On July 5, Abdul Rashid Sheikh will step out of Delhi’s Tihar Jail for two hours to take oath as a Member of Parliament from Jammu and Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency.

Sheikh, who is popularly known as Engineer Rashid, has been in jail since 2019 in an alleged case of terror funding.

The maverick politician pulled off an upset in Baramulla, defeating National Conference leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah, even though he had contested the election from jail. Earlier this week, he was granted custody parole by a Delhi court to allow him to be sworn in.

In addition to Rashid, several separatist leaders, businessmen, a photojournalist, and even a street hawker have been arrested under stringent laws in the seven-year-old terror funding case. Several accused have, like Rashid, been in jail for years.

A 66-year-old undertrial died in custody in 2022. Three of the accused have been acquitted for lack of evidence.

According to the charges framed against him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Indian Penal Code, Rashid stands accused of working with separatists and Pakistani operatives to incite disaffection in Kashmir towards India. He also allegedly issued threats to the Jammu and Kashmir police asking them to disobey the orders of their senior officers as those orders amounted to inflicting atrocities on Kashmiris.

However, Rashid has asserted that the only evidence against him produced by the National Investigation Agency is two Facebook videos, two statements which he had issued to the media 10 years ago, one tweet and the version of two protected witnesses.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, who was previously Rashid’s lawyer, told Scroll that Rashid’s speeches that the agency is using as evidence are all of a political nature – “speeches that any politician would give” – and contain nothing that could be linked with violence or terrorist activities.

“The NIA has no material against him,” Gonsalves said.

He added, “These are all stories by the police,” alluding to similar unlikely accusations that have been made in chargesheets against other political dissenters in the last few years.

Terror funding case

In May 2017, the National Investigative Agency registered a case against separatist leaders in Kashmir Valley who, they alleged, were being funded to wage “war against India”.

This was part of a concerted crackdown on separatist groups, a year after protests against the killing of a popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, had brought Jammu and Kashmir to a standstill.

The agency alleged that separatist leaders in Kashmir had received and collected funds in “connivance with active militants of proscribed terrorist organizations Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Lashkar-e-Toiba …”

The money was being used “to fund separatist and terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir and for causing disruption in Kashmir Valley by way of pelting stones on the security forces, burning schools, damaging public property and waging war against India,” the agency claimed.

The case, which later came to be known as the “J&K terror funding case”, has led to the arrests of 16 people since 2017.

The agency’s first chargesheet named 12 people, including Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba who is wanted in India for 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Syed Salahuhddin, a Kashmiri militant who heads an umbrella group of different militant organisations fighting in Jammu and Kashmir.

Both Saeed and Salahuddin are based in Pakistan.

The accused have been charged under various sections of the stringent anti-terror legislation the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, along with offences under the Indian Penal Code related to criminal conspiracy, waging war against the government of India and conspiring to commit certain offences against the state.

Rashid’s arrest

Groomed into politics by Kashmiri separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone of Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference, Rashid was once employed by the government as an engineer. In 2008, he quit his job to contest Assembly elections as an independent candidate and won.

In North Kashmir’s Handwara region, Rashid’s public confrontations with the Army and security forces over alleged human rights violations are legendary.

In 2010, his complaint to Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission forced the state government to admit that the Army was using civilians for forced labour. Rashid was himself forced to work as a porter, or walk ahead of patrol parties scanning the roads for explosive devices when he was employed with the government, he had said in his complaint to the commission.

The popular politician was quizzed by the National Investigation Agency in the terror funding case in October 2017.

His arrest in the case came nearly two years later – in the immediate aftermath of New Delhi’s decision to scrap Article 370 of the Constitution and break the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories. Scores of Kashmir’s mainstream leaders, including three former chief ministers, activists, lawyers and prominent businessmen had been detained by New Delhi for months after August 2019.

Rashid was named in the second supplementary chargesheet filed by the NIA in the case in October 2019.

“He did not even think once when he received the summons from the NIA,” a relative of Rashid, who asked not to be identified, told Scroll. “He was so confident of his innocence that he went to the NIA on his own. He had never expected that he would be arrested.”

The others named in the second chargesheet were separatists like Yasin Malik and Shabir Ahmed Shah, Masrat Alam, chairman of the banned Jammu & Kashmir Muslim League Party, and Aasiya Andrabi, founder of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, an all-woman Islamist separatist outfit.

Rashid’s name came up in the case during the interrogation of Kashmiri businessman Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, who had been arrested in the case in August 2017.

According to the agency, one of the witnesses in the case had connected Rashid with Watali, who was accused of channeling funds from Pakistan-based terror outfits.

Rashid described the charges against him as “absolutely fake and irrelevant” and alleged that he was being “victimised” for his political beliefs.

He has denied any communication with anyone from Pakistan and has maintained that among the accused persons in the case, he has not met or contacted anyone except Watali.

Rashid has admitted to having met Watali a few times. However, he has maintained that these meetings were not political in nature.

The weak link: Watali

Rashid’s indictment is based on the NIA’s case against Watali, which had been called into question by the Delhi High Court.

According to the National Investigation Agency’s chargesheet, Watali was acting as a conduit to transfer funds from Pakistan-based terrorist organisations to India to fuel violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

However, the main evidence against Watali was a loose sheet of paper, carrying his signature and containing some typed entries of foreign contributions and expenditures, recovered from the premises of Watali’s accountant.

The paper was not part of any business or account book maintained by Watali and did not carry his letterhead or that of any of his business entities.

There is no evidence that the typed entries on this piece of paper correspond to any money actually received or spent by Watali.

On the basis of this, the Delhi High Court in 2018 had granted bail to Watali. It had noted that the evidence relied upon by the National Investigation Agency did not establish a clear link between Watali and the alleged acts of terrorism or funding.

However, in 2019, the Supreme Court overruled this judgment and sent Watali back to jail in a judgment widely criticised for excessively narrowing the possibility of getting bail in an Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act case.

Timeline of events

In the seven-year-long case, the National Investigation Agency has filed three chargesheets against 18 accused.

In March 2018, a special National Investigation Agency court in Delhi granted bail to photojournalist Kamran Yousuf after he had spent six months in jail. The same month, Javid Ahmad Bhat, another accused in the case, was also granted bail.

In March 2022, a Delhi court framed charges against 15 accused in the case, including Rashid. However, the court discharged Yousuf, Bhat and Aasiya Andrabi, founder of Dukhtaran-e-Millat from the case, citing lack of evidence against them.

One of the undertrials, Altaf Ahmad Shah, the 66-year-old son-in-law of late Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, died in police custody in October 2022. Diagnosed with renal cancer a month before his death, Shah’s family had accused authorities of not providing him proper and timely medical care in custody.

Less than two months after the court framed charges against the accused, Yasin Malik pleaded guilty before the court.

On May 25, 2022, Malik was sentenced to life imprisonment by a special court in Delhi.

However, the National Investigation Agency, comparing Malik with slain global terrorist Osama Bin Laden, moved the Delhi High Court in May last year, seeking the death penalty for Malik. The plea is pending before the high court.

Since his arrest in August 2019, Rashid has been lodged in Delhi’s high-security Tihar jail. In February 2020, a special National Investigation Agency court in Delhi dismissed Rashid’s bail plea.

His trial is ongoing and is at the stage of prosecution evidence, his lawyer Vikhyat Oberoi told Scroll. This is the part of the trial when the prosecution submits its evidence against the accused to the court.