From defending a 12-year-old, among the youngest to be arrested for ‘waging war’ against the State, to a son seeking justice for his father’s murder at the hands of an infamous militant turned elected councillor, Kashmiri lawyer Babar Qadri—murdered recently by unknown gunmen—fought the hardest cases pro bono.
Srinagar: Faizan Bashir Sofi had just broken the mirror of his room, blood stains were visible on his sister’s shirt, and he was silent during a recent visit to his home in the Eidgah neighbourhood.
Every time the family talked about Babar Qadri—a lawyer assassinated on 24 September this year by unknown gunmen—Sofi got teary-eyed, but he did not say a word. He preferred to be alone, said the family, was quiet all the time and is a drug user.
“My son has become a dead person,” Bashir Ahmad said. “He leaves home at 7 in the morning and returns at 7 in the evening, the case changed him. He thinks of himself as a criminal who has been shunned by society.”
Sofi’s younger sister Zakira, 22, said her brother was angry that the man responsible for this freedom was dead. “Babar sir used to come to our place when he was fighting my brother’s case and was good to all us,” she said. “He never charged a paisa.”
On 20 August 2012, 12-year-old Sofi was arrested for rioting and waging war against the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Soon after his arrest, a picture of the boy sobbing, as a policeman hauled him to an observation home, went viral on social media. An online campaign was started to demand the release of Sofi, among the youngest to be arrested for this crime.
In the photo, Sofi’s crying younger sister’s arm is locked in his arm. On the other side his lawyer, Qadri, has his arm around the boy’s shoulder, comforting him.
After Qadri’s murder, the photo began circulating again, a stark reminder of the work the 40-year-old Srinagar advocate had logged.
In 2012, Sofi was charged under sections 435, 427, 307, 147, 148 and 149 of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC). The charges were contested before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, who until recently, heard all juvenile cases in the absence of a Juvenile Justice Board in J&K. In November 2017, Juvenile Justice Boards and Child Welfare Committees were created in all 22 districts of J&K.
In 2016, all charges were dismissed and, after spending a week at an observation home, Sofi was released.
“It was Babar’s dedication that my son was released,” said Sofi’s 45-year-old father Bashir Ahmad. “The day I heard he had been killed, I can’t tell you how much I cried. I straight went to his house to attend his funeral and pray for his soul.”
Bashir Ahmad said Sofi had been arrested after the police said he tried to damage a police vehicle and had pelted stones, injuring many.
“My son’s arrest sparked protest, for he was the youngest to be arrested at that time, and Babar came forward to fight his case,” said Bashir Ahmed. “He would never treat my son like a criminal...he knew I am a poor man who sells secondhand clothes on the roadside.”
“I was planning to take him to Babar sir, so that he could counsel him, but before I could do that, he was killed,” said Bashir Ahmad. “Babar sir was the only person my son would have listened to.”
Death Of An Opinionated Lawyer
On 21 September, a couple of days before his death, Qadri tweeted about a person who had labelled him as an “agency” man, a government supporter. This branding, Qadri wrote, could put his life at risk.
“I urge the state police administration to register FIR against this Shah Nazir who has spread wrong campaign that I work for agencies. This untrue statement can lead to threat to my life.”
The day he was murdered, Qadri posted a video on Facebook at noon taking a jibe at the president of the J&K High Court Bar Association, Mian Abdul Qayoom, saying that he had not spoken a word after his release from jail. Qayoom was detained after the central government scrubbed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019 and spent a year in jail.
Six hours after his Facebook post, Qadri was shot dead by two gunmen who entered his home as clients, killed him and fled.
A day after the killing the J&K police said that militants were behind the attack. A special investigation team was constituted to find the killers.
“We can’t say anything about the case as of yet,” said Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Srinagar Haseeb Mughal. “The day we will hold a press conference, we will call you as well and divulge details about the persons behind the killing.”
Qadri’s close friends and colleagues said his life was under constant threat.
“In 2018, shortly after the death of Shujat Bukhari, the founder and editor of Rising Kashmir newspaper, an attempt was made to attack Babar also,” said advocate Shafqat Nazir, a colleague and close friend of Qadri. “But when the gunmen found that it was Babar’s brother in the car and not him, they left. His outspokenness got him killed.”
Nazir met Qadri in 2005, when they studied together at Kashmir University. “From attending seminars to talking about Kashmir politics, climate change, social issues and debating on TV channels, he was all over. He was always in some sort of a hurry, and today I realize why,” he said.
Qadri was always ready to help people, Nazir added.
“Whenever he would see someone in need he would give him/her money. I remember, if he didn’t have money, he would call me and say to give 10,000 rupees to a needy person. During the Covid lockdown, he had arranged food for the non-locals in his locality and had asked the local Station House Officer to distribute the food items amongst them. This is who Babar was—kind, generous and always ready to help,” said Nazir.
Fighting Against The Infamous Papa Kishtwari
Walking towards the house of Zahoor Ahmad Mir, whose father Ali Mohammad Mir was allegedly killed by infamous government-sponsored gunman (also called Ikhwani) Ghulam Mohammad Lone alias Papa Kishtwari, the neighbours’ peep from their windows and look askance at this reporter.
“Why have you come here?” “Don’t you know this man’s life is under threat? You are a girl, go home.”
Mir who lives in the Brein Nishat area of Srinagar is seen as a rebel who has dared to file a case against Papa Kishtwari. The government appointed Mir a Personal Security Officer (PSO) for his protection.
Mir said it was Qadri’s hard work that had kept this case alive.
In 1996 Mir’s father was abducted and later killed in custody. “When I went to the camp of Papa Kishtwari at Pampore, Srinagar, he asked me for a ransom, but then his close aides at the camp told me that my father had already been killed.”
Since the killing of his father, Mir said, he had struggled to file an FIR. Finally, in 2007, more than a decade after his father’s murder, an FIR in was registered by the J&K police.
“From the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) to the court I appealed to the authorities to hand over the body of my father to me and in 2011 the commission admitted that there were unmarked graves in Kashmir which gave me a hope that my fathers’ body will be recovered now,” he said.
Qadri was the one, he said, who convinced the court that Mir should be provided security guards because one of the co-accused in the case was still absconding and it was a threat to his life.
“It was all his efforts that 32 people have recorded their statements against Papa Kishtwari. The Ikhwani’s leader had to change his lawyers thrice because Babar has made his case stronger enough that no lawyer could counter his arguments. It was finally in 2018 that a government lawyer was appointed to fight the Kishtwari case,” he said.
Now the case was listed on 30 September, 2020 (The case was not heard that day) and when I open the files, and see Babar’s name and signature I silently cry and close the files. I don’t care about the case, but I have lost a son; who will fill this void now,” he says.
“Babar used to treat me like a father. We would meet and talk everyday and with every passing year our bond was getting stronger. He was fighting my case for free and whenever he would invite me for tea or coffee, he would never let me pay. I have lost a son, not a lawyer and this loss is irreparable,” Mir said.
Qadri’s photo now adorns the wall of Srinagar's lower court and he is counted among the lawyers who paid the price for speaking up.
(Shafaq Shah is an independent journalist based in Srinagar)
Correction: The lead photograph of this story was taken by Shahid Tantray. The photograph was downloaded from social media without his permission. We apologise for the lapse.