Indicating that a ransom may have been paid to the Taliban to secure his release, Father Alexis Prem Kumar has confided to his family that his captors told him they were “waiting for the money” and that he would soon be freed.
The government has denied paying any money to free Kumar, who was let off by the Taliban in Afghanistan last month after eight months in captivity. “They never asked us for money, nor did we pay any,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told HT.
Hailing the release as a big success for his government after months of hard negotiations with the help of a Gulf nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself broken the news to the public on February 22 through a series of tweets after personally conveying the good news to the Jesuit priest’s family in Tamil Nadu.
Kumar, 47, was working for the education of refugee children in Herat province when he was abducted by Taliban operatives on June 2, 2014.
“Our brother said his abductors told him negotiations were on and he may be freed. They said they were waiting for the money,” Albert Manoharan told HT on phone from Devakottai in the southern state’s Sivaganga district.
He also revealed the negotiations were held in Doha. HT has independently learnt the Qatar government played a significant role in helping India. Its embassy in Delhi, however, was unwilling to respond to a questionnaire, saying it had no information.
HT tracked down Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a founding member of the Taliban who is now no longer formally part of the group but still has contacts with it. “I have learnt from authoritative sources in the Taliban that the Qatar government played mediator,” he told HT from Kabul. “I don’t think there was a direct meeting between India and the Taliban. The talking was done by Qatar.” The NDA government refused to be drawn into questions of whether Qatar had paid the money. The Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan when the armed group took the reins of power in Kabul in 1996, Zaeef spent four years in Guantanamo Bay prison after the US war on terror.
Frequently consulted by the Afghan government now, he divides his time between Doha and Kabul. Asked if the Taliban were now more favourably inclined to India, he said, “They don’t see India as an enemy.”
“Kumar’s release is an indication that India has managed to open channels with the Taliban, a big change from 1996 when the government shut its embassy in Kabul all through Taliban rule. It is important for us to have channels going ahead, especially since the Americans are looking to reduce boots on the ground,” said an MEA official.
Asked what Doha might get in return for its help, the official said, “In diplomacy, returns are not necessarily immediate or in the short term.”
Kumar was dropped off a short distance from the Indian consulate in Kandahar, Manoharan said. “They told him never to come back or they would shoot him dead. In the eight months he was in their custody, he was kept tied to a cot and his location changed nine times.”
He was taken to Kabul by the consulate staff and escorted to Delhi on February 22 after being issued an emergency exit certificate since his passport had expired while in captivity.
Shortly afterwards, Modi tweeted “delighted at securing the release of Father Alexis Prem Kumar from captivity in Afghanistan. Have spoken to him and informed his happy family of his safe return after 8 months in captivity”, while Akbaruddin told the media the release was pursued by India, “including at the highest levels by the Prime Minister”.