Srinagar: The National Investigation Agency has arrested a Srinagar-based freelance journalist in connection with an ongoing probe into Kashmir-based non-profits that are facing accusations of sponsoring activities “prejudicial to the unity, integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”
Irfan Mehraj, a resident of Mehjoor Nagar in Srinagar, was asked by a team of the central anti-terror agency to appear at its Church Lane office on Monday evening, March 20 when he was out on a professional assignment, his father, Mehraj-ud-Din Bhat, said.
“He was on a story when the investigators called him on his mobile phone. They told him to come over to their office [for questioning] for five minutes. Later, we got to know that he had been arrested and was going to be shifted to Delhi on Tuesday. My son and brother have gone there seeking legal assistance,” Bhat, who is a Kashmir arts trader, told The Wire.
“My son is innocent. His work speaks for him loudly. I have full faith that truth will prevail and he will get justice,” Bhat added.
The arrest triggered condemnation and outrage from rights activists and press bodies. Expressing concern, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, called for his “immediate release”, a demand which was also made by Amnesty International.
I’m deeply concerned about Kashmiri HRD and journalist @IrfanMeraj. He was called to come to the @NIA_India office in Srinagar and arrested in a 2020 case, accused of serious offences. I call for his immediate release.@IndiaUNGeneva @India_NHRC
— Mary Lawlor UN Special Rapporteur HRDs (@MaryLawlorhrds) March 21, 2023
The Press Club of India said it opposes the “imposing of UAPA on mediapersons” and the “misuse of this draconian law by NIA in randomly arresting Irfan Mehraj”, saying that Mehraj’s arrest “ominously points towards a violation of freedom of speech and expression.”
According to reports, Irfan, an editor at TCN Live who also contributes to The Caravan magazine, Article 14 and Al Jazeera among other national and international media outlets, has been arrested in connection with FIR No RC-37/2020/NIA/DLI filed by the agency on October 8, 2020 at NIA Police Station, New Delhi.
NIA makes first arrest in NGO Terror Funding Case pic.twitter.com/sjPGmxDyNd
— NIA India (@NIA_India) March 21, 2023
NIA has claimed Mehraj is its first arrest in the ‘NGO-terror funding case’.
Incarcerated Kashmir human rights activist Khurram Parvez is also an accused in the same case.
The case has been filed under sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 124-A (inciting disaffection towards government through words, signs, etc. of Indian Penal Code and 17 (fund raising for terror activities), 18 (conspiracy to commit terror act), 22A & 22C (relating to offences committed by registered companies), 38 (offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation), 39 (supporting terrorist organisation) and 40 (raising funds for terrorist organisation) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
According to a note on the NIA website, the case (FIR No RC-37/2020), in which Irfan was reportedly arrested, was filed to probe the “money transfer to J&K by NGOs through Hawala Channel for terrorist activities in Kashmir valley”. Several persons have been questioned in the case by the agency.
Seasoned journalist, previously questioned
The arrest of Mehraj, who is the fourth journalist currently in jail in Kashmir, comes days after authorities filed a chargesheet against Fahad Shah, the editor of the Kashmir Walla digital magazine which is based in Srinagar. Shah was arrested on terrorism charges last year and has been languishing in jail. The other two incarcerated journalists are Sajad Gul and Aasif Sultan.
Activists and rights groups see the arrests as parts of “intimidation tactics” of the government to curb the free press in Kashmir.
Over the last two years, Irfan, who is also a contributor for German public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, was questioned multiple times by the central anti-terror agency in connection with the case. During a 2020 raid, his electronic gadgets were also confiscated.
Irfan has extensively reported on the conflict in Kashmir and the social, political and economic turmoils triggered by more than three decades of internecine violence. His latest dispatch, a multimedia story on the opening of a multiplex in Srinagar last year, appeared in Himal Southasian on January 18 under the headline ‘Will a new multiplex revive Kashmir’s cinema culture?’.
Irfan also runs Wande Magazine, an online magazine of “long form writing published from Kashmir and abroad.”
The freelance journalist, who married a private school teacher last year, was previously questioned by the NIA for his association with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a human rights non-profit based in Srinagar where he briefly worked as a researcher.
The JKCCS is facing an anti-terror probe and the arrest of its convenor, the prominent rights activist Khurram Parvez, in 2021 had triggered global outrage.
The agency claims on its website that it possesses “credible information” that “certain NGOs, Trusts and Societies, registered as well as un-registered (sic), are collecting funds domestically and abroad through donations, business contributions etc. in the name of charity and various welfare activities such as public health, education etc.”
The agency alleges that these nonprofits have links with proscribed terrorist organisation such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
“Further, funds collected by such NGOs, Trusts and Societies are sent to Jammu & Kashmir through various channels such as cash couriers, Hawala traders based in Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of India to sustain the secessionist and terrorist activities in Kashmir Valley, as a part of a larger criminal conspiracy hatched by these NGOs, Trusts and Societies etc., prejudicial to the unity, integrity, sovereignty and security of India,” according to the NIA.
“These NGOs, Trusts and Societies and their members, by words and written means, publish anti-national and incriminating material to bring into hatred, contempt and disaffection towards the Government of India,” the agency’s noting on the case states.
Note: Additional information was added to this article after it was published.