Long Walk to Freedom Cut Short: A Chronicle Of Kashmir Journalist Aasif Sultan’s Captivity For Over Five Years

15 Apr 2024 19 min read  Share

More than five years after the J&K police arrested him on terrorism charges, two years after a judge found no prima facie evidence against him, and three months after a judge squashed a detention order against him, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan remains jailed. The police arrested the 36-year-old in another case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act case on 29 February 2024, the same day he reached home for the first time in 2,010 days.

After nearly five-and-a half years of imprisonment, Kashmiri journalist Asif Sultan was granted bail in December 2023 and released on February 27, only to be rearrested by J&K Police and booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act/ SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Srinagar: On 29 February 2024, Aasif Sultan’s six-year-old daughter Areeba saw her father as a free man when he reached home in Srinagar, Kashmir, after 2,010 days of incarceration in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. 

Areeba saw him behind bars or in handcuffs from behind a netted wall in the Srinagar central jail before he was moved to Ambedkar Nagar district jail in UP and  Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.

“It felt as if she was seeing him for the first time,” said Muhammed Sultan Sayed, Aasif’s 67-year-old father, speaking of the day Sultan returned after five and half years. 

Any hope for Sultan and his daughter to pick up the pieces and make up for lost years was shattered when J&K police arrested him in a five-year-old case later that day. 

“On the day he was arrested again, she asked me, ‘He just returned. Where did he go now?’” Sayed, who retired from a clerical job in a government office a few years ago, said. “I told her he had only finished half of the Quran, and now he’s gone to finish the rest. What else could I have told a six-year-old? I just hope he returns home for Eid.”

Eid has come and gone, but Sultan is jailed in a case Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, related to the incident of rioting inside Srinagar central jail on 4 April 2019. 

The J&K police arrested Sultan the same day he returned home. He had secured bail in the UAPA case from August 2018 in April 2022, and a detention order under the Public Safety Act from August 2019 was quashed on 7 December 2023. 

The jail authorities in UP took 78 days, more than two and half months, to release Sultan. TK shows the home secretary sanctioned the case against him on 15 February 2024, two weeks before he was released for a day. 

The J&K police alleged that Sultan was an “overground worker” (OGW) for the Hizbul Mujahideen militants. They arrested him on 31 August 2018 in connection with a case of shoot between militants and security forces in Srinagar in which a policeman was killed in July that year.

The judge who gave him bail on 5 April 2022 said neither “direct evidence” nor “substantial evidence” linked Sultan to the alleged crimes.

The judge said there was no evidence to suggest that he was linked to any militant group, the witnesses had not said anything incriminating against him, and a co-accused never identified him. 

“With Aasif’s case in 2018, the crackdown on media in Kashmir began,” said a former colleague of Sultan’s at Kashmir Reader, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It wasn’t a chargesheet against Aasif but a chargesheet against Kashmir’s journalism.”

Since Sultan’s arrest in 2018, there has been a swift and relentless crackdown on journalists reporting or speaking critically of the government in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region plagued by an insurgency since the early nineties. The situation for journalists worsened after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government rescinded J&K’s limited autonomy and made it a union territory, bringing it under the direct control of the central government. 

Summoning journalists to explain critical reports, searching their homes, and registering police cases alleging grave crimes and arrests broke the back of the press that earlier had some room to report on human rights abuses, governance failures and the people living in one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world. 

Since 2019, at least 35 Kashmiri journalists have faced “police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, restrictions on freedom of movement, or fabricated criminal cases” for their reporting, according to Human Rights Watch. Some of them were not allowed to fly out of the country, including Sanna Irshad Mattoo, who was stopped from going to collect the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in October 2022. 

In addition to Sultan’s case, five other journalists—Fahad Shah, Gowhar Geelani, Masrat Zahra, Manan Gulzar Dar, Irfan Mehraj—have faced UAPA cases, and three journalists—Fahad Shah, Qazi Shibli, Sajad Gul—have been booked under the PSA. 

Three journalists—Sajad Gul, Irfan Mehraj, and Sultan—are still behind bars.

