Srinagar: The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), founded by Hollywood actor, producer and screenwriter George Clooney and his lawyer wife Amal Clooney, has announced it will monitor the trial of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who has been in detention for more than two years on terror charges. He has been accused of sheltering the militants who killed a policeman on August 12, 2018 during a gun battle in Srinagar’s crowded Batamaloo area – an accusation his family and lawyers deny.
Sultan, who has received the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from the American National Press Club in 2019, featured in TIME magazine’s 10 ‘Most Urgent’ cases of threats to press freedom around the world last year.
The Clooney Foundation statement joins a string of similar previous interventions where high-profile foreign personalities have weighed in on events unfolding in India, part of the intensifying international scrutiny of India’s treatment of dissenters, journalists and activists under the Modi government.
Earlier this week, seven UN Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Indian government seeking information on the factual basis of investigations involving cases against human rights defenders and journalists in Kashmir including Parvaiz Bukhari, Khurram Parvez and Parveena Ahangar.
“The Clooney Foundation for Justice calls on the authorities to ensure that Sultan’s bail hearing is conducted in accordance with international human rights law and any proceedings against him respect his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression,” the CFJ statement reads.
The statement comes just a day after a court in Srinagar heard Sultan’s bail application and scheduled the next date of hearing for March 16.
Through its Trial Watch programme – that has taken a note of Sultan’s detention – the CFJ claims it “fights for the rights of individuals unfairly targeted by oppressive governments through the courts.”
“International standards favour an accused’s liberty pending trial and proscribe mandatory pretrial detention based on the charged offense. In particular, these standards require individualized consideration of whether a restriction on liberty is necessary, and, if so, mandate that the least restrictive option be imposed,” CFJ said.
CFJ has already put two more Indian journalists into its Trial Watch programme: Dhaval Patel, charged with sedition and spreading “false alarm or warning” for reporting on the handling of COVID-19 by the authorities in Gujarat, and Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a Manipur scribe who was detained in connection with a Facebook post.
Speaking to The Wire, Muhammad Sultan, Aasif’s father, said that he was happy that international organisations are putting pressure on the Modi government to ensure a fair trial for his son.
“The last we had seen him was on March 12, 2020. That was before the coronavirus lockdown,” he said. “He has been languishing at Central jail in Srinagar.”
The senior Sultan (63) narrated what appears to be a life steeped with travails stemming from his son’s absence. “His daughter was six months old when Aasif was detained. Now she is three. Her mother always looks lonely and disconsolate. He is the only one in my family who can drive. In his absence, I am compelled to call my brothers or nephews if I am required to travel,” he said.
Sultan’s lawyer Aadil Abdullah Pandit, however, told The Wire that he was satisfied with the legal proceedings. “On Friday, the court in Srinagar heard the arguments for three hours. Our defence is that Aasif Sultan has been falsely implicated in the case,” he said.
According to Pandit, the court has examined 20 witnesses in connection to the case so far and about 31 more witnesses will depose at the hearings.
Sultan’s photographs abound social media, depicting a handcuffed 32-year-old sturdy man with scraggly beard and skull cap, wearing a yellow T-shirt embossed with the note – ‘Journalism is not a crime’.
A journalist with Kashmir Narrator, a Srinagar-based magazine, Sultan was arrested on the night of August 27, 2018. He was booked in a case pertaining to a gun battle that took place at Batamaloo locality of Srinagar the same month where militants managed to escape but not without leaving one policeman dead and injuring four members of CRPF personnel.
Questions have also been raised on the manner in which his arrest took place, with around 50 police and paramilitary forces personnel allegedly hammering at Sultan’s door in the dead of the night and hauling him out in handcuffs.
Last year, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which welcomed CFJ’s statement on Saturday, had included Sultan in its annual global survey, CPJ’s 2020 prison census, listing him among 274 journalists detained across the world in connection to their work.
In 2018, Sultan profiled militant Burhan Wani, drawing on the quotes provided by Over Ground Workers (OGWs), a term that police uses to describe non-combatant associates who mete out some kind of support to militants, who Wani had been previously associated with
Later, J&K Police’s Criminal Investigation Department took objection at the story, calling it as endorsement of “perpetrators of violence and terrorism in the state”.
He was slapped with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), accused of “complicity” in “harbouring known terrorists”. The charges were filed just hours before the mandatory period of 180 days for filing the report from the date of remand approached expiry.
The CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator Steven Bulter in his letter to the former J&K governor in 2019 said that “police have reportedly subjected Sultan to repeated interrogation during his detention regarding the article, asking him to reveal his sources and why he reported on the conflict in Kashmir.”
Last year when Sultan was awarded by American National Press Club, his family members were unaware about the news since J&K was reeling under an internet and communications blockade. “Sultan was imprisoned last August and is accused of aiding insurgents even though he merely reported on them,” the statement from the Club said, adding that Sultan’s case reflects worsening conditions for the press and citizenry in Kashmir.
In August last year, Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior researcher at the Asia desk, told Mint that they have escalated Sultan’s case with Indian members of parliament, the European Union, the United Kingdom, French and Norwegian embassies, and the US State Department. “Unfortunately, it can be difficult to garner support for a Kashmiri journalist, especially when they are being accused under an anti-terror law, given the narratives and perception of Kashmir across India,” she told the paper.
However, reacting to CPJ’s international media campaign seeking to harvest support for Sultan, including an full page advertisement in the Washington Post, the J&K police claimed that the 32-year-old journalist was not arrested for his journalistic work and reiterated the allegations that he had consorted with the militants who killed the cop in August 2018.
The case of Aasif Sultan has had a chilling effect on the journalist community in Kashmir, prompting scribes to abandon stories related to militancy and espouse self-censorship. Press freedom has since witnessed a rapid decline in J&K. Last year, India’s score on the World Press Freedom Index plummeted to 142, making it one of the world’s least free countries for press.
Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.