‘IS sympathiser’, ‘violent terrorist’: What’s the truth behind NIA’s arrest of a Pune woman?

Sadiya Anwar Sheikh was detained in 2015 and 2018 on suspicions of being connected with the Islamic State. It’s the same accusation this time around, though the NIA is refusing to furnish its evidence.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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On the afternoon of July 12, Raheema Sheikh (name changed) was busy preparing lunch at her home in Pune’s Yerwada. It was a Sunday, and her only daughter was watching a television serial on her mobile phone in the next room when there was a knock on the door.

A team of 15-20 men from the National Investigation Agency, the Yerwada police station, and the anti-terrorism squads of both Pune and Mumbai entered the house. Raheema and her daughter were taken to the police station and their house was searched. The lunch remained untouched.

Raheema’s daughter is Sadiya Anwar Sheikh. Sadiya, 22, was arrested by the team that night. No reasons for her arrest were cited.

Sadiya has been in the news for the last five years. In 2015, she was detained for the first time by the Pune ATS for her alleged inclination towards the Islamic State, or IS. She was released after the ATS claimed to have “deradicalised” her. In 2018, she was detained by the Jammu and Kashmir police in Srinagar after “misinterpretation of intelligence warnings”. At the time, she was believed to be a suicide bomber and was questioned for 10 days, before being handed over to her parents in Pune.

The NIA has claimed that Sadiya and Nabeel S Khatri, also a resident of Pune, were “planning to carry out violent terrorist attacks” and “arranging logistic support” in India and were in touch with “IS sympathisers”. They also said that Sadiya and Nabeel were working for the Islamic State Khorasan Province, a banned organisation. A case was initially filed in the matter in March 2020 by a special cell of the Delhi police.

But on July 12, Raheema still knew nothing about the NIA’s allegations. She kept her calm and cooperated with the police team.

‘We were having a stable life’

“The police officials came to our house at around 12.30 pm,” Raheema told Newslaundry. “They showed us a letter and said they wanted to search our house.”

Raheema gave permission, she said, but asked that she and Sadiya be permitted to consult their lawyer first. “They didn’t pay any heed to my request and conducted the search for about an hour. They took away my daughter’s laptop and both our mobile phones. Then they took us to the Yerwada police station where we were made to sit there the whole day. They told us nothing throughout the day.”

At 9 pm, the police told her they were arresting Sadiya. “I repeatedly asked them on what basis...but they didn’t tell me anything,” Raheema said. “I have full faith in my daughter. I can say with confidence that she has not done anything. I have taught her not to indulge in activities associated with terrorism. We have always cooperated with the ATS and other agencies.”

On her daughter’s detention in 2018, Raheema explained that she had sent Sadiya to Kashmir to study nursing, since she was being “continuously harassed” by officials in Pune.

“In Pune, she was studying pharmacy at Inamdar College, where she was questioned by officials from the NIA, ATS and Intelligence Bureau, even during college hours,” she said. “They would keep a watch on her...She was fed up, so I sent her to Kashmir. But as soon as she landed there, a new conspiracy broke out.”

When Sadiya returned to Pune, the family held a press conference clarifying all the allegations against her. Sadiya then joined a journalism course in Pune University, where she is currently a second-year student.

“We completely put all those incidents behind us and were having a stable life,” Raheema said. “But now the NIA has arrested her.”

Why were Sadiya and Nabeel arrested on July 12?

The story of Nabeel and Sadiya’s arrests began taking shape on March 8, 2020, when a special cell of the Delhi police, or DSC, filed an FIR against Jahanzaib Sami and his wife Hina Bashir Beg at the DSC’s office in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony.

The DSC alleged that the Kashmiri couple, originally from Shivpora in Srinagar, were affiliated with the Islamic State Khorasan Province, and involved in subversive, anti-national activities. They were also accused of instigating protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The DSC is an elite unit of the Delhi police. Yet, it’s been pulled up in the past for shoddy investigations. In 2012, a report titled Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a Very Special Cell documented how 16 people were framed by the DSC and later acquitted, some of them after spending 14 years in jail.

Jahanzaib, 36, and Hina, 39, were arrested from Jamia Nagar, Delhi. They were in police custody for 16 days and then sent to judicial custody. Family members refuted the DSC’s allegations, telling the media that the couple had been framed by the police.

In an order dated March 18, 2020, the home ministry asked the NIA to take over the investigation. The NIA registered the case again on March 20 at the NIA headquarters. It claimed that during the course of its investigation and scrutiny of data extracted from digital devices seized from the couple, it was recorded that Jahanzaib and Hina were “motivated” by IS and worked for the Islamic State Khorasan Province.

In petitions filed by the NIA, the agency claimed that “chats retrieved” from Jahanzaib’s cell phone “establishes that Sadiya and Nabeel had entered into a conspiracy with Jahanzaib Sami and other known and unknown ISIS operatives who were available in the web-world for the furtherance of the activities of ISIS in India. The content of the chats prove that Sadiya was not only inclined towards the ISIS but was even ready to offer her support by becoming a suicide bomber. She was continuously in touch with Jahanzaib Sami and Abdulla Basith for how to expand the activities of ISIS in India.”

Mohammad Abdullah Basith is from Hyderabad and has been accused of being an IS sympathiser. He was arrested in 2018 for allegedly planning to carry out attacks in India.

Newslaundry has accessed copies of the NIA’s petitions, filed in the Patiala House court, and of the FIR filed by the NIA.

Nabeel deals in fitness supplements in Pune. The NIA claimed he was “not only inclined towards ISIS but willing to provide all kinds of support including procurements of weapons, other logistics including arranging fake SIMs, fabrication of improvised explosive devices, massacre by using speeding vehicles in crowded places etc, to further the activities of ISIS in India.”

