FOUR-YEAR-OLD Moomin now has only his father’s portrait to hold on to. His father, Nazir Ahmed Sheikh, a former Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militant, was awarded a life sentence by a TADA court on 2 December, after he had already spent 17 years in jail.
It doesn’t seem to have sunk in for Parveena Bano, too, that her husband is set to spend the rest of his life behind bars. “I have no source of income and I have to bring up a child,” says Bano.
Sheikh was awarded the sentence along with another JKLF militant Showkat Ahmad Khan, for the murder of a BSF personnel in 1990. In all, 29 former militants have been awarded life sentences, and five others, including Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, have been slapped with the death sentence.
But with Sheikh and Khan, even the TADA court stated that “the participation of the accused in the case was proved mainly on the basis of their confessional statements, not by any direct evidence”. Slamming the sentences in a press conference, JKLF chief Yasin Malik said it went against the spirit of his decision in 1994 to unilaterally disarm his outfit. He called for a shutdown on 10 December, which was supported by most separatist groups.
What has lent these convictions their dramatic edge is the JK High Court’s 10 November judgment in Muslim League leader Qasim Faktoo’s case, that life sentence means incarceration for whole life. Faktoo, husband of hardline separatist leader Asiya Andrabi, is the state’s longest serving separatist prisoner, having spent more than 20 years in jail. Faktoo was convicted by the Supreme Court for the murder of human rights activist Hriday Nath Wanchoo, in 1991.
It’s the sudden spurt in life terms in the last few years that has made the separatists suspicious. “Over two decade old cases are being reopened, and Kashmiris implicated with false charges. Why is New Delhi pushing us to the wall?” Malik said. He called on the country’s civil society to raise their voice. “In the 1990s, they (civil society) used to say if Kashmiris give up armed struggle, they will be allowed to live peacefully. Civil society should come clean over the new policy of New Delhi.”
According to sources in the Hurriyat, there are dozens more in the state who face the prospect of life imprisonment. “We know all these cases are flawed, based on confessional statements drawn under torture,” says Bashir Ahmad Bhat, vicepresident of JKLF, which now plans to start a ‘Jail Bharo’ campaign.
With JKLF chief Malik also facing trial in a TADA court for the abduction of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of former J&K chief minister Mufti Sayeed, and killing of five Air Force personnel in the early 90s, the convictions are being seen as a message by the government for the senior leaders to fall in line. “It’s to deal a final blow to the separatist movement, especially since Kashmir is looking at the 2014 polls. The Congress is sacrificing us to better its tally in Parliament,” says Hurriyat leader Ayaz Akber. “But it won’t happen. These convictions will only rally people more around the Kashmir cause. The (convicted) youth are our living martyrs.”
The J&K government has tried to wash its hands of the matter. “We can’t challenge the court’s verdict,” says state Law Minister Ali Muhammad Sagar, while declining to comment whether the government would consider withdrawing cases against the militants. “But the convicts can file an appeal against the judgments in the higher courts,” he adds.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.