Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj has been arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) under “terrorism” charges as New Delhi continues its crackdown on journalists in the Muslim-majority Himalayan region.
NIA, India’s top “anti-terror” agency, in a tweet on Tuesday said the arrest took place a day earlier due to Mehraj’s collaboration with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an organisation directed by jailed human rights activist Khurram Parvez.
Parvez was arrested on “terrorism” and other charges in November 2021.
An “investigation revealed that the JKCCS was funding terror activities in the [ Kashmir] valley and had also been in propagation of secessionist agenda in the Valley under the garb of protection of human rights,” NIA said in a statement on Tuesday.
It added that organisations, including JKCCS, were being probed for receiving domestic and foreign funds while developing links with proscribed “terrorist” groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM).
The agency launched what it called an “NGO-terror funding case” in October 2020.
Mehraj, who is the founding editor of Wande Magazine, worked with TwoCircles.net website. He has reported for several international media organisations, including Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle.
India’s Hindu-nationalist government stripped the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019, saying this was aimed at tackling “terrorism”. New Delhi has stationed tens of thousands of its soldiers to quash the decades-long armed rebellion. India has blamed Pakistan for backing the armed groups – a charge Islamabad has denied.
Both India and Pakistan claim the disputed region in its entirety, but govern only parts of it.
Indian forces have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, with the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018 calling for an international probe into the allegations of rights violations.
India’s Hindu-nationalist government has jailed several journalists as part of its intensifying crackdown on media freedom since 2019. Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah, who ran the Kashmir Walla website, was arrested last February, while Asif Sultan has spent more than five years in jail. He was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, a law under which bail is nearly impossible to get.
‘My son is innocent’
Mehraj’s father, Mehraj-ud-Din Bhat, told India’s The Wire that Mehraj was asked by the central “anti-terror” agency to appear at its offices in Srinagar on Monday evening while out on assignment.
“My son is innocent. His work speaks for him loudly. I have full faith that truth will prevail and he will get justice,” Bhat said.
A senior journalist based in Srinagar, the main city in the Muslim-majority region, told Al Jazeera that these arrests were being made to “perpetuate fear”.
“Sometimes you feel every journalist is silent and no one will be touched. But then, arrests like these show that things are not normal,” the journalist said on condition of anonymity.
“No one is writing or speaking about anything, but still, there is a lot of fear.”
The Free Speech Collective, an independent organisation that advocates for press freedom in India, told Al Jazeera that the arrest was “an alarming indication of how far the authorities will go to clamp down on independent journalism.”
“Mehraj has been researching and writing consistently on important issues, from the plight of Kashmiri Pandits to encounter killings and these charges, under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), will result in a silencing of the kind of stories he wrote about,” co-founder Geeta Seshu said.
“Journalists in Kashmir are arrested, raided, issued show cause notices, offloaded from airplanes and defamed as ‘anti-national’. The authorities must stop this systematic targeting of independent journalists in Kashmir, who seek to practice their profession without fear or favour.”
Amnesty India called for the journalist’s immediate release, saying the arrest in connection with a “terror funding case” is “a travesty”.
“Human rights defenders such as Irfan Mehraj should be encouraged and protected, not persecuted,” Aakar Patel, chair of the board at Amnesty International India, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The repression must stop. 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” for Mehraj’s arrest and called for his “immediate release”.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders joined Lawlor’s appeal. The organisation said Mehraj was “being targeted in retaliation for his work exposing human rights violations”.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti spoke out against the arrest on Twitter, saying that laws like the UAPA are being “abused constantly”.
The Journalist Federation of Kashmir also condemned the arrest by NIA and said Mehraj had been moved from Srinagar to New Delhi.
Journalist Federation of Kashmir condemns the arrest of a prominent journalist Irfan Mehraj on March 20, 2023 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Mehraj was arrested in Srinagar and then shifted to New Delhi.
— Journalist Federation of Kashmir (@pressfreedomJFK) March 21, 2023
A panel of UN experts last year condemned the arrest of JKCCS’s founder and president, Parvez, saying his arrest had a “chilling effect” on civil society, 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, which rights groups have dubbed “draconian”.
The UN experts, who presented their findings to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the legislation “allows the designation of any individual as a ʽterroristʼ, bypassing the requirement to establish membership or association with banned groups”.
“We call on the Government of India to end reprisals and intimidation of activists and civil society organisations, including of those like Mr. Parvez who share information and testimony on human rights violations with UN human rights bodies and mechanisms,” they added.
Parvez in January won the Martin Ennals Award, one of the world’s most prestigious human rights prizes, along with two other campaigners from Chad and Venezuela.
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