New Delhi: Nine years, 11 judges, 133 court hearings and eight dates of inconclusive arguments on charges later, Manzar Imam, arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 2013, is still in jail, waiting for his trial to end. He is an accused under various sections of the stringent anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
On 28 November, additional sessions judge Shailender Malik rejected Imam’s bail plea, sought on the ground of delayed trial, saying “delay in the trial ipso facto cannot be a reason in the present case to grant bail”, because there was sufficient material to conclude the accusation against Imam was not false. UAPA provisions prohibit bail to an accused if the prosecution establishes even a prima facie case at the stage of bail.
According to Imam’s lawyer, Abu Bakar Sabbaq, the slow progress in the case defied the objective of the NIA Act, 2008, under which the federal probe agency was set up. The special law provided for a special court to fast-track anti-terror cases registered by the NIA.
Imam’s case, however, seems to be only one example of the inexplicably tardy progress of NIA trials in Delhi’s special court. This can be gauged from the contents of an affidavit filed in the Delhi HC in September this year before Justice Jasmeet Singh Bedi.
The document was filed by HC’s administrative wing in response to Imam’s petition, moved last year, demanding bail and speedy trial of his case.
The affidavit showed that the oldest NIA case pending in the Delhi court dated back to 2010, and was still in the prosecution evidence stage, as were two cases pending since 2011. Of the remaining 40, in six, prosecution evidence was being recorded and in another eight, charges were yet to be framed.
Sixteen cases had been kept for miscellaneous proceedings, while chargesheet was under scrutiny in one, arguments on sentence were pending in two cases, order was yet to be pronounced in five and one had been kept for pronouncement on bail.
Furthermore, according to the NIA website a large number of cases registered by the agency’s Delhi wing are either pending trial or still under probe.
‘Conviction rate of 94%’
According to the NIA website, since the agency was formally set up in 2009 (the NIA Act was passed in 2008), its Delhi office has registered 288 cases.
In 13 of these, the trials had already begun and in another, was scheduled to begin. While seven cases were closed, judgment had been pronounced in 14 cases and part verdict given in six.
Three cases were transferred to other agencies and investigations were completed in nine. The rest are either under investigation or further investigations. While the first means chargesheet is yet to be filed, the second means while at least one chargesheet had been filed, the case was being probed further.
ThePrint reached NIA for comment, but the agency denied it was responsible for the delays in trials, adding that it may be because courts were overwhelmed. “NIA, in fact, has a conviction rate of 94 per cent,” an NIA spokesperson said.
Sabbaq, however, claimed differently. He said the Delhi HC affidavit in Imam’s case indicated that most NIA cases ended up with the accused pleading guilty, owing to delay in trial of cases. The accused preferred to “admit the guilt rather than fight the case”, which would entail a longer trial, he added.
“Between February 2022 and July 2022, five cases were disposed off in Delhi, of which the accused pleaded guilty in four and only one was contested, resulting in the conviction of 27 persons,” he said.
Advocate Tanwir Ahmed Mir voiced a similar concern regarding NIA cases.
“The wait for the accused becomes indefinite, whereas it should not be because the law was brought into force with a noble purpose to facilitate speedy prosecution and trial,” Mir told ThePrint.
According to Sabbaq, the delay was primarily owing to two factors — since the special law is meant to tackle anti-terror cases with efficiency, a statutory framework provided in it required a designated court to hear only NIA cases. But in Delhi, there was no such exclusive court until February this year, he claimed.
“NIA cases used to get assigned to two judges, who were also hearing matters investigated by other agencies such as the Delhi police. One of the two judges had over 400 non-NIA cases pending before him (in February when a special court was assigned to hear only NIA cases),” Sabbaq added.
This lacuna was pointed out during the hearing on Imam’s petition in HC, he claimed. Eventually, it led the HC’s administrative section to nominate two judges just for NIA cases. The remaining IPC matters were distributed to other non-NIA courts.
Another reason that has contributed to the delay, claimed Sabbaq, was the absence of a deadline for the NIA to complete its probe. As a result, he added, the court hearing a matter is “prevented” from proceeding with the trial.
For example, in Imam’s case, he said, the NIA filed four chargesheets. While the first was submitted in July 2013, a month before his arrest, three were filed after he was taken into custody — in February 2013, September 2014 and November 2016.
‘No order passed because judge got transferred’
Meanwhile, with the special court having rejected his bail plea, Imam continues to wait for the trial to end in his case.
A gold medalist in Urdu according to his family, he was arrested by the NIA from Ranchi in August 2013. The agency accused him of motivating several people on religious lines to wage war against other communities in India and of executing a larger conspiracy with members of the banned Islamic outfit, Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen (IM), to carry out terrorist activities. The two alleged acts are offences under the UAPA.
A chargesheet against Imam was submitted before a special NIA court in Delhi on 20 February, 2014. Thereafter, his case has been heard 133 times, shows information uploaded on the court’s official portal.
But the special court is yet to deliver its verdict on framing of charges, meaning the matter is yet to cross the first stage in a criminal trial. The second stage — examination of witnesses — would commence only after the court decides on the issue of charge framing.
“In the past nine years, arguments on charges have been concluded eight times. But no orders were passed because each time the judge who reserved the verdict got transferred before he or she could pronounce it,” said Imam’s lawyer. This point is also acknowledged by Malik in his bail order against the accused.
Owing to NIA’s pending investigation, the court did not commence hearing arguments on charges till the final and fourth chargesheet in Imam’s case was submitted, Sabbaq said.
Mir explained that normally in conspiracy cases investigated by the NIA, the court chose to commence hearing of arguments on charges and then conducted an examination of witnesses when the agency had culminated its probe. This was to avoid harassment of witnesses who, otherwise, would have to be called for deposition each time a new chargesheet was filed.
According to Imam’s petition in Delhi HC, at the current pace at which his case is proceeding, the trial would take at least eight years to end.
Disposing of his writ petition, the Delhi High Court last month directed the trial court to decide Imam’s bail application in 75 days, which Malik did on 28 November.
While the judge had opined a prima facie view against Imam, his family strongly refuted the suggestion that he was involved in any terrorist activity.
His elder brother, Mohammad Badar, alleged the NIA took Imam into custody in connection with a case registered in Kerala. Later, however, he was named in a Delhi case and one more in Gujarat under similar charges that were invoked in Kerala.
While he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in the Kerala case, he was acquitted in the Gujarat one, claimed his family. Imam added that even though Imam’s jail term in the Kerala case had ended by the time the verdict was released, he still chose to appeal against his conviction in the Kerala HC.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)