“What if he is never released?”: Journalist’s two-year detention leaves family in disarray

By Yashraj Sharma / The Kashmir Walla

For 2-year-old Areeba Sultan, a white worn-off press card is a horse that she rides across the carpet, humming: “Baba, Baba.” Her father, Aasif Sultan, never got to play a horse for her. The last time, Mr. Aasif played with her on the night of 27 August when the police bundled him into their vehicle and took him away.

In the guestroom of the Sultan family’s residence in Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city, Srinagar, Mohammad Sultan, Areeba’s grandfather, said that he had always been anxious of the work his son, Mr. Aasif, a journalist with a local magazine, did.

Regardless of what the text read, Mr. Aasif’s mugshot and byline, irked the father in him. “His articles were very critical. I knew, someday, [it] would land him in trouble,” said the father, Mr. Sultan. “And that is what happened.”

Two years later, Mr. Aasif’s imprisonment has shattered a small family and left a vocal magazine in disarray. His case lingers in the court due to subsequent lockdowns — the August clampdown and COVID-19 — as his wife struggles to raise their daughter alone, navigating different lives altogether.

The family’s anxiety had shot up mid-2018 when the law enforcement had begun asking questions about a story that he did on the rise and death of a militant commander, Burhan Wani, whose killing in 2016 had led to a massive uprising.

The most striking part about the profile was the extensive details from the woods. Mr. Aasif had interviewed over-ground workers (OGW), a term used for non-combatant associates of the militants, close to Mr. Wani–a rarity in Kashmir’s journalism in recent years.

On 11 July 2018, the Crime Investigation Department (CID) wrote a scathing email to the editor of Kashmir Narrator, where Mr. Aasif worked as an assistant editor; the department had taken specific objection to two stories–the one done by Mr. Aasif and another story on the village where Mr. Wani was killed, reported by a different journalist.

The email by the Department put forth a number of queries: “These stories [are] glamourizing terrorism… has your magazine endorsed perpetrators of violence and terrorism in the state?” By using the photographs of Mr. Wani and other militants, “aren’t your magazine trying to eulogize and romanticize the terrorist?” “Is this not a breach of journalistic ethics to promote extremism and terrorism?”

Both stories were published just before Mr. Wani’s second death anniversary.

It was shortly after the questioning about the story had begun that Mr. Aasif was detained by the police after a raid at their residence on the intervening night of 27 and 28 August. During the raid, the police had also seized his phone, laptop, and journals–even his books.

Four days later, he was formally charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), accused of “complicity” in “harbouring known terrorists” — an allegation that Mr. Aasif’s colleagues and the family have strongly refuted.

The chargesheet in Mr. Aasif’s case was filed exactly 179 days after his formal detention, and just one day before the 180 day period during which a charge sheet must be filed in the court as per the law.

The legal counsel in the case, Adil Pandit, is convinced that his client has been falsely accused. “These are the fake charges and the police have fabricated the [pieces of] evidence,” he claimed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists had quoted Kashmir Narrator’s editor, Showkat Motta as having said that “the prosecution’s case against Aasif Sultan hangs on two basic points. First, the police claim that they have found militant group Hizbul Mujahideen’s letterhead in his possession. Second, police cite a statement by a woman who was arrested in another case claiming that Sultan had links to Hizbul Mujahideen.”

However, in a statement in front of the magistrate, Mr. Pandit claimed, the woman categorically said: “I don’t know who Aasif Sultan is.” There are many more loopholes in the case against Mr. Aasif, he said, which “I can’t discuss in detail as it would affect the proceedings of the case.”

The case has been moving at a snail’s pace, said Mr. Pandit. The 32-year-old lawyer stated that the case was almost at a halt for the past one year: earlier, due to restrictions in the August clampdown and later when COVID-19 forced the court premises to shut down.

So far, the court has only examined four to five witnesses, said Mr. Pandit. There are fifty-five witnesses listed in the case. “It would take them twenty years [at this pace],” he said. “The courts are already burdened. And the government deliberately delays these cases.”

In one of the court hearings, on 12 March this year, Mr. Aasif’s wife, Sabeena Akhter sat with Areeba in her arms when a panic attack hit her. “I had palpitations in the courtroom. He was sitting in the front row and I was on the last. I couldn’t control and left the room, crying,” she said, visibly perturbed. “Later, [when] he came out, [Mr. Aasif] told me: ‘It’ll be fine.’”

For 26-year-old Ms. Akhter, the courtroom, with an irregular frequency of hearings in her husband’s case, have become a place where she and Areeba can meet Mr. Aasif. In those few moments, Ms. Akhter said, Mr. Aasif held their daughter close to him, handcuffed all through the brief meeting.

The Sultan family recalled a day at the court when Mr. Aasif sported a neon green t-shirt with the slogan “Journalism is not a crime” printed over it. A picture of the moment Mr. Aasif had hopped back onto the police van, to transport him back to jail, had gone viral and assumed iconic status.

From the Central Jail in Srinagar, Mr. Aasif has called home almost every day of his detention since the last two years, said Mr. Mohammad. Every time, he said, Mr. Aasif asked about the wellbeing of the family and nothing more.

Mr. Aasif had become weak though, felt Ms. Akhter. “But he won’t tell this to me,” she said. “He wants to be brave in front of me. In return, we behave bravely for him.”

As the COVID-19 crisis worsens in India, and Jammu and Kashmir, several international rights groups — including the International Federation of Journalists, the CPJ, the RSF, and Amnesty International — have called for Mr. Aasif’s release, as a part of the drive to decongest the jails.

Till 18 August, 102 persons had tested positive for the virus at the Central Jail Srinagar, where Mr. Aasif continues to be lodged.

Agraduate in arts, Ms. Akhter had married Mr. Aasif during the 2016 uprising. She understood her husband’s profession when she saw him working on his laptop through the nights. Now, when he isn’t there, she watches Areeba wake up and cry in the middle of the long nights.

But what troubled her more was when Areeba, learning to speak, called every other man–her uncles, neighbours, and grandfather–“baba”, papa. Ms. Akhter would keep pictures of Mr. Aasif handy and repeatedly instructed her: “Areeba, this is your baba.”

In the meetings inside the jail, Ms. Akhter said, Mr. Aasif would sit across the mother-daughter and just look at her. He wasn’t allowed to touch, she said. From the distance, Mr. Aasif would raise his hands in the air to gesture. Areeba wouldn’t respond to him. “It was painful for Aasif,” she said.

But lately, she has started recognizing him. From the photos, press ID card, and the posters — which call for his immediate release — that her mother has in her smartphone. At night, Areeba arranges three pillows on the bed: “This is for Mumma, this is for me,” she says pointing her fingers at the pillow, “[and] this is for Baba.”

The routine follows at lunch, dinner, and outings. Nothing can fill the void of his absence. At nights, when Areeba would cry, Ms. Akhter wishes if there was someone to look after her; play with her; or just hold her in the arms. There isn’t and she is alone in this.

While Mr. Mohammad is at peace. He believes that his son is innocent: “If he was involved [in the case], I would be pained as a father,” he said. “But I know he is innocent.”

That is the reason behind many awards and the media coverage of Mr. Aasif’s detention, he said. “Today, it is Aasif [who is detained], tomorrow it’ll be you. This is journalism. Today, you are writing about him; tomorrow, someone else will write about you.”

For Ms. Akhter, her in-laws have been a great support. And Mr. Sultan applauds her bravery. But from inside, Ms. Akhter has grown weak too, especially in the moments she realizes her worst fear: “What if he is never released?”

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