Faizal Hussain Awan and Yasin Khurshid were arrested for allegedly helping four gunmen cross over into India. These gunmen, alleged Jaish-e-Mohammad operatives, killed 18 soldiers at the Indian Army base in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, before they were gunned down.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has said that Awan and Khurshid have confessed to their role in the attack. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar issued a demarche, or diplomatic protest, to Pakistan envoy Abdul Basit mentioning this.
What makes the issue murky is the ministry of external affairs first saying it had offered consular access to the duo, and then going back on the statement. This, even as the Pakistan High Commission claimed it has met the two after being given consular access to them by India.
As serious as the allegations are, the Pakistan High Commission’s statements and a media report claiming that the two are possibly juveniles who strayed into India are bound to raise questions.
What We've Been Told About Awan and Khurshid So Far
- At the time of their arrest, 15-year-old Sahil Hussain and 16-year-old Yasin Khurshid were unarmed, but were allegedly helping terrorists sneak into India. (India Today)
- Both boys, according to school documents provided by Hussain, were 16-year-old, which — if these documents are authentic — makes them juveniles under Indian law and eligible for special protective provisions, irrespective of their nationality. (The Indian Express)
- During their interrogation, they disclosed that they were tasked by JeM commanders to facilitate the infiltration of the group of four JeM cadres who carried out the Uri attack. (MEA Statement)
- The duo was recruited two years ago by JeM and was guiding terrorists across the Line of Control. (Colonel SD Goswami, spokesman of the army's Udhampur-headquartered Northern Command to IANS)
- Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Faisal Awan’s brother and a Lahore-based physician, said the two were at home on 17 September, the date that the GPS data recovered from the terrorists by the NIA shows the Uri terrorists (and their alleged guides) crossing the Line of Control. (The Indian Express)
- “We cannot go simply by media reports. As per the statement given by the two alleged guides after their arrest, they are adults. So if a counterclaim is to be made, the person concerned or a family member may approach us directly or in court. We will verify the counterclaim if required. Alternatively, the court may be requested by the aggrieved party for medical tests to establish the age of the accused,” an NIA official told The Times of India.
Inconsistent MEA Statements
On 21 September, villagers from Uri handed over two individuals to Indian security forces for allegedly helping the Uri attackers. Their names and addresses were revealed six days later on 27 September.
Their personal particulars are Faizal Hussain Awan, 20 years old, son of Gul Akbar, resident of Potha Jahangir, Muzaffarabad; and Yasin Khurshid, 19 years old, son of Mohammed Khurshid, resident of Khiliana Kalan, Muzaffarabad.Vikas Swarup, MEA Spokesperson
Swarup also said that Jaishankar had informed Abdul Basit of Awan’s confession to have “guided and facilitated” the men who mounted the attack on the Uri base.
During the same meeting, Jaishankar had offered the Pakistan High Commission consular access to the two individuals, Swarup said.
We are willing to provide the Pakistan High Commission consular access to these three (including one Abdul Qayoom from Sialkot) individuals apprehended in connection with terrorist attacks in India.
On 15 December, The Indian Express published a report claiming the two had figured on the list of detainees eligible for repatriation handed over to the Pakistan High Commission.
Officials from the High Commission claimed they met the two youths on 5 December in Amritsar. Sources confirmed to The Quint that the meeting had indeed taken place and that Pakistan would take further steps for the duo’s repatriation.
However, on the evening of 15 December, Swarup denied offering consular access to the two individuals. His response is on the record on the MEA website (last question).
When asked whether these statements contradict his earlier ones, Swarup did not respond.
Why is this a Big Deal?
While India may prosecute them, it cannot convict the two without enough proof and “consular access neither strengthens nor weakens the case for the two”, points out anti-terrorism expert Ajai Sahni. However, prosecution will possibly result in jail time as they cannot be granted bail in India, Sahni points out.
So, why does this issue, and the inconsistencies in the MEA statements, deserve to be taken seriously? Because India is not the only nation arresting nationals from the other side of the border. Case in point: Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged RAW agent caught in Pakistan.
While the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has claimed that the two alleged terror guides confessed to having helped the terrorists gain access to India, Pakistan also claims that Jadhav has confessed to being a RAW agent.
Without presuming innocence or guilt, one wonders why neither side has initiated criminal proceedings against their respective “catches” from across the border?
If the three have confessed, why can investigative agencies on both sides not find proof to initiate prosecution?
With complete radio silence to the outside world and with no one to listen to the accused’s side of the story, only a well defined protocol can save a possibly-innocent life.
While stories of people languishing in jail across the borders of countries in conflict make for excellent movie plots, in reality, they may remain statistics in a collection of he-said-she-saids and diplomatic fuel for a struggle between two countries.
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