Kashmir Scholars Consultative and Action Network Stop Arrests of Human Rights Defenders in Kashmir Public…
- Irfan Mehraj is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir. He is the founding editor of the online Wande Magazine and also contributes towards editorial work of the media outlet TwoCircles.net.
- He wrote about issues of human rights violations in Kashmir including fake encounter killings, attacks on Kashmiri civilians, and the deteriorating human rights situation in Kashmir after abrogation of Article 370.
- He also contributed to prominent national and international media houses such as The Indian Express, Al Jazeera, Himal Southasian, and Deutsche Welle. In 2016 Irfan Mehraj worked as a researcher with Khurram Parvez-led Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a Srinagar-based rights advocacy group which is now under the scanner of the NIA in a fictitious terrorism case.
Detention, Intimidation, and Case-background
- On 20th March, Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj was arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) under “terrorism” charges as part of its systematic crackdown on journalists in the Muslim-majority region. NIA, India’s top “anti-terror” agency, that has led the crackdown in a tweet said the arrest took place due to Mehraj’s collaboration with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an organization directed by jailed human rights activist Khurram Parvez.
- On 22 March 2023, the Patiala House Court in New Delhi remanded human rights defender and journalist Irfan Mehraj in NIA custody. In the evening of 20 March 2023, he received a ‘routine telephone call’ from the NIA and was asked to report to their office in Srinagar. Subsequently, he was arrested under a case registered by the NIA in October 2020, alleging non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of serious offenses including criminal conspiracy, raising funds for, and supporting ‘terrorist’ organizations. The state, under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, has adopted a vague and ambiguous definition of terrorism that includes all expressions of dissent against the state, including non-violent ones. Irfan Mehraj’s arrest is part of the ongoing consolidated attacks on journalists in Kashmir and on JKCCS.
- He was arrested in First Information Report (FIR) No RC-37/2020, registered in October 2020, under Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 124-A (inciting disaffection towards government through words, signs, etc.) of the Indian Penal Code and UAPA sections 17 (fundraising for terror activities), 18 (conspiracy to commit terror act), 22A & 22C (relating to offenses committed by registered companies), 38 (offense relating to membership of a terrorist organization), 39 (supporting a terrorist organization) and 40 (raising funds for a terrorist organization).
- On 21 March 2023, the local magistrate approved the transit remand for Irfan Mehraj to be taken to New Delhi and subsequently he was transferred to New Delhi by an evening flight, according to human rights organization Frontline Defenders. In Kashmir, the UAPA is being used to stifle all forms of dissent and expression of the people against the ongoing occupation and settler colonization. India is expanding the definition of “terrorism” to include all forms of not just legitimate armed resistance to colonial rule, but also non-violent expression. This further endangers Kashmiri civil society and rights defenders.
- Irfan Mehraj has previously been interrogated by the NIA on multiple occasions in Srinagar and New Delhi with respect to the same case. In October 2020, under the same case in which the human rights defender is now arrested, the NIA had raided the offices of JKCCS and homes of prominent Kashmiri human rights defenders, including Khurram Parvez. The NIA also seized documents and electronic devices, including those of Irfan Mehraj. A press release by the NIA on 21 March 2023 stated that Irfan Mehraj’s arrest was the first in their investigation in this case. According to this NIA press release, he was a close associate of human rights defender Khurram Parvez who is arbitrarily detained in another similar case under UAPA by the NIA since 22 November 2021.
- One of his recent multimedia stories for DW took a critical look at the installation of CCTV cameras in the capital Srinagar by Kashmir police and why “some locals are frightened they are being spied on and unhappy they are having to burden the cost of the operation.” Such stories by Irfan Mehraj seem to be the real reason why the state detained him.
- If convicted, Irfan could face up to 14 years of imprisonment or even the death penalty.
- Mehraj is one of the many journalists arrested by the NIA from Kashmir. In 2018, the central agency arrested Valley-based photojournalist Kamran Yousuf. He, however, was acquitted by the NIA court last year. In October 2021, the NIA arrested photojournalist Manan Ahmad Dar. He was granted bail in January this year with the court saying that the charges against him were “mere assumptions”. Besides them, Kashmiri journalists Fahad Shah, Asif Sultan, and Sajad Gul continue to be behind bars for their press-work.
Family and a Broken Home:
- According to news outlet The Wire, the deteriorating health condition of his father, Mehraj-ud-Din Bhat, a Kashmir arts trader who has been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, prevented Irfan, the eldest among two siblings, from moving out of Kashmir to pursue his career. Irfan stayed at home for his father, but his detention now has put the family in great distress.
- Irfan leaves behind his wife, an ailing father, an old mother, a younger brother, all of whom depend on him for tangible support.
International Recognition and Global Calls for Release
- Responding to the arrest of Kashmiri journalist, Irfan Mehraj, in Srinagar by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with a “terror funding case”, Aakar Patel, chair of board at Amnesty International India, said: “The arrest of Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj under terror charges is a travesty. The arrest is yet another instance of the long-drawn repression of human rights and the crackdown on media freedoms and civil society in the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The stifling of the rights to freedom of expression and association continue unabated in Kashmir. He added that “Human rights defenders such as Irfan Mehraj should be encouraged and protected, not persecuted. He must be immediately released. The repression must stop. Criminalization of legitimate human rights work is extremely alarming and the authorities must put an end to this immediately. Furthermore, Patel stated that “Indian authorities should prioritize ending impunity for the human rights violations that human rights defenders and journalists have bravely documented and exposed, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, and ensure that human rights defenders and activists can work in a safe and enabling environment without any fear of reprisals.”
- Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, tweeted that 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 organization said Mehraj was “being targeted in retaliation for his work exposing human rights violations”.
- Frontline Defenders also condemned the arrest of journalist Irfan Mehraj and stated that the detention is “a part of a larger attempt to target the human rights defenders associated with JKCCS.” The organization added that it is “deeply concerned about the increasing harassment of activists and journalists in Kashmir and calls on the authorities in India to immediately and unconditionally release Irfan Mehraj and quash the fabricated charges against him.”
Violations of International Law in Irfan’s Detention
- Journalists in Kashmir have been victims of oppression for a long time. They are regularly called to police stations and interrogated about their reports and their sources of information. India is a party to all four Geneva Conventions and incorporated the Geneva Convention Act of 1960 into its domestic legal framework, therefore, civilian journalists are bound to be protected as long as they do not take part in any direct hostility or act of violence. They are not to be harassed about their sources of information and for their reporting of the conflict.
- According to Rule 34 of the study on Customary International Humanitarian Law, civilian journalists who are working in areas of armed conflict must be protected as long as they are not taking a direct part in hostility. This protection remains almost the same in international and non-international armed conflict.
- Resolutions have been instituted in U.N to prevent acts of violence against journalists in conflict zones like Kashmir, including UNESCO Resolution 29 (1997), U.N. Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006), the Medellin Declaration, (May 4, 2007) and the Declaration on the Safety of Journalists (2009). The resolutions strongly criticize attacks and intimidations of journalists in conflict zones and urge states to investigate all acts of violence in which journalists are victimized, release detained journalists and sign and ratify the Additional Protocols I and II of the Geneva Conventions and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
- Other international conventions and laws that are being violated by the Indian state in its detention of Irfan are:
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol
- UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under any Form of Detention or Imprisonment
- UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
All these conventions grant protections to human rights defenders from illegal detention and also offer fundamental rights to political prisoners.
Picture taken from Irfan Mehraj Facebook TimeLine