge which has been denied by the jail administration. Sultan was languishing in jail at the time and he was accused of involvement in the violence.

However, his lawyer Pandit, while pleading for bail, denied the charge. “How could a person commit a crime when he is already under detention,” Pandit told the NIA court, arguing that a person was innocent in the eyes of law until proven guilty.

After hearing the arguments, the court said that the incident of rioting took place more than five years ago and “sufficient time” of 72 days was given to the investigating agency for Sultan’s custodial interrogation.

It said that prolonging the detention of Sultan was not going to serve any purpose. The court said that “the interest of justice” was going to be served while granting him bail. However, the court has barred the journalist from using encrypted messaging apps and VPNs.

A resident of Batmaloo locality in Srinagar, Sultan was working with the now defunct Kashmir Narrator magazine when he was arrested by the Srinagar police in FIR No 73/2018 (at Batamaloo police station) under various sections of the UAPA and some sections of the Ranbir Penal Code (now Indian Penal Code).

Over the years, the captivity of Sultan became a poignant illustration of the sorry state of press freedom in Kashmir where journalists are routinely questioned by authorities for their work and called to police stations without formal charges.

Sultan’s family and lawyer have consistently denied the allegations against him, saying that the journalist was targeted merely for doing his job.

Three years after his arrest for alleged links with militants, a court in Srinagar granted him bail in the case on April 5, 2022, citing the failure of the J&K Police in furnishing evidence that linked Sultan to any militant group. The court also ordered his release.

However, before Sultan could walk out of jail and unite with his family, authorities invoked the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA) against him. Sultan was accused of “harnessing known militants”, “criminal conspiracy”, and “aiding and participating in militant activities”, and sent to Ambedkar Nagar jail in Uttar Pradesh.

In December last year, his PSA was quashed by the J&K high court which termed the allegations against him as “unsustainable” while urging the authorities to end his “illegal” detention and set him free.

“It is unambiguously clear and evident from the perusal of receipt of grounds of detention and other relevant records that only five leaves have been given to detenu,” Justice V.C. Koul observed in his judgment.

The PSA dossier accused Sultan of being an “over-ground worker of Hizbul Mujahideen” who bizarrely joined Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, an Al-Qaida affiliate, while he was in jail.

Sultan was also accused of being an over-ground worker of The Resistance Front, a militant group which was formed months after Sultan’s arrest in 2018 and which authorities believe is an offshoot of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiba terror outfit.

Over the past five years or more, Sultan’s incarceration has brought the functioning of the media in India under the scrutiny of global press bodies such as the CPJ, RSF, and Amnesty International, among others, who have been urging the Government of India to set him free unconditionally and allow him to do his job without hindrance.

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