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Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq freed from four-year unlawful house arrest

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a prominent pro-independence leader released after four years of house arrest, arrives to deliver the Friday sermon at Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar on September 22, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

The Indian government has freed Kashmir's prominent pro-independence leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq after more than four years of unlawful house arrest. 

The 50-year-old chairman of the Hurriyat Conference M (APHC-M) had been detained, along with other political leaders and activists, when New Delhi, after seven decades, revoked the special status of Kashmir following the 2019 abrogation of Article 370 provisions in a bid by the Indian government to impose full control over the semi-autonomous Muslim-majority region.

Under a draconian law passed by the Indian government, known as the Public Safety Act, Indian authorities have been granted unlawful permission for arbitrary detention of anyone deemed as a threat. 

The arbitrary detention, which lacks due process and the legal protections of a fair trial, lasts up to six months.

On Friday, cheerful crowds headed to the main mosque in Srinagar, the capital city of Indian-controlled Kashmir, to greet Mirwaiz. 

The APHC-M leader, who has been released after four years of illegal house arrest, was greeted by the crowds as he entered Srinagar’s centuries-old Jamia Masjid to lead the Friday prayers.

“Senior police officials visited the residence of the Mirwaiz on Thursday to inform him that the authorities have decided to release him from house detention and allow him to go to Jamia Masjid for Friday prayers,” the officials from the Anjuman Auqaf Jamia Masjid – the management committee of the mosque – said in a statement on Friday.

The release of Mirwaiz, who heads various religious organizations, comes after his complaint of his years-long arbitrary detention was referred to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

Last week, the High Court asked authorities to give an explanation about Mirwaiz's continued detention.

Eventually, police informed Mirwaiz on Thursday that officials had decided to restore his freedom of movement, thus allowing him to leave his house and lead prayers at the mosque, which has been central to Kashmir's politics and has the largest gatherings during special Islamic occasions such as Lailat-ul-Qadr.

Mirwaiz, which literally means the chief sermonizer, is also the chairman of a faction of All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomeration of several smaller pro-freedom parties, the mosque had, by default, become an important center for pro-freedom politics.

The Nowhatta neighborhood near Sringar's central mosque, called Jamia Masjid, was the epicenter of Friday protests that often turned into clashes between stone-throwing pro-freedom protesters and police. 

"This period of my house arrest and separation from my people has been the most painful for me since my father's death," he said, bursting into tears.

Dozens of worshipers also sobbed as he greeted the crowd from the pulpit of the historical mosque to deliver his first Friday sermon as a free man after four years of house arrest.

Mirwaiz had rejected as "unacceptable" constitutional changes by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government. He has repeatedly called on the government to find a peaceful solution to the Kashmir conflict. "Disputes and disagreements should be resolved by talks rather than using power or unilateralism." He has also called for the release of "numerous political prisoners" held in prison.

Mirwaiz’s release came days after the government released Moulana Mushtaq Veeri and Moulana Dawoodi, two prominent religious leaders.

Mirwaiz has also condemned the passing and implementation of laws aimed at demographic change in Indian-administrated Kashmir. “August 2019’s unilateral decision by the government of India to scrap article 370 and 35A and downgrade and break up J&K into two union territories ruled by New Delhi has led to the fear of loss of identity among the people of J&K, which is deeply disturbing them.”

Mirwaiz has voiced the great anguish of the Kashmiri Muslims over the loss of employment guarantees, land rights and exploitation of natural resources by outsiders following the enactment of these new laws and the abolishing of Kashmir’s special status.

Political parties in Kashmir have welcomed the release of Mirwaiz.

National Conference (NC) Vice-President Omar Abdullah expressed hope Mirwaiz would be allowed to move freely, interact with people and resume his social and religious responsibilities. "I welcome the step taken by the administration in Jammu and Kashmir to release Mirwaiz Umar Farooq from house arrest. I hope that they allow him to move freely, interact with people and resume his social/religious responsibilities. Today eyes in Kashmir will be on the Mirwaiz as he delivers his first Friday sermon in Jamia Masjid after 2019," the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Kashmiris are infuriated by the government’s cancelation of Srinagar’s special status. They view the decision as a clear violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Kashmiris maintain India annexed Kashmir in August 2019 in defiance of 11 UN Security Council resolutions, which call for a plebiscite allowing people to decide on whether they want to stay with India or join Pakistan.

The mountainous Himalayan region has strategic and geopolitical importance. India and Pakistan as well as China seek control of that region, but most of it has remained a territory disputed by Pakistan and India since 1947. Both claim the territory in full but rule only parts of it. 

Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir.

Kashmir is currently one of the most militarized regions in the world.

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