On the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, 

India’s rank was 161 in 2023, marking its lowest position in two decades. 

Sultan’s case has become one of the high-profile global cases of state intimidation against journalists and press freedom. 

In 2019, the United States National Press Club awarded Sultan the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award.  In a statement, the National Press Club stated, “Sultan’s case reflects worsening conditions for the press and citizenry in Kashmir.”

Sultan was also featured in TIME magazine’s May 2019 edition “as one of the ten most urgent cases that pose a threat to press freedom around the world.” 

In 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a prominent press watchdog, along with 400 journalists and civil society members, “urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant Aasif Sultan “immediate and unconditional release.”

“The state took away five years of Aasif and his family’s life, all for his work,” said a friend of Sultan, who is still pursuing journalism but no longer reports on subjects that would invite attention from the authorities.  

“Today, other journalists see Aasif's case as a horrifying example of how far the state can go.”


Sayed said Sultan reached home at noon on February 29. Around four in the afternoon, his brother received a call from the Batamaloo police station saying that Aasif had to sign documents that anyone held outside J&K was required to. 

Sayed and his brother went with Aasif to the police station. Aasif was suddenly dizzy, so they took him to the SMHS [Shri Maharaja Hari Singh] Hospital with a policeman accompanying them. 

When they returned to the police station around nine, the police took Sultan to the Rainawari police station. 

It was at the police station that Aasif was rearrested. That day, his family couldn’t find out why he had been arrested. 

Sultan’s lawyer, Adil Abdullah Pandit, said the police had registered another UAPA case related to the incident of rioting inside Srinagar central jail in April 2019. 

When we spoke with them last week, the family members had no more information about the case. 

Riot in Barracks

On 4 April 2019, inmates at the Srinagar Central Jail clashed with the staff members after word spread that they would be relocated outside the valley due to repair work on the lockup premises. The same day, an FIR was registered at Srinagar’s Rainawari police station for “unlawful act” under section 13 of the UAPA and nine sections of the Ranbir Penal Code, now the Indian Penal Code, including punishment for “rioting” and “rioting, armed with deadly weapon” “endangering life”, “offences against property”, “causing hurt to public servant” and “attempt to murder”.

A per the police, the police removed a part of the barrack that the inmates were using to carry out “anti-national/illegal activities” as part of the renovation, following which prisoners in the adjoining barracks suddenly the inmates raised anti-India slogans, breaking lock handles, doors, window panes and ventilators. Then, they pelted stones at labourers and the jail staff. 

The police said that inmates also got hold of seven gas cylinders from the prisoners’ mess and set them afire at different places in the jail, including near the main gate. Electric lights were smashed, CCTV cameras ripped out, and newly constructed segregation walls demolished.

The then Director General of Police and Prisons Dilbag Singh had said that inmates had also burnt a structure within the facility. 

However, a video allegedly shot inside the central jail on the day of the riots shows something else happened. 

An off-the-camera voice, supposedly of an inmate, said that the jail authorities had “desecrated the Quran, and inmates had protested against that”. 

His lawyer, Pandit, moved the sessions court in Srinagar for bail on 1 March 2024.

In its application challenging bail, the state—close to five years after the riots—has alleged that among the 26 accused inmates, Aasif Sultan, along with another inmate, acted as a “main perpetrator” and “apparent invoker” in the central jail riots.

The state has also alleged that the Sultan has played a “main role” in setting the barracks of jail on fire, “assaulting public servants”, “attempted murder”, “raising anti-national slogans”, and “spreading toxicity against the national integrity”. 

Claiming that Sultan has “anti-national tendencies” and is centred towards “disturbing peace and tranquillity”, the police have said that Sultan has “tendencies to join terrorist ranks or support such terrorist-related organisations”.

“The probability of the distortion of the fundamental evidence and relevant fabric of the case by the accused mentioned is higher in case of getting bailed out,” the police said. 

“I’m sure we will get something positive in this case at a proper time,” he told Article 14 on 18 March 2024.

