Budgam, Kashmir: Sara Begum wept with joy when she received a phone call from her son Javaid Ahmad Mir on 4 May from a jail in Saudi Arabia, where the 37-year-old Kashmiri has been incarcerated for over two years in what Indian officials have informed his family is a security-related matter.
Mir, the father to a two-year-old daughter, was a supervisor in a Chinese restaurant in the eastern province of Dammam when he was arrested on 18 March 2020, a few hours after he shared his WhatsApp number over Facebook with another user based in Iran.
While it wasn’t the first time Mir was phoning since he was incarcerated in the Dammam jail, his family members—a Shia Muslim family of modest means living in Kashmir’s central Budgam district—erupted in cheers.
Explaining their momentary jubilation, they said that Mir was allowed his first phone call in February 2021—one year after he was arrested—and had called at least once a month until earlier this year.
When they did not hear from him in March and April, they feared that he may have been one of the 81 men put to death by the Saudi authorities in the mass execution on 12 March. Half of the executed men belonged to the minority Shia community in the Sunni-majority country. Human rights groups allege those executed were denied due process, lawyers, and convictions were based on confessions obtained through torture.
In March 2021, the Ministry of External Affairs informed parliament that 1,570 prisoners of Indian origin were lodged in jails of Saudi Arabia, the highest number of convicts and under-trials of all foreign countries. In August 2021, Harish Bangera, an air conditioning technician from Udupi, was released after 20 months in a Saudi jail for an allegedly defamatory Facebook post against Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that he did not write.
His release came about after his wife filed a complaint and the Udupi police found that impersonators were behind the post that landed him in jail and submitted the translated chargesheet to the Saudi authorities. Jailed Indians have been accused of murder, liquor smuggling, illegal money transfer, bribing officials, signal crossing, vegetable and water sale and Covid-19 lockdown violations.
Attributing his release to the Udupi police, Bangera said his incarceration in Saudi Arabia was “hell”.
"In those one year and eight months, I was kept in different jails in Saudi Arabia. The first year was no less than hell. I was kept in a single cell without a phone. The authorities were pressuring me during the investigation. No one was allowed to meet me except Saudi officials for seven to eight months.”
A Victim Of Sectarianism, Authoritarianism
Mir was arrested after he shared his contact details with one Imtiyaz. After reaching out to several of Mir's friends on Facebook, a Kashmiri student at the Al-Mustafa International University, Mashhad campus in Khorasan Province, Iran, told Article 14 that he had asked Mir for his contact information to plan a trip to Saudi Arabia in the future.
While Mir shared posts about current events like the top Irani general, Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US drone attack in Iraq on 3 January 2020, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi autonomous status, and the Delhi riots, his family said he expressed himself on social media and nothing else.
Instead, they said, he was a victim of the bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia—rooted in Shia-Sunni sectarianism and a contest to dominate the Muslim world—and a casualty of the impenetrable criminal justice system in Saudi Arabia, widely condemned by human rights groups.
The crackdown on human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, and dissenters expressing themselves on social media had worsened under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, who took over a year before journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Since April 2020, this journalist has sent emails seeking assistance in securing Mir’s release, on behalf of the family, to the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia and the Ministry of External Affairs. The family hand delivered letters to the offices of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and defence minister Rajnath Singh in March 2022. They also met former minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who they say promised to help, but nothing changed.
For the past two years, in the emails exchanged with this reporter and the family, Indian officials have expressed their inability to get him released from the Saudi prison or provide any legal assistance to Mir, having spoken to him once over the phone on 13 July 2020, and visited him in jail on 29 April 2021.
“The Indian embassy says they are in constant touch with my brother, but nothing constructive has happened,” Sajjad Hussain, Mir’s 39-year-old brother, who helps their father with walnut farming.
Referring to the cabinet ministers they had appealed to for help, Hussain said, “They only care for their votes. We have not received a single reply. A citizen of the world’s largest democracy is deprived of his rights.”
Despite the scores of letters and emails sent to the prime minister, his cabinet ministers, and embassy officials, Ali Muhammad, Mir’s 58-year-old father, a farmer who grows walnuts, said there was “no sign of justice” for his son.
