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India arrests Kashmiri journalist amid ongoing media crackdown


Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj has been arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) on charges of “terrorism” as New Delhi continues to crack down on journalists in the Muslim-majority region of the Himalayas.

NIA, India’s main “anti-terror agency”, said in a tweet on Tuesday that the arrest had been made a day earlier due to Mehraj’s collaboration with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an organization led by imprisoned human rights activist Khurram Parvez.

Parvez was arrested in November 2021 on “terrorism” and other charges.

An “investigation revealed that the JKCCS was funding terror activities in the (Kashmir) valley and also propagated the secessionist agenda in the valley under the guise of protecting human rights,” NIA said in a statement Tuesday.

It added that organizations including JKCCS were under investigation for receiving domestic and foreign funds while developing links with banned “terrorist” groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM).

The agency launched what it called an “NGO terror financing case” in October 2020.

Mehraj, the founder and editor of Wande Magazine, collaborated with the website TwoCircles.net. He has reported for several international media organizations, including Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle.

India’s Hindu nationalist government stripped the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019, saying it was to tackle “terrorism”. New Delhi has stationed tens of thousands of soldiers to crush the decades-long armed insurgency. India has blamed Pakistan for supporting the armed groups – a charge Islamabad has denied.

Both India and Pakistan claim the disputed region in its entirety, but only rule parts of it.

Indian troops have been accused of widespread human rights violations, with the United Nations Human Rights Council calling in 2018 for an international inquiry into the allegations of human rights violations.

India’s Hindu nationalist government has jailed several journalists as part of its ramp-up of media freedom since 2019. Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah, who ran the Kashmir Walla website, was arrested last February, while Asif Sultan spent more than five years in been in prison. He was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, a law that makes bail nearly impossible.

‘My son is innocent’

Mehraj’s father, Mehraj-ud-Din Bhat, told The Wire in India that Mehraj was asked by the central “anti-terror” agency to appear at his office in Srinagar on Monday night on assignment.

“My son is innocent. His work speaks loudly for him. I am confident that the truth will prevail and justice will be served to him,” Bhat said.

A senior journalist from Srinagar, the region’s main Muslim-majority city, told Al Jazeera that these arrests were made to “perpetuate fear”.

“Sometimes you have the feeling that every journalist is silent and that no one is touched. But arrests like this show that things are not normal,” the journalist said on condition of anonymity.

“No one writes or talks about anything, yet there is a lot of fear.”

The Free Speech Collective, an independent organization that advocates for press freedom in India, told Al Jazeera the arrest was “an alarming indication of how far the authorities will go to crack down on independent journalism”.

“Mehraj has consistently researched and written on important issues from the plight of Kashmiri Pandits to murders and these allegations, under the draconian Prevention of Unlawful Activities (UAPA) Act, will result in the sort of stories being silenced he wrote about,” said co-founder Geeta Seshu.

“Journalists in Kashmir are being arrested, ambushed, giving statements, being unloaded from planes and labeled ‘anti-national’. The authorities must stop this systematic attack on independent journalists in Kashmir who want to practice their profession without fear or favour.”

‘Very concerned’

Amnesty India called for the journalist’s immediate release, saying the arrest in connection with a “terror financing case” is “a travesty”.

“Human rights defenders like Irfan Mehraj should be encouraged and protected, not prosecuted,” Aakar Patel, chairman of Amnesty International India, said in a statement Tuesday.

“The repression must stop. The criminalization of legitimate human rights work is extremely alarming and the authorities must put an end to this immediately.”

Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said she was “deeply concerned” about Mehraj’s arrest and called for his “immediate release”.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders joined Lawlor’s appeal. The organization said Mehraj was “the target of retaliation for his work to expose human rights abuses”.

Former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti took to Twitter to speak out against the arrest, saying that laws such as the UAPA are “constantly abused”.

The Journalists Federation of Kashmir also condemned the arrest by NIA and said that Mehraj had been moved from Srinagar to New Delhi.

A panel of UN experts last year condemned the arrest from JKCCS founder and president Parvez, who said his arrest had a “frightening effect” on civil society, human rights activists and journalists in the region.

Parvez was known for his work documenting and reporting serious human rights violations, including the enforced disappearance and unlawful killing in Indian-administered Kashmir.

His detention was extended five times by the NIA Special Court in New Delhi under UAPA rights groups have called “draconian”.

The UN experts, who presented their findings to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the legislation “enables the designation of any individual as a ‘terrorist’, with the requirement to declare membership in or association with banned groups establishment is bypassed”.

“We call on the Government of India to end retaliation and harassment against activists and civil society organisations, including those like Mr Parvez who share information and testimony about human rights violations with UN human rights bodies and mechanisms,” they added up to it.

In January, Parvez won the Martin Ennals Award, one of the world’s most prestigious human rights awards, along with two other activists from Chad and Venezuela.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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