Kashmir based photojournalist, Mohd. Mannan Dar, who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on terrorism charges, walked out of Tihar Jail on Tuesday evening after spending more than a year in prison.

Dar, 23 is a resident of Batmaloo in Srinagar, worked as a freelance photojournalist, and along with 12 persons, including his brother Hanan Dar, was arrested by NIA in October 2021. The arrests came after a string of targeted attacks in which members of the minority community and migrant workers in Kashmir were shot by suspected militants.

In its bail order, the court referred to the charges against him as “mere assumptions”. The case was being heard in Delhi’s Patiala Sessions Court. Speaking to The Citizen, a family member said everyone is happy on his release. “He is in good spirits and was released on January 3 evening,” they said.

In its bail order pronounced on Monday, January 2, the court ruled that the central agency’s evidence against Manan is “not sufficient” to prove that he was part of the conspiracy “to undertake violent terrorist activities in the State of Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of India including Delhi after abrogation of Article 370 from the Constitution of India”.

“It is submitted that statements of different witnesses recorded u/s 161 Cr.P.C. are also filled with lacuna and discrepancies and are vague. It is submitted that no physical evidence has been collected in investigation connecting accused/ applicant in any manner to any violence ensued in Jammu & Kashmir,” the bail order stated.

The bail order added that all the allegations made are without any basis and evidence.

NIA had alleged that the conspiracy to “execute spree of target killings in the valley in October 2021” was hatched by Pakistan-based Syed Salahuddin, the head of United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation of militant outfits operating in Kashmir, Bashir Ahmed Pir and Imtiyaz Kundoo, residents of Kashmir who are believed to be living in Pakistan, and unidentified commanders of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Al-Badr and other unidentified terror outfits.

The agency also said that the Dar “was part of a ‘hybrid cadre’ meant to execute small scale attacks such as target killing of minorities, security forces, political leaders and other important persons to create unrest and spread terror”.

However, the court noted that even the association of an individual with a terrorist organisation is not sufficient to attract Section 38 (offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation) of the UAPA and even supporting a terrorist organisation is insufficient to attract Section 39 (offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation).

The agency had filed a case (RC No.29/2021/NIA/DLI) under sections 120B, 121A, 122 and 123 of IPC and sections 18, 18A, 18B, 30, 30 and 39 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 in 2021, and a chargesheet was filed in the NIA court last year.

Citing prosecution witnesses and forensic analysis of Manan’s phone, which was seized during his arrest, the agency alleged that the young photojournalist was “radicalised” and “working as an overground worker for terrorist organisations”. He “used to attend radicalising lectures of maulvi in Masiid (unnamed) to motivate youths for stone pelting on Army/police personnel,” NIA told the court.

During the bail hearing earlier, the defence lawyers advocates Tara Narula, Pankaj Tamanna and Priya Vats told the court that Manan was “illegally detained” by the agency for two weeks and later shown as arrested on October 22, 2021 adding that the allegations against him were “based on conjectures and devoid of any concrete evidence.”

The cases of both Dar and his brother Hannan are being handled by the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR). Speaking to The Citizen Nadeem Khan, executive head of APCR said, "The family had reached out to us from Srinagar after which we took over the case. We are still working on Hannan's case, who is still in jail."

The lawyers also informed the court that the agency has “no physical evidence” to connect Manan to any violent incident in Jammu and Kashmir.

In its charge sheet, NIA, citing witnesses and data recovered from Manan’s phone, claimed that Dar, who was selected to join the 2022 cohort of Integrated Journalism and Mass Communication course at Cluster University, Srinagar before his arrest, was working “under the cover of a photojournalist” to “share details” about security forces and their deployment in Kashmir with terrorist outfits. According to news reports, as a photojournalist, Dar contributed his work to online stock photo news websites while his work was highly recognised.

Meanwhile, NIA told the court that the photojournalist was part of a conspiracy and had threatened education department officers and students not to attend Independence Day celebrations.

The agency had alleged that the images and posters of killed militants, statements of militant outfits threatening officers and students, while Telegram chats describing “killed militants…as martyrs” were found in Manan’s phone and showed his involvement in terrorist activities.

The court, while citing the case of Thwaha Fasal vs. Union of India 2021 in the Supreme Court, observed that “mere possession of certain posters, banners or other objectionable material is not sufficient for making out the case for terrorist activities”.

Rejecting the NIA’s claims, the court observed that the allegation “must be supported by direct evidence”. “Mere assumptions or incomplete evidence to establish such facts may not be sufficient,” the court ruled.

The court also said that chats mentioned by the NIA do not indicate they were sent by Dar. Observing the chat and messages retrieved from WhatsApp, the court said they “may not be sufficient” at this stage “to show that applicant sent message or was part of chat”.

“Association and support have to be with the intention of furthering the activity of terrorist organisations. Such intention can be inferred from the overt act or an act of active participation of accused in activities of terrorist organisation,” the court observed, ruling that the “accusation against the accused does not appear to be cogent and true.”

After hearing the arguments, the court granted bail to Manan on Monday on bail bond Rs.50,000 while barring him from leaving the country.

Among others arrested in the case is Sobiya Aziz, alias Mariyam-Al-Kashmiri and sister of Mugees Ahmad Mir, a Srinagar-based militant who was killed in action during the first attack by the Islamic State (IS) in Kashmir in 2017.

The other suspects held in the militant conspiracy case are Adil Ahmad War, Hilal Ahmed Dar, Rouf Bhatt, Shaqib Bashir, Zamin Adil and Haris Nisar Langoo, Kamran Ashraf Reshi, Rayid Bashir and one Suhail Ahmad Thokar. Dar’s brother Hanan is still behind bars, in the same case.