Choosing Journalism  

Those who know Sultan recall him as a methodical scribe who dressed conservatively, spoke softly, and worked quietly and efficiently. He was also known as someone who was reserved and didn’t engage in much office politics or gossip. 

“It’s true he had a limited interaction with the fraternity, but he was the gentleman of the tribe, who always minded his own business without participating much in journalistic circles,” said his classmate at the Media Education Research Center (MERC), now a senior journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

As the son of a former health employee, Sultan was supposed to fulfil his parents’ long-standing desire to pursue a medical career. However, Sultan, the youngest of three siblings, was driven by an innate passion for writing, nurtured throughout his academic years. 

To meet his father’s expectations, he pursued an undergraduate program in microbiology at Srinagar’s Sri Pratap College. After completing his undergraduate studies in 2008, Sultan applied to three postgraduate courses at Kashmir University—journalism, library science and microbiology—and was accepted into them. 

Confronted between pursuing his passion for writing and honouring his father’s aspirations, Sultan opted for journalism. However, his decision was met with a warning from his father about the inherent dangers of pursuing journalism in a strife-hit area like Kashmir. He became the first in his family to become a journalist. 

“He had put his heart and soul into learning the basics of this field,” Sultan’s childhood friend said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He’s very disciplined, religious and honest. There’s no way he would have ever compromised on the ethical part of his profession.”

As a student, Sultan joined Kashmir University’s Media Education Research Center (MERC) department, where fate would lead him to meet Showkat Motta, an alumnus of the same department and an editor at Conveyor, a monthly magazine in Srinagar. Motta gave Sultan an internship opportunity based on his professor's recommendation. 

In 2009, Sultan was hired as an employee at Conveyor, a Srinagar-based monthly magazine covering politics, human rights, and the environment. He continued working until the publication shut down in early 2012 when it ran into losses. 

In May 2012, he joined Kashmir Reader and the Kashmir Narrator in 2015. 

On 4 April 2018, when Sultan worked as an assistant editor for the now-defunct Kashmir Narrator, he filed a report with the headline “When a dying rebel wrote ‘Kalima’ with his blood in Shopian’s Kachdoora” and a photograph of the writing on the wall.

The story was based on an encounter that occurred on 1 April 2018 in Kachdoora village of South Kashmir’s Shopian District, where security forces killed five militants. 

Three soldiers and three civilians were also killed in the gun battle. 

After the report was published, Showkat Motta, the newspaper’s owner and editor, received a call from the CID, and both were accused of glorifying militancy, a former employee of the Kashmir Narrator said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. 

“But as a conscientious journalist, Aasif, who managed the online desk, would cover every news story, including stone-pelting or other incidents,” said the employee. To him, such events were merely news. The state failed to acknowledge Aasif’s diverse reporting portfolio, which included stories on politics, environment, education, and social issues.”

The police took no action against Sultan then, but the employee said it brought him to the authorities' attention. 

“Today, whether it is Aasif’s prosecution on fantastical charges or his arrest after arrest, it all started with that story,” the employee said. 

Two months after the piece on Kachdoora gunfight was published, Aasif reported a piece on Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who was killed two years earlier, sparking off an unprecedented upsurge of protests in Kashmir that left nearly 100 civilians dead. The Kashmir Narrator published an article on him on 1 July 2018. The 4000-word cover story is titled the “Rise of Burhan Wani”. 

Based on interviews with former OGWs, war experts and police sources, the story was a deep dive into the slain militant commander’s life and asked the question, “Why is Burhan proving more dangerous in his grave than in his living room?”

OGWs or overground workers are the people who provide militants with logistical support, cash, and shelter but do not leave their homes and villages to pick up arms. 

“Aasif wanted to explore a fresh angle on Burhan Wani’s life as a militant commander,” a former colleague of Sultan said. He had managed to speak exclusively with some former OGWs who had once been part of Burhan Wani’s network. Besides some exclusive details, there were also never-before-seen photographs.”

The story quickly gained widespread attention in Kashmir for several days and caught the authorities' attention. 