It was on the basis of these allegations that the NIA, along with other police teams, searched Sadiya’s house on July 12. Nabeel’s house was searched on the same day, and both were arrested.

‘This whole case is flawed’: Sadiya’s lawyer

Abu Bakr Sabbaq is a Supreme Court lawyer who is representing Sadiya and Nabeel in the case. He told Newslaundry that the NIA has failed to provide details of specific allegations against both Sadiya and Nabeel.

“The NIA has put the charge that Sadiya and Nabeel were in contact with the Kashmiri couple and involved with them in a conspiracy,” Sabbaq said. “However, they are not furnishing the details of the conspiracy. They are just claiming that these two were associated with the Kashmiri couple.”

Sabbaq also said he was not allowed to meet Sadiya and Nabeel.

“Under the guise of Covid, I have not been allowed by the court to meet my clients. They were in police remand for 17 days but I was not allowed to meet them once,” he said. “Police officials and other agencies are allowed to meet the accused for interrogation but despite my being an advocate of the accused, I was not allowed to meet my clients — even after giving an assurance that I would follow the standard operating procedure for the meeting during Covid.”

Sabbaq told Newslaundry that the NIA has submitted an application to take Sadiya and Nabeel’s voice and handwriting samples. “I raised an objection and said that if the NIA is not ready to furnish documents or digital evidence to me, they should at least produce this evidence in court so that we’ll be assured that tampering will not happen using the voice sample,” he said.

So far, the NIA has not given Sabbaq details of the evidence. He received the FIR a day after Sadiya and Nabeel’s arrest though it’s mandatory to hand over the FIR at the time of arrest. He said the NIA violated the law while arresting Sadiya too: she was arrested after sunset in violation of the Criminal Procedure Code.

“Sadiya informed me on the phone that she’s being targeted due to the previous incidents of 2015 and 2018,” the lawyer said.

Nabeel has been booked under the same charges as Sadiya. A blank register was seized from his house, and the seizure form was signed by Nabeel’s father. “Now, his father is worried that the agency will write whatever they like on those blank pages and use it as evidence,” Sabbaq said. “This whole case is flawed. It’s an utter misuse of a law to frame people in the name of national security.”

How Sadiya was ‘deradicalised’ in 2015

In December 2015, an official with the Indian Oil Corporation was arrested in Jaipur, on charges of having connections with the IS.

A former senior official with the Pune ATS told Newslaundry that the NIA then carried out raids across the country and arrested 12 people “who were in contact with the IS”. “From the data recovered from them, it was revealed that Sadiya was in contact with a few of them,” the official said on the condition of anonymity. “She was only 16 years old at the time.”

Bhanupratap Barge, who was the Pune ATS chief at the time, claimed Sadiya was “radicalised online” by IS handlers in India and abroad. “Her first encounter with IS happened on TV: she watched a series that projected IS as the saviour of the Muslim community,” Barge said. “Then she started aggressively searching for more information on IS on the internet...Handlers approached her through chatrooms and within three or four months, they were in proper communication with her.”

By the time the Pune ATS tracked her down in 2015, Barge alleged, Sadiya was “radicalised” and “ready to do anything for IS”. “She wanted to go to Syria. She was a modern girl but her approach totally changed after coming in contact with the handler.”

Since Sadiya was a minor and had committed no offences, the ATS could not arrest her, Barge said, so they decided to “deradicalise” her with the help of clerics and experts from the Muslim community.

So, how did this work?

Clerics would reason with Sadiya, Barge said, explaining what the IS was doing. She would argue and ask what the clerics were doing for Muslims while countries like the United States were bombing Muslims in Syria.

“Gradually, they explained the evils of IS and made her understand that what it’s doing is against Islam,” Barge said. “Clerics would conduct regular sessions with her. Till 2018, we were deradicalising her. Her parents were also supportive of the police in the whole process.”

Qari Idris, a maulana who was part of Sadiya’s “deradicalisation”, told Newslaundry that Sadiya had been “very strongly influenced” by the IS.

“She got a good command over the religious text...She told us that IS had promised to take care of her education,” he said. “But gradually, she started understanding things explained by us...She even promised not to follow the path of IS. She was back to normal at the time.”

Barge said that Sadiya’s identity was kept secret until 2018. That was when, he claimed, she met a boy from Kashmir online. The boy was “influenced by IS”, he said, and told Sadiya to join a nursing course in Kashmir. She went to Kashmir in 2018.

Sadiya’s detention in 2018

On January 23, 2018, the then inspector general of the Kashmir police issued an official alert.

“There is a strong input that one Sadiya Anwar Sheikh, age about 18 years, a resident of Yerwada in Pune, Maharashtra, who is presently in the valley, may cause a suicide bomb explosion near or inside the Republic Parade venue in Kashmir valley,” the alert said.

Two or three days later, media reports emerged on Sadiya as this purported suicide bomber, planning an attack on Republic Day. She was portrayed as a “jihadi”, with dozens of speculations on her mental health and her relationship status. No one reported on why the alert was issued.

The former senior official with the Pune ATS said that Sadiya had been under “constant surveillance” by multiple agencies after her “deradicalisation”. When she went to Srinagar, IB officials were keeping watch on her but then lost track of her whereabouts.

“They panicked. And in panic, they told the Kashmir police that she’s a suicide bomber and was in Kashmir to carry out an explosion,” the official said.

After 10 days in police custody, Sadiya was taken to Pune and reunited with her parents. On February 4, 2018, the family held a press conference, where Sadiya’s mother explained why she had sent Sadiya to Srinagar — so that she could leave her life in Pune of surveillance, snooping, and social exclusion.

The police in Kashmir subsequently investigated the incident but concluded that there was no truth in the claim that Sadiya was a suicide bomber.


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