New Delhi: The brother of one of two Pakistani teenagers held on suspicion of facilitating a terrorist attack on the 12 Infantry Brigade’s headquarters in Uri, in which 19 soldiers were killed, has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to order a review of the case, saying he hopes Islamabad’s decision to release Indian soldier Chandu Babulal Chavan will clear the way for his sibling to be sent home too.
“Faisal Awan, my brother, is just a schoolchild trapped in the politics of two nations,” said Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, a medical practitioner in Lahore. “He is innocent, but we have no means whatsoever to help him. We feel like we are living in a bad film. I hope Prime Minister Modi hears our appeal.”
Tabassum’s appeal comes amid delicate behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between India and Pakistan, aimed at lowering tensions which flared in September following the Uri attack and India’s counter-strikes on terrorist outposts across the Line of Control (LoC).
Awan, a resident of Potha Jandgran near the village of Koomi Kote in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and his school friend Ahsan Khursheed, from Khilayana Khurd in Muzaffarabad’s Hattian Bala tehsil, were arrested on September 21, three days after the Uri attack. Both the villages are close to the LoC.
In a dossier presented to Pakistan, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) claimed the two had confessed to facilitating the “infiltration of a group of four Jaish-e-Muhammad cadres who carried out the Uri Army camp attack”.
However, Tabassum said the two are minors and not linked to any terrorist group. As reported by The Indian Express, Awan’s government-issued identification shows he is 16 years old, and a marksheet issued in August 2016 corroborates his family’s claims that he is a student of Shaheen Model School in Muzaffarabad.
“I can only appeal to people in India to imagine what our family is going through,” said Tabassum. “We would be more than happy to provide evidence of my brother’s innocence, but nobody from India has been in touch with us to ask for it”.
Last week, NIA Director-General Sharad Kumar said the Uri attack was carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, not the Jaish-e-Muhammad as first claimed by the Army and MEA. Kumar declined any comment on the two teenagers’ case, saying investigations were going on. However, a senior NIA source said the agency had not, so far, found any material evidence to suggest the two were linked to the Uri attack or other terrorist operations.
Though a senior Pakistani diplomat familiar with the negotiations said there was “no linkage” between the teenagers’ case and Chavan’s release, he said the “matter was being dealt with separately”.
A senior Indian government official also denied that the two cases were linked, but said the Ministry of Home Affairs’ position on the teenagers’ case was that “the life of an Indian national is of paramount importance”. Pakistan had denied consular access to Chavan and Kulbhushan Jadhav, another alleged spy.
Zeero Begum, Awan’s mother, has been reportedly undergoing treatment for shock and hypertension ever since her son’s arrest. “I’ve had to tell her a hundred lies to calm her down,” said Tabassum. “Now, she believes my brother is being kept in some kind of juvenile facility, not a jail, and that he phones me occasionally. I make up stories about him being well-fed and comfortable.”
He said she can only sleep with the help of medication. “I’ve arranged for her to be kept sequestered from friends and family, just in case someone lets out the truth about what’s really going on,” he said.
Khursheed’s mother, said Tabassum, has not spoken at all since she learned of his arrest. His father, a cook, works in Saudi Arabia, and has been unable to get leave to return home.
Local police sources in Muzaffarabad said both teenagers had skipped a school picnic on September 21 as they planned to meet a girl. Their rendezvous, however, soured after the boys ran into the girl’s family, and they reportedly fled into the nearby woods, losing their way and crossing the LoC by mistake.
Following their arrest, the two teenagers provided several contradictory accounts to interrogators — some of which is now known to be untrue. In an October 3 statement, the NIA claimed Awan identified one of the four slain terrorists behind the Uri attack as Hafiz Ahmad, who, he said, was the son of Feroze, a resident of Dharbang village, west of Murree.
But the only attacker to be identified so far is Gujranwala resident Muhammad Anas, code-named Abu Siraqa, for whom the Lashkar-e-Taiba held funeral prayers. “It is possible the teenagers were frightened or coerced when they gave us their early testimony,” said an NIA official.
The NIA has since succeeded in recovering data from one of two Global Positioning System sets carried by the terrorists who attacked Uri, showing they used electronic means to guide them across the LoC. The data shows the men travelled along the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road towards the LoC on September 17, before beginning to hike into the mountains short of Chakothi, the official border point.
After they penetrated the LoC south of Chakothi on the night of September 17, the men continued to walk eastward, traversing three ridgelines before climbing towards the village of Darah Goolan, where they rested before attacking the 12 Infantry Brigade headquarters in the bowl below.