New Delhi: The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has quashed the preventive detention of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan and directed the Union Territory administration to set him free.
While delivering the judgement, a single bench of the High Court led by Justice V. C. Koul censured J&K authorities for refusing official documents to Sultan that could have enabled him to challenge his detention.
Terming his detention as “illegal and unsustainable”, the court also reprimanded the authorities for not furnishing any credible evidence in court, as required under law, to prolong the detention of Sultan under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which has been termed as a “lawless law” by Amnesty International.
“It is unambiguously clear and evident from perusal of receipt of grounds of detention and other relevant record that only five leaves have been given to detenu,” Justice Koul observed in his judgement.
The High Court noted that the authorities in Kashmir didn’t provide Sultan with the copies of the FIR, witness statements or other investigation material of the case which formed the basis for his preventive detention under the PSA.
Justice Koul asked the authorities to set Sultan free “forthwith provided he is not required in any other case.”
A controversial dossier
In its PSA dossier, authorities in Kashmir had accused the award-winning journalist of being an “over-ground worker of Hizbul Mujahideen” who curiously joined Al-Qaida affiliate, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, while in jail.
The dossier also claimed that Sultan was working as an over-ground worker of The Resistance Front, a militant group which was set up months after Sultan’s arrest in 2018 and which authorities believe is an offshoot of Pakistan Lashkar-e-Toiba terror outfit.
The verdict comes more than five years after Sultan, who was working with the now defunct, monthly English magazine Kashmir Narrator, was accused by J&K police of harbouring terrorists at his Srinagar residence.
Sultan was later booked under the provisions of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Ranbir Penal Code (now Indian Penal Code) in 2018 and arrested by J&K police which claimed to have recovered “incriminating evidence” from his residence during searches.
A court in Srinagar granted him bail in the case on April 5 last year, citing the failure of the investigators in providing evidence that linked him to any militant group while ordering his release.
However, authorities invoked PSA against Sultan, accusing him of “harnessing known militants”, “criminal conspiracy” and “aiding and participating in militant activities”. He was taken into preventive detention under PSA and later shifted to Agra Central Jail in Uttar Pradesh.
The Public Safety Act, which was introduced in 1978 to curb the menace of timber smuggling in Jammu and Kashmir, allows for suspects to be held for up to two years in preventive detention without trial.
A resident of Srinagar’s Batamaloo, Sultan was awarded the annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award by the National Press Club of America on October 17, 2019. Sultan’s daughter was six-months old when he was arrested by police. He completed five years in incarceration on August 27, 2023.
The Committee to Protect Journalists among other press freedom advocacy groups across the world have been urging India to release Sultan “unconditionally” while accusing authorities of “weaponizing preventative detention and anti-terror laws against journalists to muzzle their work.”
The long arm of the PSA
In August 2020, nearly 400 journalists and civil society members had called on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to release Sultan. In February 2022, 57 press freedom organisations, rights groups, and publications had urged J&K’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to release all arbitrarily detained journalists, including Sultan.
The verdict on Sultan comes days after the high court delivered two similar and consecutive judgements ordering the authorities to free Kashmiri journalists Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul, who were also taken into preventive detention under PSA.
While J&K police have launched multiple terror investigations against Shah, the editor of Srinagar-based digital news outlet ‘The Kashmir Walla’, Gul was booked under criminal conspiracy and other charges. However, barring one case against Gul, the courts granted bail to both the journalists in these cases.
In January this year, Mohammad Manan Dar, a Srinagar-based photojournalist, who was arrested in a terror conspiracy case by the National Investigations Agency, was released on bail by a court which termed the charges against him as “mere assumptions.”
Under the Narendra Modi government, press freedom in India has suffered relentless blows. In its latest report, the World Press Freedom Index placed India at 161 out of 180 countries this year, 11 spots further down from the 2022 ranking.
According to Reporters Without Borders, India has been using “charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security … increasingly .. against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as ‘anti-national’.”
The government has denied these charges while accusing the Paris-based press freedom watchdog of “subverting the democratic freedoms all over the world”.