Prominent Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah has been freed from jail after more than 600 days of confinement after a court granted him bail, saying there was “not enough evidence” to try him for terrorism.
Shah, 34, was released from Kot Bhalwal Jail in the region’s southern city of Jammu on Thursday, an official told Al Jazeera.
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Shah is the owner and editor of the independent news portal Kashmir Walla, banned earlier this year by the Indian government for undeclared reasons.
In its bail order last week, the region’s High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh said the Special Investigation Agency (SIA), a local agency formed earlier this year, lacked evidence against Shah to prove charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a stringent terror law.
The UAPA has been criticised by several rights groups as draconian and mainly used by India’s Hindu nationalist government to target political opponents, activists and dissidents.
Shah was accused of “glorifying terrorism” and “spreading fake news” for publishing a piece by Abdul Aala Fazili, a pharmacy student at the University of Kashmir, which reportedly talked about the Indian “occupation” and freedom for the region. Fazili, who was also arrested along with Shah, remains in jail.
The court said while the said opinion piece purportedly called for the secession of Indian-administered Kashmir, its publication “doesn’t incite violence or an armed insurrection against the state”. It quashed certain charges against him, including “abetting terrorism, waging war against the country and promoting enmity” under the UAPA.
While the court acknowledged that getting bail under the UAPA was difficult, it could not be denied to Shah because he did not pose a “clear and present danger” to society if released.
“It would mean that any criticism of the central government can be described as a terrorist act because the honour of India is its incorporeal property. Such a proposition would collide headlong with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19 of the constitution,” the court said in its bail order.
Shah will continue to face trial under other sections of the UAPA and under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which deals with receiving illegal funds.
The bail was granted seven months after a regional court quashed Shah’s detention under the Public Safety Act in April this year, saying “the apprehension of an adverse impact to public order is a mere surmise of the detaining authority”.
Shah was arrested in February 2022 over a report carried on his news portal about an encounter in Pulwama area of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Police accused him of “uploading anti-national content, including photographs, videos and posts with criminal intention to create fear among public”.
He was granted bail after 22 days by a special National Investigation Agency court.
Hours later, he was arrested again on February 26 in another case related to the alleged provocation of riots. On March 5, 2022, he got bail but was arrested again in yet another case for allegedly causing rioting, attempted murder, abetment, printing or engraving defamatory matter, and public mischief.
Six days later, he was charged under the UAPA after the SIA filed charges against him and Fazili. The agency accused them of “narrative terrorism” for the 2011 article published on Kashmir Walla, which it called “highly provocative and seditious”.
So far, he has managed to secure bail in three cases.
On August 20, the Indian government blocked online access to Kashmir Walla and its social media accounts under the Information Act of 2000. The portal had more than a dozen journalists and freelancers as contributors, affecting their livelihood as well.
‘Arrest shook journalists’
Media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), welcomed Shah’s release on bail and demanded that all charges against him must be dropped and the ban on his website revoked.
Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah has returned home Thursday after nearly two years in detention on terror charges
— CPJ Asia (@CPJAsia) November 23, 2023
Journalists in Kashmir say they are working in an environment of fear due to a rising crackdown on free press.
“The strong judgement of the high court in favour of the detained journalist notwithstanding, Shah had to spend two years in jail. It shows how helpless [state] institutions have been rendered,” a 40-year-old journalist from the main city of Srinagar told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“The arrests like that of Shah have almost ended journalism in Kashmir. His arrest shook journalists and most of them stopped writing.”
Geeta Seshu, founder of the Free Speech Collective, an independent organisation that advocates for press freedom in India, told Al Jazeera that Shah’s “revolving door” arrests in multiple cases were a travesty.
“The cases were a clear attempt to silence the one independent voice in digital media when print media in Kashmir had all but collapsed.”