Media Groups Demand Release of Kashmir Scribe Arrested on 'Baseless' Charges of Militancy

The family of journalist Aasif Sultan has claimed that he was kept in illegal detention for six days.

Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir Police have arrested Aasif Sultan, a Srinagar-based journalist, for his alleged involvement in militancy, a charge strongly refuted by his family and the organisation he works for. The arrest has evoked outrage from media bodies who have termed it a “tactic to harass journalists” working in Kashmir, amid a growing clamour for the release of the scribe.

Aasif was picked up by the police during a raid at his Batamaloo house on the night of August 27, said his father Mohammad Sultan Dar. “They (the police) came at around 11:15 pm and after conducting searches till 1:45 am, took Asif along,” said Dar, a retired government employee.

Aasif is an assistant editor at the monthly news magazine Kashmir Narrator and covers politics. He has written in-depth stories on Kashmir militancy including his recent cover story titled ‘The Rise of Burhan‘ for the July 2018 edition, released on the second death anniversary of slain militant commander Burhan Wani.

‘Charges baseless, absolute lies’

The news about Aasif’s detention came to the fore on Saturday after the magazine issued a statement. “Aasif Sultan continues to be under police custody for sixth consecutive day on Saturday…police has been telling his family that he will be released, but not until today,” senior journalist Tariq Ali Mir wrote on Facebook, adding that the police has seized Aasif’s laptop, cell phones and other documents during the raid and he was being questioned for his cover story on Burhan, his “ideology” and other stories.

In the evening, the police issued a daily statement mentioning the journalist’s arrest in a case registered at Batamaloo police station. However, it was claimed that Aasif was arrested only on Saturday.

Aasif Sultan

“During initial questioning of the accused, subsequent searches were carried out based on disclosures made in this case so far which has led to the seizure of incriminating materials from various locations. It also establishes his (Aasif’s) complicity for harbouring known terrorists involved in a series of terror crimes,” said the police statement. “Further investigation in the case is going on.”

The family the contested police statement about Aasif’s arrest. “He was kept in illegal detention for last six days,” said Aasif’s father. He had gone to meet Aasif on Friday and was “assured” by the police that his son would be released in the evening.

“They even made me sign a paper, but later changed their mind and said Aasif will be freed the next day. On Saturday, when I went again, they asked me to sign a different paper which read that Aasif was arrested today (Saturday). I refused to sign the paper and so did Aasif,” said Dar.

Editor of Kashmir Narrator, Showkat Motta termed police charges against Aasif as “baseless and absolute lies”. “It is a cock and bull story to frame him. They are miffed with our stories and reportage and it (Aasif’s arrest) is pure harassment,” said Motta, adding that he has known Aasif as a journalist for more than a decade.

‘We were asked what his political ideology is’

Motta said he along with New Delhi-based activist and director of Center for Dialogue and Reconciliation, Sushobha Barve, called on the superintendent of police, south Srinagar, G.V. Sundeep Chakravarthy on Friday in connection with the arrest.

“We were first made to wait for more than an hour…then he (the SP) asked irrelevant questions about Aasif including ‘what is his political ideology’. When I told him it has nothing to do with the arrest and asked why Aasif wasn’t produced before a court after his arrest six days ago, he got infuriated,” said Motta.

All these days, Motta said, the police have been questioning Aasif about his stories including the one on Wani. “They had even told him that since he is a resourceful person he should work for police as an informer,” said Motta, adding they didn’t talk about the arrest all these days as police would each day assure him about Aasif’s release.

On Saturday, a local court sent Aasif to seven days police remand. “We have got evidence against him. The law will take its own course,” the SP said. Kashmir Narrator has decided to challenge Aasif’s arrest in court and have taken up the issue with international media watchdogs including the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

‘He is performing important public service, not committing a crime’

Late on Saturday night, CPJ issued a statement demanding the immediate release of Aasif. It quoted Motta as saying that police have been asking Aasif to reveal his sources for Wani’s story and “pressurised him to become an informer”.

“Police should immediately release Aasif Sultan from jail and halt efforts to pressure him to reveal sources or become an informer,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, in the statement. “By reporting on militant activity, Sultan is performing an important public service, not committing a crime.”

The statement came hours after Srinagar-based Kashmir Working Journalist Association (KWJA) and Kashmir Journalist Association (KJA) demanded the journalist’s immediate release from “illegal custody, and action against police officials concerned for keeping a journalist under illegal detention for a week”.

Both KWJA and KJA said police and intelligence agencies “have been trying their best to police media in Kashmir, and harassing media organisations and journalists has been a routine”. “But we want to make it clear that journalist fraternity will fight such efforts tooth and nail. We ask the government and police chief to explain laws and rules under which he has been kept in lockup for past six days,” said the statement.

Journalists in Kashmir have been working in challenging conditions. Earlier, a Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yusuf was arrested by the NIA and jailed for six months on charges of “waging war against India” and “stone throwing”. He was released in March after a court in New Delhi found that charges against Yusuf lacked facts.

Several people including journalists and writers took to Facebook to condemn Aasif’s arrest and alleged bullying of media persons by the police. “This is how the police and civil authorities deal with journalists in Kashmir; arrest them, bully them, attempt to turn them away from their professional obligations,” wrote professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.