Legal experts say the Indian government is constitutionally and morally obligated to provide meaningful consular assistance to Indians jailed in foreign countries, and use all diplomatic channels to facilitate legal representation.
“I have not heard so far of any precedent, where mere acceptance of a friend request is treated as criminal activity,” senior Supreme Court Sanjay Hegde said. “Long incarceration, without trial, violates generally accepted human rights norms.”
While there aren't specific directions on what should be the nature of consular assistance, or on the kind of protections states should provide to their nationals abroad—international law does protect the right of a state to provide assistance to its nationals, Aman, associate professor of legal practice at the Jindal Global Law School, said.
“Such a right is premised on removing fetters on states from protecting their nationals abroad in a meaningful and honest way,” Aman said. “The Indian state, in its written submissions in the Jadhav case at the International Court of Justice, mentioned how protection of nationals abroad is accepted as an important function of a state, and a consul’s most basic function"
The Saudi Arabia ambassador to India, Saud Mohammed Alsati, and the ministry of justice, ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of interior in Saudi Arabia did not respond to Article 14’s emails for comment.
The Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to Article 14’s email for comment.
Emails Reveal A Helpless Embassy
In an email sent to the family on 14 July 2020, an Indian embassy official said they had been trying to meet Mir for a long time, but “despite our best efforts”, they were not provided consular access by the Saudi authorities, and they were told there was no video conferencing inside the jail.
During a conversation on 13 July 2020, the official said that Mir let them know that one Mr Imtiyaz had sent him a message on Facebook asking him for a WhatsApp number. Mir, believing it was concerning employment, shared it with him in good faith, after which the Saudi police picked him up within three to four hours on 18 March 2020.
"During his interrogation by Saudi agencies, he learned that Mr Imtiyaz was based in Iran, and Saudi agencies suspected him to be a security threat to Saudi Arabia. He said that he had provided his WhatsApp number to Mr Imtiyaz in good faith and had no clue that for this reason he would be arrested by Saudi agencies,” the email said.
In an email dated 11 November 2021, an embassy official told this reporter that the Saudi authorities would inform them when Mir’s case was transferred to the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh.
According to the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, this court was created to clear a backlog of terrorism cases, but also tries minorities and dissenters, including religious dissidents, (particularly those belonging to the minority Shia community).
The email said he had been allowed to contact his family members from 9 February 2021, and he had phoned his father’s mobile 15 times. None of his family or friends had visited him except embassy officials on 29 April 2021.
In the phone conversation on 4 May, Mir told his family that he was brought from Dammam to Riyadh for the start of his trial in April, where he was advised to get a lawyer.
In an email to this reporter on 4 July, an embassy official said that Mir's trial was underway, and the embassy had requested the authorities to expedite the proceedings and release him. When this reporter asked if the embassy could provide him with a lawyer, the official wrote: “It is better to engage a private lawyer.”
Mir’s father, Ali Muhammad, said he has neither the knowledge nor the resources to hire a private lawyer in a foreign country.
“We have written to the embassy about the trial, but they are not responding. We may lose our son if he is not provided with a lawyer,” he said.
On 22 June, the Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ausaf Sayeed, told Article 14 that he had returned to India as his tenure ended in May.
The post is currently not filled.
Indian embassy counsellor M R Sajeev did not respond to Article 14’s questions regarding the case sent over WhatsApp on 22 June.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former Indian official who served in Saudi Arabia said that given how frequently people were accused of cyber crimes and jailed, with little or no chance of mounting a defence, even embassy officials were afraid of posting online.
“The Saudi legal system is hell,” the official said.
First Phone Call After Over A Year
While Indian embassy officials were allowed to speak with Mir over the phone four months after he was arrested, the Saudi authorities let him talk with his family for the first time on 9 February 2021, almost a year later. In an interview on 4 May, his family said they have spoken to him 17 times since then.
“We still remember his first phone call from jail, which lasted 10 minutes,” said Muhammad, his father. “It was a miracle call because we hadn’t heard his voice for almost a year. His voice had changed. He was asking for help as authorities had been interrogating him continuously.”
