Despite several calls for his release by media bodies around the world, there seems no hope for the award-winning journalist’s return home any time soon.
Srinagar: Every morning 64-year-old Mohammad Sultan phones his nephew, asking him to fetch milk from the market. Sultan has recently undergone heart surgery at the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences and has been advised by the doctors to avoid strenuous activities.
In ordinary circumstances, Sultan’s son, the 33-year-old journalist Aasif Sultan, would have ensured that there was always milk at home. But there are no ordinary circumstances in the Sultan household these days. On May 25, 2021, Aasif Sultan spent his 1,000th day in prison. There is no sign that he will be released any time soon.
Aasif was arrested on August 27, 2018, after a night raid at his house by a joint team of police and paramilitary forces. The raid continued for hours and Aasif was whisked away to the police station, his phone and laptop confiscated.
Since then he has been detained in Srinagar’s Central Jail, some 10 km from his home, allegedly for ‘harnessing known militants’, a claim his family outright denies. “My son had no militant connections at all. He was arrested for the job he was doing,” Sultan told The Wire.
Prior to his arrest, Aasif had written a story titled ‘Rise of Burhan’ for the weekly publication he worked with. According to his family, when the story was published he started getting calls from the police and other security agencies.
“They told him that he was glamorising terrorism through his writing,” Sultan recalled. But the police did not mention this in any document as the reason for Aasif’s detention. They only maintained that he had been detained for ‘militant related activities’.
In early August 2018, a gun fight between militants and the police took place in the home of a civilian somewhere in the vicinity of Aasif’s neighbourhood. One policeman was injured (and later succumbed to his injuries), but the militants slipped away. Later the police filed a case against the owner of the house and arrested him. According to a police official, this man, when he was interrogated, had led them to a woman overground worker (a person who helps militants or terrorists with facilities such as food and shelter). The police say that when the woman was interrogated, Asif Sultan’s name came up.
The police also claim to have seized sheets of paper printed with the letterhead of the proscribed militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen from Aasif’s possession during the raid on his house. Some months after his arrest, Aasif’s Facebook account was disabled.
Aasif’s lawyer Adil Abdullah contests the claims made by the police. “These are all fabricated charges. He was not even present at the place where the gunfight took place,” said Abdullah.
But Aasif faces charges under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for murder, section 120b for conspiracy against the state and section 326 for causing dislocation or injury. He is also charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
In the 1,000 days since he was arrested, Aasif Sultan’s case has seen no concrete progress. According to Abdullah, this is mainly due to the several lockdowns in the valley from August 2019 when Article 370 of the constitution was read down and then in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit India.
“Not a single hearing took place after August 5, 2019, for many months until the situation eased a bit,” said Abdullah.
A timeline of the court hearings shows that Aasif missed many scheduled hearings because the courts were closed for the lockdown. Aasif was first produced before the court on November 13, 2018, a little more than two months after his arrest. Thereafter, his case had about 30 scheduled hearings, many of which could not take place because the courts were closed. Now the courts are closed again due to the second wave of the pandemic.
However, Aasif does not appear to be intimidated by what has happened to him. A photograph of him at the court complex about two years ago shows him wearing a T-shirt with the message ‘Journalism is not a crime’. According to Sultan, the Batmaloo station house officer had slapped Aasif for wearing that T-shirt.
Calls for his release
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in New York, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 27, 2020, exactly two years after Aasif Sultan was arrested, demanding his release. The letter was signed by 397 journalists and members of civil society, including N. Ram, Karan Thapar, Mani Shankar Aiyer, Harsh Mander and Meenal Baghel.
Aasif has won several awards for his work from journalist bodies across the world. In 2019, he was awarded the annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from the US’s National Press Club. At the awards ceremony in Washington DC, the National Press Club stated that the Press Freedom Award that year was going “to a journalist in Kashmir jailed for nearly a year for his reporting”.
Aasif also featured in TIME magazine’s May 2019 edition as one of the ten most urgent cases which pose a threat to press freedom around the world.
The shattered family
Sultan’s health in the 1,000 days since Aasif was incarcerated has deteriorated. During his recent surgery, he was attended to by his relatives.
“I want my son beside me in my old days,” said Sultan. “It is difficult for me to see his three-year-old daughter growing up without her father’s presence and his wife without her husband around.”
Aasif’s daughter, Areeba, was just a few months old when Aasif was arrested. “Areeba has just seen her father twice, both times in a court complex with chains on his wrists. As she grows older, she has begun developing a sense of deprivation. Whenever she sees Aasif in photos, she asks for her Baba. This reduces everyone to tears,” said Sultan.
Sultan believes his son has been victimised because he is a journalist. “They had plans for August 5  and they wanted to silence the journalist community and the arrest of my son was part of that plan,” he alleged.
Senior journalist Gowhar Geelani said that dragging out Aasif’s case for so long is a punishment in itself.
“Aasif Sultan reported facts on the ground. Reporting facts on the ground is no crime,” said Geelani. “In his case, the judicial process has become the punishment itself and despite the solidarity expressed by the media fraternity, it seems to be an attempt [by the state] to telegraph a message to the media that there will be gags on the media and journalism will be criminalised.”
Geelani added: “Giving up is never an option, no matter how many times they deny him bail. But journalist bodies should pursue his case in solidarity. That is the only way forward.”
The Kashmir Press Club, however, appears to be confused about its stand on the incarceration of Aasif Sultan. When The Wire asked the president of the Kashmir Press Club how the body was dealing with the case of Aasif Sultan, the president said that the general secretary was the person with the details. When the Kashmir Press Club’s general secretary was called, he directed The Wire to the club’s president.