New Delhi: Ahmed Bin Abdullah Ali, 45, was elated to finally receive his passport from the Saket district court Monday, almost a year after he had to surrender it to the Delhi Police.
Ali and 14 other foreign nationals received their passports from the court after a prolonged legal battle with the Delhi Police, which had charged them for participating in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in March last year.
On 31 March 2020, an FIR was registered against more than 950 foreign nationals, who attended the event, for violating Covid-19 lockdown protocols issued by the government.
Of the 955 foreigners named in the charge sheet, 911 entered plea bargains, gave fines and left the country. But 44 of them, including the 15 mentioned above, chose not to plead guilty and contested the charges.
In August 2020, eight of these people were discharged and the remaining 36 foreigners were acquitted in December 2020.
While issuing the order, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) Atul Kumar Garg had also noted that it was “reasonably probable” that the police had picked up the accused to “maliciously prosecute” them on the directions of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
Since the Delhi Police chose not to appeal the two-month-old acquittal order in a higher court, CMM Garg, on 20 February, ordered them to return the passports of the 36 Tablighis to facilitate their return back to their home countries.
‘Did not commit any wrong’
In March 2020, the Tablighi Jamaat found itself at the centre of a massive controversy for hosting a congregation at the Banglewali Masjid in Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi.
Authorities had alleged the participants had defied prohibitory orders imposed due to Covid and had become human carriers of the virus.
On 1 April, the MHA blacklisted 960 foreigners and cancelled their visas, alleging that their involvement in the Tablighi Jamaat event violated their visa conditions. The home minister’s office also asked the Delhi Police and police chiefs of other states, where these foreigners were residing, to take legal action under the Foreigners Act and the Disaster Management Act.
Ali, a resident of New York, US, noted that they decided to stay back because they had done nothing wrong.
“I did not commit any wrong and, therefore, decided to fight it out. I was told by the US embassy to plead guilty, but I refused to accept the suggestion,” he told ThePrint.
Ali came to India on 12 March 2020, to attend the congregation with his wife, father-in-law and mother-in-law, and claimed he was never told by the Indian immigration authorities that the Nizamuddin Markaz was an illegal place or building to stay.
“This is my second visit to India for the Markaz. If there was anything unlawful about the congregation, the authorities should have stopped us at the airport itself,” he said.
Ali also cleared the air surrounding the Tablighi Jamaat and clarified it is not an organisation with members. “Tablighi means reminding each other to be a good Muslim. We have no chairman or treasury, we all gather to exchange ideas from the Holy Quran.”
Abdul Salaam, a freelance designer from Thailand, echoed Ali’s sentiments and said that there was no reason for him to “feel or plead guilty”.
Salaam was on a six-month-long tour of India and Bangladesh, and was scheduled to catch a flight back home from Delhi when the lockdown was announced.
“I did not do anything wrong. I was here to participate in the Markaz, which is a legal congregation,” he told ThePrint.
‘We were not Covid-positive’
According to both Ahmed and Salaam, the police’s theory that all those who participated in the congregation were carriers of the virus was also false.
Ali said that even though he, along with his father-in-law, were moved to a hospital for Covid-19 treatment, the police never showed them the test reports nor were they administered any medicines at the hospital.
Salaam, too, was told that he was Covid-positive, but was not shown any reports to support the claim by the police.
Furthermore, they noted, none of the 44 foreigners who stayed back in India to fight their case had any symptoms of Covid-19.
Ali told ThePrint that he was moved to a quarantine centre where his passport and phone were taken away.
“We were moved to this mosque and on account of the lockdown could not go anywhere else. On 3 April, the police came to the mosque, moved us to the quarantine centre, took away our phones and asked for our passports, giving an impression that they wanted it for a few days,” he said.
Now, almost a year later, he is eager to reunite with his three children in New York, who were under his sister-in-law’s care during this time