Jammu and Kashmir police took Aasif Sultan into custody on August 27, 2018, and formally arrested him a few days later. In February 2019, police filed a charge sheet accusing him of harboring militants. He is detained at the Srinagar Central Jail as his case proceeds through the courts.
Sultan, a journalist with the monthly magazine Kashmir Narrator, is being tried for “complicity” in “harboring known terrorists” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in Srinagar, according to Indian news website Scroll. Police detained Sultan during a raid on his home in Srinagar on the night of August 27, 2018. Jammu and Kashmir police formally arrested him on August 31, according to a police statement seen by CPJ. The charges stem from his name being added to a First Information Report–the primary step in an Indian police investigation–filed in response to a gunfight in the Batamaloo region of Kashmir on August 12.
Sultan’s brother Omer Sultan and editor, Showkat Motta, told CPJ in late 2020 that he has been repeatedly denied bail, even though Jammu and Kashmir amended its plea to drop the most serious charges, such as a conspiracy against the state and planning a terror attack.
Police seized four cell phones, Sultan’s laptop, books, and journals during the raid that resulted in his arrest, according to Scroll.
According to a statement filed on October 3, 2018 before a judge in Srinagar, the state accused Sultan of being in touch with a militant group and promoting it on social media. Motta and Sultan’s family disputed this claim and said that Sultan was being targeted for his work as a journalist.
In July 2018, Sultan wrote a cover story for the Kashmir Narrator about the slain Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani, whose killing by Indian security forces set off a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Kashmir in July 2016. Sultan’s story included interviews with non-combatant members of Wani’s militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, and according to Motta, police pressured Sultan to disclose his sources for the story.
According to a judgment given by the local court when rejecting his bail on November 13, 2018, which CPJ reviewed, Sultan has been accused of aiding as well as being a member of Hizbul Mujahideen, which has been banned.
According to Scroll, police have subjected Sultan to repeated interrogation during his detention, including questions about why he reported on the conflict in Kashmir, why he had not reported on development in the state, and questions about headlines that had appeared in the Kashmir Narrator.
As of late 2020, Sultan was being held in the Srinagar Central Jail, according to his editor.
According to Motta, hearings in Sultan’s case have been repeatedly delayed. In January 2019, the judge went on a holiday for nearly a month; on February 5, the public prosecutor was absent when a hearing in Sultan’s case was scheduled; in early May, there was a riot inside the Srinagar Central Jail, so he was not brought to court, Motta said. On June 2, Kashmir Observer reported that police officers related to Sultan’s case failed to appear for a hearing. In July, hearings were further delayed after the Indian government replaced public prosecutors throughout the state, Motta said.
Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, Sultan’s case was further delayed; the first hearing of the year was held on October 21, at which the court set the next hearing for November 10, according to Sultan’s brother Omer, who spoke to CPJ in late 2020.
At the November 10 hearing, the prosecution’s witnesses did not arrive, and the case was delayed until November 25; at that hearing, the witnesses were deposed, and a following hearing was scheduled for December 11, according to Motta and Omer.
According to Motta, the prosecution’s case against Aasif Sultan hangs on two basic points: police claim that they have found militant group Hizbul Mujahideen’s letterhead in his possession, and police cite a statement by a woman who was arrested in another case claiming that Sultan had links to Hizbul Mujahideen.
In April 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CPJ joined 73 media and rights groups in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and six other heads of Asian governments calling on them to release imprisoned journalists, including Sultan, amid the pandemic.
Omer Sultan told CPJ that the journalist’s health was fine as of late 2020, but his family was deeply concerned about reports of increasing COVID-19 cases in Indian jails, particularly in Srinagar Central Jail where he is detained.
On August 28, 2020, in response to CPJ’s advertisement in The Washington Post demanding Sultan’s release, the Jammu and Kashmir police posted on Twitter that the journalist was not being held for his work but for “hatching a criminal conspiracy, harbouring and supporting terrorists who martyred a police constable.”
In late 2020, CPJ messaged Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal for comment on Sultan’s case, but did not receive a response. CPJ also messaged Director General of Police Dilbag Singh, but did not receive a response.