Days after the story, the employee said the police accused the Kashmir Narrator of “breaching journalistic ethics” and “romanticising the terrorist”. The editor was asked to explain why the report was published. 

However, the matter did not immediately escalate. 

Eight weeks later, the police raided Sultan’s residence on 27 August, booked him in the militancy case and arrested him three days later. 


The case against Sultan was registered on 12 August 2018, the day security forces surrounded a house in Srinagar’s Batamaloo locality following source-based reports that a group of militants was hiding inside.

When they began searching the house, the militants hiding inside fired on them, resulting in injuries to four security personnel. One of them, from Jammu and Kashmir police, succumbed to his injuries. Subsequently, the militants managed to escape. 

The house where the militants took shelter belonged to Mohammad Shafiq Bhat, a former militant from the Diyarwani locality of Batamaloo. Sultan’s residence is located over a kilometre away from the site of the incident.

On the same day, police registered a case at the Batamaloo police station and arrested Bhat for “harbouring terrorists in his residential house and providing shelter to them”. 

The police also arrested 30-year-old Waseem Ahmad Khan from the same locality for providing “material support to the active terrorists by conspiring with them…”

According to the police chargesheet filed on 6 February 2019, Bhat revealed the identity of three militants who were hiding in his house as well as those who had brought them there. The chargesheet also identified three others—Bilal Ahmad Bhat, Shazia Yaqoob and Aasif Sultan—as co-conspirators and associates of the militants.

While co-accused Bilal and Shazia were arrested on 23 August, Sultan was picked up from his home four days later and allegedly kept in illegal detention until his formal arrest. 

The chargesheet against Sultan states that he was involved in “providing shelter and other material support” to a slain Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Abbas Sheikh, in “furtherance of his terrorist activities in Srinagar city…”

In the chargesheet, the police claimed that Sultan worked for the banned militant group Hizbul Mujahideen and had seized “17 sheets with the letterhead” of the militant organisation from Sultan’s home at the time of his arrest. The chargesheet further alleged that Sultan was “circulating, posting, propagating” messages of Hizbul Mujahideen through his Facebook account. 

Subsequently, Sultan was charged under six UAPA offences and five sections of the IPC, including murder, attempt to murder, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means, criminal conspiracy and acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention. 

The UAPA charges against Sultan were punishment for a ‘terrorist act’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘being a member of a terrorist gang & terrorist organisation’, ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘supporting a terrorist organisation’.

The trial started in June 2019 and continues. Sultan applied for bail on 4 September 2018 and was granted it on 5 April 2022. 

No Evidence 

Just four months shy of two years of arrest, Manjeet Singh Manhas, a National Investigation Agency (NIA) court judge, granted him bail because “investigative agencies failed to establish his links with any militant group”.

In its order dated 5 April 2022, the special court said that witnesses cited by the police in the case “have not stated anything incriminating against the accused person” that could have connected Sultan to the alleged crimes. 

Questioning section 39 of UAPA, which was invoked against Sultan for having letterheads of Hizbul Mujahideen at his home that were later “seized by the police,” Manhas said that none of the witnesses had “neither identified the letter pads nor the same got exhibited by the prosecution in order to identify before the court that same was recovered at the residence of Aasif Sultan”. 

“Moreover, the prosecution has neither investigated regarding the printing of letterhead nor seized the printer where the letter pads were printed out,” he said.

Once again, bringing attention to the seizures, the court said that accused Shazia had stated that she had handed over Hizbul Mujahideen's letterpad to Aasif Sultan. “However, as per the photo identification parade…Shazia Yakoob has categorically said ‘she doesn't know photograph no.6’ (which is of accused Aasif Sultan),” said Judge Manjeet Singh Manhas. 

Detained Again 

However, by the time Sultan received bail in his first UAPA case in April 2022, it had already been over two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally stripped Kashmir of its limited autonomy, brought it under New Delhi’s direct control and intensified the crackdown against dissent in the valley. 

