Soliha Zehra, nearly three years old, has never seen her father, Javaid Ahmad Mir. He is languishing in a jail in Saudi Arabia.
Hailing from the Chattergam hamlet of central Kashmir’s Budgam district, Mir, 35, worked as a supervisor at a Chinese food chain in Saudi Arabia’s eastern city of Dammam. According to his family, who are Shia Muslims by faith, Mir was arrested by the Saudi police on 18 March 2020 after he shared his WhatsApp number over Facebook with a user in Iran.
Mir’s elder brother, Sajad Hussain, spoke to this reporter at his two-storey house in Chattergam. He says the distraught family has been running from pillar to post to secure the release of Mir but to no avail.
Saudi Arabia and Iran's Fraught Relations
“My innocent brother, who went to Saudi Arabia to earn a livelihood for his family, was imprisoned falsely. He became the target of the Iran-Saudi rivalry. He did not commit any crime,” says Hussain.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are decades-old rivals. The tensions between them have grown mainly due to regional dominance issues and religious differences. While Iran is largely a Shia Muslim-dominated country, Saudi Arabia has Sunni Muslims as a majority.
Following his incarceration, Mir’s family was informed by officials of the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia that he was jailed for a “security-related matter”.
“Mir’s only crime is that he had shared his WhatsApp number with his Kashmiri Facebook friend Imtiyaz Ahmad, who was studying in Iran. Based on the communication between the two, Saudi authorities arrested him 34 hours after the Facebook chat,” says Hussain.
Ali Mohammad, Mir’s father, says his son had no criminal record and that he had worked as a teacher in Kashmir for many years before leaving for Saudi Arabia. “Neither does he have any criminal history nor was he ever detained while staying in conflict-ridden Kashmir. He was living his life responsibly.”
In a letter to India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Mir’s brother wrote that being a Shia Muslim, Mir simply shared online posts regarding his faith and that he did not violate any law.
Mir’s grief-stricken mother, Sara Begum, says:
Since my son was arrested in Saudi Arabia, I have been spending sleepless nights. His prolonged incarceration has taken a toll on my mental health, due to which I am now taking antidepressant pills.”
Haneefa Akhtar, who got married to Mir in 2018, is also distraught.
“My daughter Soliha keeps asking me about her father. Whenever she sees an aeroplane or a helicopter, she asks for a ladder because she thinks she can bring her father home,” says Akhtar.
Mir’s childhood friend, Fayaz Ahmad Rather, says, “My friend is sober, friendly and well-aware of rules. He could not have done anything wrong. When I heard he was jailed, I was shocked. I would have never imagined that a person of his nature could be in jail even for a day.”
No News of Mir for a Long Time
In November 2014, two months after heavy floods wreaked havoc in Jammu and Kashmir, Mir went to New Delhi, where he gave an interview for a job in Saudi Arabia. According to the family, Mir was selected for a job as a supervisor at Noodles International Trading Company, a Chinese-operated fast food chain in the kingdom. In December 2014, he landed in Dammam, where he worked with the company until his arrest.
The family members recall that in 2016, Mir returned home and spent a few months there before leaving for Saudi Arabia again. In April 2018, he came back and got married, followed by another visit in December. “He was visiting as usual. More importantly, he was earning a livelihood for his family,” says Mir’s brother.
In 2019, the family lost contact with Mir due to the long communication blockade enforced in Jammu & Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. “We had no contact with Mir until his wife delivered a baby girl in September 2019. In early 2020, Mir was expecting to visit his family to see his newly born daughter, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of international flights, delaying his visit again. Mir was arrested during the global lockdown,” Sajad recalls.
Sajad adds that for a month, the family had no clue about Mir; in fact, he feared that his brother might have been one of the 81 men executed by Saudi authorities in the mass execution of 12 March 2020.
Nearly a month later, on 14 April, Mir telephoned and assured them that he is well but that he is in jail. “He spoke for only about two minutes before the call dropped. We have been able to talk to him for only a few minutes at a time since his arrest,” says Begum.
'Details of Arrest Not Public Yet'
The family has sent multiple emails to the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. They have also written to the offices of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and former Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
“I am clueless as to how to get my son back from a foreign jail. I do not have enough resources to reach Saudi and hire a private lawyer,” says Mir’s father, a walnut farmer.
Dr Ausaf Sayeed, Secretary (Consular, Passport & Visa and Overseas Indian Affairs) at the Ministry of External Affairs, told this reporter that Saudi authorities have not made the charges against Mir public yet and that the case has been termed a “security-related matter”.
“As soon as the charges are made public by Saudi authorities and the investigation is completed, the MEA can take up the case further,” said Sayeed, who is also the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He added that Mir was recently given consular access, besides permission to meet his family members.
(Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets @irfanaminmalik.)