Undertrial Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan completes three years in jail

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Aasif Sultan – a Kashmiri journalist who has been detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) since 27 August 2018 – has completed three years in prison as an undertrial during which he has not been granted bail so far.

Sultan was arrested, as per the police, on suspicion of ‘harnessing known militants’, the charges that have been repeatedly rejected by his family.

The prosecution’s case against Sultan has also significantly weakened as the key witness against Sultan – Shazia Yaqoob, who is also a co-accused in the case – has denied in the court to have met or seen him.

The journalist was detained from his home in August 2018 and arrested a few days later, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Police filed a chargesheet against him in February 2019, accusing him of sheltering militants.

Sultan has received several awards for his work from various journalist organizations across the world. Last year, Sultan was named one of TIME Magazine’s “10 Most Urgent” examples of threats to press freedom throughout the world. He is being held at the Srinagar Central Jail.

The next hearing of Sultan’s case is scheduled on 1 September 2021, as per Sabina Akhtar, his wife.

“I am hopeful that he will be released,” she said. “With every hearing, there is hope and there is fear too of him not getting bail.”

The delay in granting bail to Sultan has saddened the family but Akhtar has been hopeful throughout. “We always think that he will be released this time but that doesn’t happen. That’s how our three years passed [waiting for him to get bail],” she said.

For the last three years of Sultan’s arrest, playing a role of both the parents for her daughter has been difficult for Akhtar. “Three years have been really difficult. Don’t even ask. It’s difficult to raise a child in their father’s absence,” she said.

A month before his arrest, Sultan had written a cover story for the Kashmir Narrator magazine on Burhan Wani, a popular militant commander whose killing in 2016 by the government forces sparked a major uprising in Kashmir that lasted several months.

According to Sultan’s editor, Showkat Motta, the police had pressed Sultan to provide his sources for the article which had included conversations with non-combatant members of Wani’s militant group Hizbul Mujahideen.

Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator of Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ), in a statement in September 2018 had urged the police to “immediately release Aasif Sultan from jail and halt efforts to pressure him to reveal sources or become an informer”.

“By reporting on militant activity, Sultan is performing an important public service, not committing a crime,” Butler had said.

When Sultan was arrested Areeba, his daughter, was six months old and now she has started talking and acknowledging her father’s absence. “She is three and a half years old and she (now) knows her father is in jail,” said Akhtar.

“Areeba recognizes her father’s belongings. When a child starts growing up they start comparing their life with other children, saying they have fathers and mine is not with me. She has been doing the same.”

Akhtar added: “He hasn’t done anything. When he is innocent we will definitely have hope that he will get bail.”

Akhtar has not met Sultan for more than a year, ever since COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdown. “I met him in March 2020. I long to meet him,” she said.

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