Indian scribes languish in prison over unsubstantiated charges

Journalist Aasif Sultan has spent more than three years in custody for allegedly harboring militants.

As the world prepares to observe the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on Tuesday, two Indian journalists have spent several months behind bars without making headway in their cases.

Kashmir-based journalist Aasif Sultan has spent more than three years in custody for allegedly harboring militants, a charge which his lawyer said has not been proven so far. Sultan, 34, was arrested in August 2018 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, a tough anti-terror law.

Sultan, who worked as an assistant editor for the Srinagar-based English magazine ‘Kashmir Narrator,’ has also been charged with murder, attempted murder, and other crimes. But according to those close to Sultan, he was arrested for his journalistic work, especially for a story titled ‘The Rise of Burhan,’ which he wrote for the magazine in July 2018.

Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old Kashmiri rebel commander, was killed by Indian security forces on July 8, 2016, triggering a wave of anti-India protests across the disputed region in which around 100 people were killed, and Sultan’s story reportedly focused on how Burhan had become more dangerous for India after his death than while he was alive.

In early August 2018, a gun battle between militants and the police broke out in the vicinity of Sultan’s neighborhood in Srinagar in which a police officer was wounded and later succumbed to his injuries. Police added Sultan’s name to the complaint filed in connection with the incident, but his lawyer says he was not even present at the site of the gunfight.

Sultan’s trial began in June 2019, and a timeline of the court hearings shows that he missed many of them because the courts were closed for COVID-19 induced lockdowns.

“The prosecution has failed to prove any charges against him so far,” Sultan’s lawyer Aadil Abdullah Pandit told Anadolu Agency.

“We hope that he will be released soon from custody,” he said.

Sultan’s father, Muhammad Sultan Sayed, declined to speak about him.

A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks India in 12th place in its annual Global Impunity Index. According to the CPJ, an independent, nonprofit organization, India has failed to solve 20 murders of journalists.

– Arrested on his way to report on death of teenager

Another journalist, Siddique Kappan, has spent more than a year in custody since he was arrested on his way to report on the death of a teenager in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh days after she was gang-raped.

Kappan, 42, was arrested in October last year on the way to Hathras, a small town where a 19-year-old Dalit woman had been gang-raped by four men belonging to the influential Thakur community. Dalit is a name for people who used to belong to the lowest caste in India, previously characterized as “untouchables.”

Police first accused Kappan of conspiring to initiate a caste-based riot and creating communal disharmony. Later, sedition charges and provisions under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act were added.

According to police, Kappan is the office secretary of the Popular Front of India, or PFI — a Muslim group often accused by the Indian government of involvement in anti-national and anti-social activities — and only used journalism as a facade and was not carrying a press card when he was arrested. Police said they also recovered some PFI documents from him.

However, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, or KUWJ, which elected Kappan as the secretary of their New Delhi chapter in 2019, has rejected the police’s claim that he was not carrying a press card.

“Cases against him will not stand in court, as he was working as a journalist, and the recovery of some documents from him of a particular organization [PFI] will not make him a part of that organization,” Kappan’s lawyer, Wills Mathews, told Anadolu Agency.

“It’s a totally false and frivolous allegation,” said Mathews.

“Whatever may be the system, it is really unfair that he has been behind bars for more than a year. We have not received a charge sheet against him.”

The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists draws attention to the level of impunity for crimes against journalists, which remains extremely high globally.

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