India, under Modi, has weaponized legal system to badger journalists, especially in Kashmir: NYT

Shifting of Kashmiri detainees to Indian jails strongly denounced

NEW YORK, Apr 16 (APP): India has weaponized its legal system to limit free speech and harass journalists, particularly those in the occupied Jammu and Kashmir, The New York Times reported Saturday, citing human rights activists.

In a dispatch from New Delhi, the newspaper said the clampdown on Kashmir’s media had intensified since 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked the state’s special status, bringing the disputed region under direct control of the federal government.

Times Correspondent Suhasini Raj wrote that that journalists in the disputed Kashmir region faced forbidding pattern: arrest, bail and re-arrest.

In this regard, correspondent Raj referred to the case of Aasif Sultan, a journalist with Kashmir Narrator, who had been in jail since August 2018.

“After being held in jail for close to four years awaiting trial on charges of aiding militants, the Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan was granted bail by the courts last week, and he thought he could finally return home to his wife and his daughter, who was just 6 months old when he was arrested,” Correspondent Raj wrote.

“But the Indian authorities didn’t let him go, levying similar charges under a different law, and have since moved him to a different jail.”

Sultan is now being held under the stringent Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law that lets the region’s authorities keep a suspect in jail for a maximum of two years — without any formal criminal charges being filed, and so without any trial and with no hope for bail — if local authorities contend that the person presents a security risk or a threat to public order, it was pointed out.

Activists argue that the law violates international human rights, and lawyers say the Indian authorities have used it to round up Kashmiris posing no threat of violence, including journalists, students and those with sizable political or economic sway in the region.

“The Public Safety Act is based on the apprehension that one may do something illegal and not that one may have done something illegal,” Shafqat Nazir, a lawyer who practices at the High Court of Srinagar, was quoted as saying in the dispatch. “Just on the basis of an apprehension, one can rot in jail for two years.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent a New York-based watchdog body, has repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of Sultan.

Sultan’s experience — a detention extended either just after a court grants bail or just before a bail hearing — has become a pattern, applied against at least two other Kashmiri journalists arrested in recent months.

Fahad Shah, the editor in chief of a news website called The Kashmir Walla, was first arrested in February. He has been arrested three times since then, with the authorities bringing new charges as soon as he received bail in the previous ones.

And Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter for The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on January 5 for uploading a video he had recorded of the family of a slain militant in which they were displaying anti-India slogans, the police said, according to local media reports. He got bail 10 days later. But before he was released, the authorities informed him that he would continue to be held under the Public Safety Act.

Activists point to the government’s grounds for detaining Fahad Shah, who has reported widely on Kashmir for international publications, as evidence of how loosely the Indian government interprets the Public Safety Act to silence journalists.

Shah was described by the police as an “anti-national element under the cover of journalism” who is “continuously propagating stories which are against the interest and security of the nation.”

Yashraj Sharma, who has been leading The Kashmir Walla since Shah’s detention, said the government’s practice of arrests, then rearrests, was sending a chilling message to journalists.

“Every time we hit the publish button, we are not sure if that particular story will land us in jail the next day,” Sharma was quoted as saying. “Regional media has been squished.”

The New York Times said it made multiple requests for comment on how the Public Safety Act was being used in the region, to India’s Home Ministry, the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, the police and the district magistrate’s office, but none responded.

“Across India, activists, writers, students, academics and journalists have complained of an increased climate of intimidation as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in power since 2014, seeks to stifle its critics,” correspondent Raj wrote.

Charges of sedition, under a law that dates to the British colonial era, have been on the rise in recent years. Thousands of people, including poets, political organizers and a Catholic priest, have been jailed under an anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, it was pointed out. That law, the one under which Sultan was originally detained, does require that a trial ultimately be held and does allow for bail, though it can take years for it to be granted.

But in Kashmir, it is the Public Safety Act that is used more often to silence dissenters, including minors, in part, the law’s critics say, because it invests so much authority in the region’s government and is subject to so little judicial oversight.

“Kashmiri journalists have long found themselves in a precarious situation, squeezed between violent militants seeking independence and the Indian government, which has tried to keep the largely Muslim region under a tight grip,” the Times said.

Sultan, who has been a journalist for more than a decade, was charged after his 2018 arrest under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act when he wrote an article on Burhan Wani, a top commander of the banned Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, who was killed by the Indian security forces in 2016. His death was followed by protests and clashes, among the worst in the restive region in years.

The authorities accused Sultan of harbouring militants and of helping the Hizbul Mujahideen, which the government brands as a terrorist organization, carry out militant activities, according to his lawyer, Adil Abdullah Pandit. But Pandit convinced a special court that the government’s evidence was weak, and Sultan, who has denied the government’s accusations, was ordered released on bail.

The local Indian authorities then immediately made the case to hold him under the Public Safety Act. The police claimed he was “planning to again indulge in illegal/anti-national activities” and said his detention was warranted “to prevent the society from violence, strikes, economic adversity and social indiscipline.”

On Monday morning, as it was confirmed that Sultan was still not coming home, his father, Muhammad, and his daughter, Areeba Aasif, now 4, were waiting outside the police station where he was being held. The elder Sultan said he had seen his son, but was not allowed to speak to him.

“My wife does not cry anymore. She used to cry a lot,” the elder Sultan was quoted as saying. “She was eagerly waiting for her son’s return. We all were.”