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. As of September 2021, Sultan was being held in the Srinagar Central Jail, according to his brother Omer Sultan.
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.
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. Showkat Motta, Sultan’s editor, and his 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 noncombatant 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, authorities also accused Sultan of aiding as well as being a member of the banned group Hizbul Mujahideen. Sultan’s brother Omer told CPJ in a September 2021 phone interview that police also investigated the journalist for alleged conspiracy against the state and planning a terrorist attack, but later dropped those investigations.
After those investigations were dropped, however, Sultan was again denied bail in November 2019, his brother said.
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.
According to Omer, Motta, and news reports, hearings in Sultan’s case have been repeatedly delayed since January 2019 for various reasons, including absence of a public prosecutor, a witness failing to appear for a hearing, the replacement of public prosecutors throughout the state, and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.
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.
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.”
Omer Sultan told CPJ that even though the journalist’s health was fine as of late 2021, his family was deeply concerned about the continuous delay in the trial. “The process has become a punishment,” he said.
CPJ messaged Rohit Kansal, the Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson, and Dilbag Singh, the Director General of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, for comment, but did not receive any replies.