New Delhi/Thiruvananthapuram: Nine Indian children, most under five years old, are being held in Kabul’s Badam Bagh prison, as authorities decide whether their mothers should be deported to India or be tried in Afghanistan on terrorism charges, highly-placed government sources have told News18.
The children’s mothers are widows of Indian jihadists who fought with Islamic State in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
Families of the children are appealing for government intervention to have the children returned to India. “No one is telling us anything,” said Bindu Sampath, the grandmother of one of the infants now incarcerated in Badam Bagh prison. “I do not understand why my baby grand-daughter should be suffering for the crimes of her father”.
Investigators from the National Investigation Agency have met the jailed women, whose fate was revealed by News18 earlier this month, along with diplomats from the Indian Embassy in Kabul. There has, however, been no official word on the nature or status of criminal proceedings against them.
The Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to a request for comment from News18. However, a senior government official familiar with the case said the children remained in prison because their mothers were their legal custodians.
Lawyer Malvika Rajkotia, however, described this claim as “an eyewash”. “The mother has the right, as custodian, to transfer her child to a place or person where she believes their best interest will be served,” she said. “It’s obvious the child’s interest is not being served by being in a prison.”
Bindu Sampath’s daughter, Nimisha Kumar, was drawn into jihadism after she joined a religious cult run by neo-fundamentalist preacher Abdul Rashid Abdulla. According to case records seen by News18, one-time dental student and classical dancer, Kumar is said to have been drawn into the proselytising cult after the traumatic end of a romantic relationship.
Kumar was married to fellow cult-member Bexin Vincent in 2015, and the couple had a daughter in Nangarhar the following year. Vincent, also known by the pseudonym Abu Issa, is among five Indians, who, investigators say, may have survived the bombing of Islamic State strongholds by the United States in 2017-2018.
The children in Badam Bagh prison also include an infant born to Merin Jacob Palath, and Bexin Vincent’s brother, Bestin Vincent. Following her husband's death in combat, Palath married cult-leader Abdulla — only to be widowed yet again after he was killed.
Nafisa Atiakkam, then pregnant with her fourth child, was recruited into the Islamic State along with her Dubai-based husband Anwar Atiakkam, in 2015. Anwar Atiakkam, was killed in a United States drone strike late in 2018.
Both international law and India’s Juvenile Justice Act, Rajkotia said, mandate that that the Government of India intervene to protect the children. “These children are Indian citizens, and it is the legal duty of the government to secure their rights,” she said.
“The foundational legal principle in all such cases is the best interest of the child,” Rajkotia said. “The government must ensure the women and children have proper legal representation, and that their families have access to them.”
Based on interviews with survivors, Indian investigators now believe that at least 24 Indian nationals were killed fighting alongside Islamic State forces. The dead are thought to include two women: one-time speech therapist Ajmala Purayil, who was married to jihadist Shihas Kallukettiya Purayil, and engineer Sumeena Sunayil, the wife of Sunayil Fawaz.
Ajmala Purayil was several months pregnant when she left for Afghanistan with her husband, government sources said.
Like many of the Kerala jihadists who ended up in Afghanistan, the Purayils were highly-educated professionals. Family members have told the police that Shihas Purayil transformed from a westernised, hard-partying Bangalore-educated management student to an Islamist after he joined the Peace Educational Foundation, a Kerala-based educational trust.
Ijas Purayil, Shihas Purayil’s older brother, who worked as a dentist before joining the Islamic State, is thought to be among the five Indian nationals who survived United States airstrikes. His wife, Rifila Purayil, is now held in Badam Bagh prison along with their five-year-old son, Ayaan, and an infant born in Afghanistan.
Ashfaq Majeed Purayil, a cousin of Ijas and Shihas Purayil who once ran a hotel in Mumbai, is also thought to have survived the bomb strikes. His wife, Shamsiya Purayil, and their four-year-old Ayesha, are also among those held in Badam Bagh prison.
NIA officials say several of the women, who have been charged by the agency with terrorism-related crimes, are likely to face prosecution if they return to India.
The bulk of the slain jihadists are from Kerala. However, one, Imran Mumtaz Ansari, hailed from Bareilly, while a second, Aijaz Ahanger, had fled across the Line of Control from Kashmir in 1992 along with his wife.
Kabul has deported dozens of other Islamic State widows hailing from three Central Asian states to their own countries, diplomatic sources said. However, thousands of women and children from across the world continue to be held in the wider region, notably at the al-Hawl camp in Syria, as wary governments debate how their cases ought be handled.
Earlier this week, the United Nations agency responsible for enforcing sanctions against the Islamic State warned that the “current improvised holding arrangements are a recipe for radicalisation and despair, especially in the case of minors. If the opportunity to process them legally and humanely is missed, rehabilitation may be attempted too late and many may become hardened extremists”.