‘Mere Assumptions’: Kashmiri Photojournalist Released After Delhi Court Questions Terror Charges

Mohammad Manan Dar spent more than a year in jail.

Srinagar: A Srinagar-based journalist, who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on terrorism charges, walked out of Tihar jail on Tuesday (January 3) evening after more than a year. In the bail order, the court referred to the charges against him as “mere assumptions”.

Mohammad Manan Dar, a resident of Batmaloo in Srinagar who worked as a freelance photojournalist, was nabbed by the NIA along with 12 persons, including his brother Hanan Dar, in October 2021, days after a string of targeted attacks in which members of the minority community and migrant workers in Kashmir were shot by suspected militants.

“He was released from jail at around 9 pm on Tuesday, January 3, where he was received by a family member in the presence of his lawyers. He is in high spirits and looks forward to continuing his work as a journalist,” a family member told The Wire.

In its bail order pronounced on Monday, January 2, the court ruled that the central agency’s evidence against Manan is “not sufficient” to prove that he was part of the conspiracy “to undertake violent terrorist activities in the State of Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of India including Delhi after abrogation of Article 370 from the Constitution of India”.

Also read: Number of Jailed Journalists at New Global Record, Seven Behind Bars in India

The agency had said that the conspiracy to “execute spree of target killings in the valley in October 2021” was hatched by Pakistan-based Syed Salahuddin, the head of United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation of militant outfits operating in Kashmir, Bashir Ahmed Pir and Imtiyaz Kundoo, residents of Kashmir who are believed to be living in Pakistan, and unidentified commanders of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Al-Badr and other unidentified terror outfits.

The agency filed a case (RC No.29/2021/NIA/DLI) under sections 120B, 121A, 122 and 123 of IPC and sections 18, 18A, 18B, 30, 30 and 39 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 in 2021, and a chargesheet was filed in the NIA court last year.

Observing that the “detailed scrutiny” of the NIA’s evidence against Manan “would be carried out at the stage of charge”, the court ruled that the evidence brought before the court as well as the witness statements was “insufficient” to prove that Manan was involved in any terrorist activity.

In its chargesheet, the agency, citing witnesses and data recovered from Manan’s phone, claimed that the 23 year old, who was selected to join the 2022 cohort of Integrated Journalism and Mass Communication course at Cluster University, Srinagar before his arrest, was working “under the cover of a photojournalist” to “share details” about security forces and their deployment in Kashmir with terrorist outfits.

As a photojournalist, Manan contributed his work to online stock photo news websites. One of Manan’s images from the aftermath of an encounter in Srinagar in July 2021 has been featured in the Guardian’s ‘Twenty photographs of the week‘ section.

However, the agency told the court that the images and posters of killed militants, statements of militant outfits threatening education department officers and students not to attend Independence Day celebrations, and Telegram chats describing “killed militants…as martvrs” found in Manan’s phone showed his involvement in terrorist activities.

However, citing the case of Thwaha Fasal vs. Union of India 2021 in the Supreme Court, the court observed that “mere possession of certain posters, banners or other objectionable material is not sufficient for making out the case for terrorist activities”.

Rejecting the NIA’s assertion, the court observed that the allegation “must be supported by direct evidence”. “Mere assumptions or incomplete evidence to establish such facts may not be sufficient,” the court ruled, observing that the witness statements are inconclusive to prove Manan’s involvement in terrorist activities.

The agency also alleged that the young photojournalist “was part of a ‘hybrid cadre’ meant to execute small scale attacks such as target killing of minorities, security forces, political leaders and other important persons to create unrest and spread terror”.

The court, however, noted that even the association of an individual with a terrorist organisation is not sufficient to attract Section 38 (offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and even supporting a terrorist organisation is insufficient to attract Section 39 (offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation).

“Association and support have to be with the intention of furthering the activity of terrorist organisations. Such intention can be inferred from the overt act or an act of active participation of accused in activities of terrorist organisation,” the court observed, ruling that the “accusation against the accused does not appear to be cogent and true.”

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Citing prosecution witnesses and forensic analysis of Manan’s phone, the agency alleged that the young photojournalist was “radicalised” and “working as an overground worker for terrorist organisations”. He “used to attend radicalizing lectures of maulvi in Masiid (unnamed) to motivate youths for stone pelting on Army/police personnel,” the agency told the court.

Earlier during the bail hearing, the defence led by advocates Pankaj Tamanna and Priya Vats told the court that Manan was “illegally detained” by the agency for two weeks and later shown as arrested on October 22, 2021 and the allegations against him were “based on conjectures and devoid of any concrete evidence.”

The defence also informed the court that the agency has “no physical evidence” to connect Manan to any violent incident in Jammu and Kashmir. After hearing the arguments, the court granted bail to Manan on Monday on bail bond Rs.50,000 while barring him from leaving the country.

Among others arrested in the case is Sobiya Aziz, alias Mariyam-Al-Kashmiri and sister of Mugees Ahmad Mir, a Srinagar-based militant who was killed in action during the first attack by the Islamic State (IS) in Kashmir in 2017. The outfit had claimed the attack through its official news outlet, Amaq.

The other suspects held in the militant conspiracy case are Adil Ahmad War, Hilal Ahmed Dar, Rouf Bhatt, Shaqib Bashir, Zamin Adil and Haris Nisar Langoo, Kamran Ashraf Reshi, Rayid Bashir and one Suhail Ahmad Thokar.