The family said the Saudi authorities did not allow Mir to contact them in March and April 2022. While they were relieved when he phoned on 4 May and said that he was given proper food and allowed to read the Quran, Mir’s family was deeply worried about his continuing incarceration.
To console themselves, his family members look at his Facebook page, which remains active, but they do so with trepidation.
“We informed the embassy about his Facebook account, and they told us that the Saudi agency officials might be checking his social media profile for further probe,” said Muhammad.
His brother Sajjad said that the Saudi government had deleted “pro-Iran posts” from his Facebook page.
Facebook Friend Is A Kashmiri Studying In Iran
Of the 50 friends with the name Imtiyaz in Mir's profile, Article 14 reached out to 25 before one of them—Imtiyaz Hussaini— said that he was the one who had asked Mir for his WhatsApp number on 18 March 2020.
Imtiyaz is a student of Islamic studies at the Al-Mustafa International University, Mashhad campus in Khorasan Province, Iran. His Facebook page shows that he has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s alleged atrocities in Yemen, the killing of Shia general Irani general Qassem Soleimani by a US drone Israeli policies affecting Palestinians and the US sanctions on Iran, while expressing support for the Iranian army.
Imtiyaz told Article 14 that he had tried calling the Saudi authorities to explain what had occurred.
“I heard about his arrest two months ago from my Kashmiri friends who had visited Iran for some work. I was shocked to learn of his illegal incarceration,” he said, in an interview on 25 June. “I called Dammam central prison several times, but there has been no response.”
Imtiyaz also shared screenshots of his Facebook chat with Mir, saying that he asked Mir for his WhatsApp number because he planned to visit Saudi Arabia and needed a place to stay.
“Being a Kashmiri, I got his Facebook account and asked him to share his contact information to discuss my visit in detail,” he said. He later cancelled his visit after Saudi Arabia imposed restrictions as Covid-19 cases rose in the country.
“I don’t know why the authorities have jailed him for so long. It’s an open and shut case, and he has done nothing wrong,’’ he said.
A Deeply Flawed Criminal Justice System
Researchers with human rights group Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia team, based in Beirut, told Article 14 in an emailed response that the Specialized Criminal Court has presided over “grossly unfair trials”.
This court, they said, handed down sentences to accused held incommunicado in solitary confinement for months, with no access to legal representation during the detention, interrogation and throughout the trial, and the court has relied on “confessions” extracted through torture—in many cases leading to a death sentence.
“From the moment of arrest until the final appeal, the process of justice linked to the Specialized Criminal Court and in many other cases is deeply flawed and lacks transparency. Hearings are held mostly in secret,” the human rights group said.
“The judges demonstrate clear bias against defendants,” said the Amnesty email.
‘He Is A Thorough Professional’
With no job prospects in India, Mir sought a job in Saudi Arabia to boost his family income after his mother was diagnosed with a heart condition and needed regular treatment and medicines, which his family could not afford.
In a phone interview to Article 14, his employers, the Chinese food restaurant owners, who requested their names not appear, said Mir’s conduct was exemplary.
A colleague from the restaurant where he worked in Dammam, who requested his name not appear, said, “He is a thorough professional.”
“I think the authorities mistook him for someone else,” the colleague said. “We hope the investigation ends and he is released soon.”
‘He Has Not Seen His Daughter Since She Was Born’
After six years of their son working far away from home and missing the birth of his daughter, Mir’s parents were looking forward to him returning home in 2020. Instead, they feel completely alone, abandoned by the Indian government in the two years they have tried to get him released from a foreign jail.
“Javaid’s arrest is a shock. No other person from the family has been locked up before him, nor has any other member even visited a police station,” said Muhammad. “He has not seen his daughter since she was born.”
During the interview, Muhammad said his wife had developed health complications since the arrest. Mir’s little girl, meanwhile, had begun to ask about her father, he said. “She is yet to see him.”
(Shamshad Ali is a journalist based in New Delhi. He writes about gender, health, human rights, and the environment.)