Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Esteemed reputation in society’: Kashmir court grants bail to journalist Asif Sultan

Founder and editor of Kashmir Narrator Showkat Motta questioned the extended delay in Aasif’s case. “Why would it take 1000 days for the so-called evidence to be established?” he asks.

After 72 days, a Srinagar court has granted bail to Kashmir journalist Asif Sultan in a case related to alleged unlawful activities filed by district police, saying that Sultan was “facing detention without any reason and justification”.

He was arrested shortly after his return to Srinagar from Ambedkar Nagar jail in Uttar Pradesh, where Sultan had been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) since 2022.

Additional Sessions Judge Sandeep Gandotra, in a ruling dated 10 May, asserted Sultan’s innocence, stating he had not committed any offense. The judgment highlighted the unjust arrest, citing Sultan’s detention under the Public Safety Act, which was recently revoked.

“The applicant was facing incarceration for last more than 05 years but Police Station concerned without any reasonable justification has arrested the accused as it is evident from the circumstances of the present case that the accused was already undergoing through the PSA which has been now quashed few days back and it would also be expedient to brought before this court that the accused has no connection with the above mentioned FIR as he was under detention and how could a person commit a crime when he is already going through the detention,” read the judgment.

The court acknowledged Sultan’s innocence, refuting allegations of his involvement in criminal activities. The ruling said that Sultan was a “law-abiding citizen” with a “high social status and esteemed reputation in society.”

He was arrested on the allegations of 4 April 2019 that he, along with other jail inmates, in the Central Jail Srinagar set ablaze a few barracks, shouted anti-national slogans and pelted stones on jail employees due to which some officials sustained injuries.

He was apprehended under Section 13 (Inciting unlawful activity) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a stringent anti-terror law, as well as under sections 147 (Punishment for rioting), 148 (Rioting, armed with a deadly weapon), 149 (Unlawful assembly), 336 (Endangering life or personal safety of others), and 307 (Attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

However, as per the judgment, Sultan’s lawyer argued the lack of direct evidence linking him to the alleged crimes.

The lawyer has argued that the whole case of the prosecution is based upon the alleged shouting of anti-national slogans and pelting of stones at the jail or police officials. He further argued that “the case is of the year 2019 and the accused was not present at the place of occurrence. Lastly, it is requested that the accused person/applicant is in custody for the last approximately 72 days and therefore he should be granted bail in the interest of justice.”

While acknowledging the seriousness of crimes under the UAPA, the court emphasized the necessity of considering all relevant factors before denying bail.

The court’s order added: “There can be no dispute at all that so far as the investigation into allegations of commission of offence under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 is concerned, that there is compelling state interest in tackling such serious crimes. However, mere use of this statutory provision would not ipso-facto warrant rejection of applications of bail ignoring the other binding requirements.”

The court judgment prohibited Sultan from using encrypted messaging apps or proxy networks to evade surveillance.

The judgment read that Sultan “shall neither use any secret/encrypted messaging apps or any proxy network (viz VPNS) to remain anonymous and circumvent provisions of India Telegraph Act and Indian Wireless Act and orders/restrictions issued there under nor provide any type of telecommunication facility from his number or device to other person through hotspot, WiFi etc.”

Sultan has been ordered to reveal the details of the cell phone device to be used by him to the concerned authority. “The accused person/applicant shall not use any mobile number or device other than the ones disclosed to the Investigating Officer /SHO of concerned police station,” the order read.

Taking into account the nature of the allegations and Sultan being held for 72 days already, the court decided to let him go on bail with some rules to follow.

In 2018, the journalist’s arrest on the charges of “sheltering militants” underscored the ongoing challenges faced by journalists in the region. Then his re-arrest on 1 March 2024, heightened the tension among the journalist community in Kashmir and raised concerns about press freedom in the region.

Sultan wrote a cover story for the Kashmir Narrator magazine about Burhan Wani, a prominent militant commander, a month before his arrest in 2018. His case garnered international attention, with TIME Magazine recognizing him among the “10 Most Urgent” cases, highlighting global threats to press freedom.

Sultan’s ordeal is symbolic of broader restrictions on freedom of expression in Kashmir, where journalists have faced intimidation and arrest in recent years.

Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir is a journalist based in Kashmir, covering human rights, gender, and education.
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