New Delhi: Even after pleading guilty for allegedly violating lockdown norms by participating in the Nizamuddin Markaz event in March, which became a massive Covid-19 hotspot in Delhi, several members of the Tablighi Jamaat from other countries are still stuck in India after secondary FIRs against them surfaced.
Many Tablighi members are now facing a second FIR, registered by the Delhi Police across different police stations in the national capital.
According to lawyers representing the members, these FIRs contain similar charges that were levelled against them in the FIR registered by the Crime Branch on 31 March.
In order to end the case by the Crime Branch, 910 Tablighi Jamaat members, of the 955 booked, had entered plea bargaining and paid fines ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000. The remaining sought trial to prove that they were not guilty.
The members opted for plea bargaining to escape the delay involved in judicial proceedings in India, the lawyers involved in the case told ThePrint.
The applications, filed in batches by the Tablighis, were accepted on different dates in July by different judges in the Saket District Court only after a Crime Branch police officer made a statement that no other case was pending against the accused. ThePrint accessed the court order and reviewed the officer’s statement to confirm this.
According to the lawyers, these secondary FIRs were registered on 1 April.
Legal experts told ThePrint that the Delhi Police should have disclosed the presence of the other, secondary FIRs against the Tablighis during the plea bargaining proceedings. They added that these were a gross abuse of law.
The matter is now before the Delhi High Court where 23 Indonesians have filed a petition asking it to quash the FIR registered against them.
A bench led by Justice Anup J. Bhambani Friday sought a response from the central government and the Delhi Police, and listed the matter for further hearing on 10 August.
12 FIRs filed against 117 Tablighis
The fact that these FIRs were pending against the members was revealed when two Afghan nationals were stopped from leaving the country last Saturday.
Upon reaching Delhi’s international airport, they were told that a lookout circular was issued against them in connection with an FIR registered with the Chandni Mahal police station.
The Afghan nationals came back surprised because 108 Tablighis belonging to different countries had left India just days earlier. Later, other members also received calls from various police stations informing them about the second case.
So far, the lawyers have officially got copies of 12 FIRs against 117 people. In some cases, chargesheets have been filed by the local police — a move experts feel amounts to “harassment”.
Those who have had no intimation about another case against them have decided to wait for the Delhi High Court’s decision on the petition of the Indonesians.
Members not intimated about FIRs for over 3 months
All the 12 FIRs claim that the accused had defied lockdown violations by participating in the Markaz congregation, which is similar to the Crime Branch FIR.
The Crime Branch had filed a chargesheet against the Tablighis under the Foreigners Act, Disaster Management Act, Epidemic Diseases Act and various Indian Penal Code (IPC) provisions.
The Tablighis were also accused of breaching the conditions with an intention to spread the harmful disease.
Ashima Mandla, one of the lawyers, told ThePrint that the accused in these FIRs were not residents of the Nizamuddin Markaz when the lockdown began, but had visited the place.
The police named them as accused because they had reportedly visited the Markaz between 12 and 31 March. Their entries were recorded in a register maintained at the Markaz.
Mandla complained that the Delhi Police had remained silent on the second FIRs for three months.
“They did not utter a word about it even when the plea-bargaining proceedings were on. Fifteen days were spent in getting approvals for plea bargaining,” she said.
Speaking on the matter, a senior Delhi Police officer, however, said the secondary FIR was registered against “very limited” number of people.
“The number of people who have been booked in the second FIR are very limited. These are people who may have gone to masjids violating guidelines. The cases were registered in accordance with law. The matter is sub judice and upon the court to decide,” said the officer.
‘Gross abuse of law’
During the hearing before the High Court Friday, senior advocate Rebecca John, appearing for the Indonesian petitioners, pointed out that the offences in the FIR against her clients, registered in New Seelampur, are the same as the one in the Crime Branch case.
“This is gross abuse of the process of law and highly unfair on the part of the State,” she told the bench.
Despite pleading guilty for the same offences and having paid a fine for it, her clients were not able to leave India, John added.
The petitioners have questioned the need for these FIRs, especially since the Crime Branch has territorial jurisdiction across Delhi.
Advocate Suruchi Suri shared John’s concern. She said even though plea bargaining does not require an investigating officer who has probed a case, or the public prosecutor, to give a statement that no other case is pending, a specific statement was made in this case.
“If the application was allowed after a specific statement that no FIR was pending against the accused then clearly it was factually incorrect and misleading to these foreigners who are looking to return to their respective countries now,” Suri said.