Following the reading down of Kashmir’s special status, the state used the Public Safety Act(PSA) 1978, an administrative detention law of Jammu & Kashmir, deemed the ‘lawless law’ by Amnesty International, to quell dissent in the region. Under it, a person is taken into custody to prevent him or her from acting in any manner that is prejudicial to “the security of the state or the maintenance of the public order.” 

The PSA allows individuals to be detained without formal charges or trial for up to two years. It can be slapped on a person already in police custody, on someone granted bail by a court, or even on a person acquitted by the court. 

Since 5 August 2019, the New Delhi-appointed administration in J&K has used this law, especially against critics, journalists and activists, to keep them from getting out of jail. 

Sultan was among them. 

Before he could be set free, the state slapped him with the PSA and shifted him 245 km from Srinagar Central jail to Kot Balwal jail in the Jammu region—250 km from his home in Srinagar. 

Sultan’s PSA included the following allegations: he was “advocating the idea of separatism through articles.”

The PSA dossier reads, “Each heading of your story highlights the propaganda content you seek to spread. “Your modus operandi is to carry stories based entirely on the victimhood narrative that portrays anti-India sentiments…”

The state also claimed that he was working as an OGW for the banned militant organisation Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AGuH). It also said that Sultan, as an OGW, had “motivated youth to join unlawful activities” in his area and aided “activities of terrorist outfits, TRF [The resistance front] and JEM [jaish-e-Mohammed]”. 

Order Quashed 

On 1 May 2022, Sultan was shifted from Kot Balwal jail in Jammu to Ambedkar Nagar central jail in Agra, Uttar Pradesh—around 1,500 km from his home—where he remained incarcerated for 22 months until the order was quashed by Justice Vinod Chatterji Koul of the Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh High Court on 7 December 2023.

The order said the authorities did not follow the procedural requirements in letter and spirit while detaining Sultan. 

Justice Koul noted in his order that authorities appeared to have considered the case against him under the UAPA while detaining him under the PSA. However, Koul said, the detention record does not show the authorities having supplied Sultan with the FIR copies or the statements recorded under Section 161 of the criminal procedure. 

“The failure on the part of the detaining authority to supply the material relied on at the time of making the detention order to the detenu renders the detention order illegal and unsustainable,” Koul wrote while directing the authorities to set Sultan free “if he is not required in any other case.”

However, despite Justice Koul’s order, the state took 78 days to release Aasif Sultan. 

Prison authorities said that the delay was because they had to get “clearance letters” from authorities in Kashmir.

Still Behind Bars 

What was seen by his family as a long walk to freedom was soon cut short when J&K police rearrested Sultan in the prison riot case.

His fate has unsettled his journalist friends, who have left the profession altogether or refrained from covering “critical” stories. 

The Kashmir Narrator ceased to exist after the abrogation. 

In September 2021, the police raided the residences of Sultan’s former editor, Shokwat Motta and three other journalists—Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas and Azhar Qadri. 

The raids were made in a case filed in 2020 against “unknown persons” at Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh police station under Section 13 of the UAPA and 506 of the IPC. Section 13 of the UAPA deals with suspects who “advocate, abet, advise or incite the commission of any unlawful activity,” while IPC 506 is filed in cases of “criminal intimidation.”

Article 14 spoke with Sultan’s former colleagues and friends, who echoed the same sentiment: “He was targeted for his journalism.” 

As per his colleague at the Kashmir Narrator, the state used Aasif as a “soft target” to set an example for those who “don’t toe the line. “It was pretty clear that his ‘critical’ journalism was a sore in the eye for the state, and they wanted to dismantle that kind of journalism in Kashmir,” said his colleague. They did succeed in doing so. Ever since his arrest, those who dare write against the state are hounded and booked on trumped-up charges.”

The colleague added, “For them, any story having critical information that links Kashmir to ‘conflict’ is anti-national.”

For Sultan’s daughter, Areeba, two months have passed since she was told that her father had gone to read the Koran. 

“How long are we going to tell her these tales,” his father asked. 

(The reporter of this article requested anonymity.)

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