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Held for chats on ‘threats to Islam’, jailed under UAPA, how Maharashtra man got bail after 6 yrs

Saying there was no 'incriminating' evidence, Bombay HC last week granted bail to Mohammad Raisuddin, a schoolteacher from Parbhani district arrested on terror charges in 2016.

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New Delhi: It was a matter of routine for Mohammad Raisuddin, 44, to catch up with his friends every weekend in his hometown in Maharashtra’s Parbhani district for discussions on various issues, including ‘threats’ to Islam.

It was these conversations that would lead to the state government primary school teacher being slapped with anti-terror charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, six years ago. He was granted bail just last week.

The case dates back to August 2016, when Raisuddin was arrested after Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) accused him of being involved in terror activities. The case was later transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a central counter-terrorism task force.

Three other men were co-accused in the case — Naser Bin Abubaker Yafai and Mohammed Shahed Khan, who both pleaded guilty and were sentenced in May this year, and Iqbal Ahmed, who got bail from the HC in August 2021.

Raisuddin, meanwhile, remained in jail for nearly six years until the Bombay High Court granted him bail on 27 June, observing that the case against him was “prima facie not made out” at this stage.

The trial in Raisuddin’s case has barely progressed over the years. With not even one out of 550 witnesses examined, the HC noted in its 37-page bail order that it is unlikely the trial will conclude within a reasonable timeframe.

“We have very closely and meticulously gone through the statements of prosecution witnesses… Totality of the material gathered by the investigation agency qua appellant-accused and presented before us does not prima facie point out the involvement of the appellant-accused in the aforesaid offences,” the bail order by justices V.G. Bisht and Revati Mohite Dere said.

In its order in Raisuddin’s case, the HC has virtually discarded every piece of evidence presenting against him, including an oath of allegiance to an Islamic State (IS) leader, as not “incriminating” in nature.

On Tuesday, the HC amended one of its directions in the original bail order, which did not permit Raisuddin to leave Greater Mumbai’s jurisdiction.

Speaking to ThePrint, Raisuddin’s lawyer Abdul Rahim Bukhari said: “Subsequent to his arrest, he was placed under suspension and was receiving half salary. He will now be entitled to 75 per cent and would get the entire 100 per cent only once he is acquitted.”

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What are the allegations against Raisuddin?

Bukhari told ThePrint the main allegation against his client was that he was part of a group in his hometown that would discuss problems faced by Muslims. He was also accused of having links with the terror organisation IS.

“The school where Raisuddin works is in Hingoli district, which is 50 kilometres away from his home. So, he used to go back to Parbhani every weekend [where he would participate in discussions],” Bukhari said, adding that his client came from a “respectable” background. While two of his brothers are doctors, two are pharmacists and three sisters are government school teachers.

Raisuddin was arrested on 12 August, 2016, a month after two of his other alleged associates from Parbhani, Naser Bin Abubaker Yafai and Mohammed Shahed Khan, were taken into custody by the Maharashtra ATS.

Yafai and Khan were accused of being in contact with members of the banned terrorist organisation IS.

According to the prosecution, the two men prepared explosives with the help of Raisuddin and another co-accused, Iqbal Ahmed. An electric switchboard on which an IED was allegedly soldered was discovered in Ahmed’s house, as was a baith, or oath of allegiance, to IS’s ‘caliph’ that had purportedly been written and signed by Raisuddin.

During the trial, Yafai and Khan pleaded guilty and were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment, of which they have already completed six.

Raisuddin applied for bail before the NIA special court in 2018, pleading that the charges against him were prima facie false, but the court rejected this on 31 January, 2019.

He then moved the high court, where his advocate argued there was no cogent, legitimate, and admissible evidence to connect him with the alleged offence. The statements of witnesses only indicated that there were discussions between the accused and them, and nothing more, he argued.

While Raisuddin’s plea could not proceed due to the Covid lockdown, his co-accused Ahmed got bail from the HC in August 2021. An NIA appeal against this bail order was dismissed by the Supreme Court in February this year.

‘Mere discussions’ over ‘threats to Islam’

Under UAPA, bail can only be granted when a judge is satisfied that there are no reasonable grounds for believing the allegations against the accused are prima facie true. This stringent provision makes it almost impossible for any UAPA accused to get bail.

In Raisuddin’s case, the HC examined the statements of five witnesses presented by the prosecution, which according to the latter pointed towards his complicity.

All the witnesses recounted their post-dinner meetings and accepted that the discussions veered around the concerns of Muslims. Sometimes, they admitted, they even discussed IS.

One of them also spoke of a WhatsApp group created by Raisuddin on which there were conversations about religion and the Quran. However, the NIA never produced these chats before the court.

On the nature of the discussions between the witnesses and Raisuddin, the court opined they were “regular discussions over threats to Islam; real, perceived or imaginary”.

There was no material to indicate that the accused instigated the commission of any offence or insurgency, or advocated any violence, it held.

“From a perusal of the said statements, one can reasonably conclude that, at the highest, what took place were mere discussions as to what was transpiring in India and the world and that everyone should work for Islam,” the court held.

Oath is a mere ‘acceptance’, not incriminating

A crucial piece documentary evidence relied upon by the prosecution in this case is a baith, or oath of allegiance, allegedly written and signed by Raisuddin. The English translation of the oath shows it to be a declaration and acceptance of the terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “Caliph of Muslims.”

The HC held the oath “at the highest appears to be a declaration of acceptance” of someone as the Caliph of the Muslims.

It also noted there were divergent opinions on whether Raisuddin wrote the oath or not. A forensic report from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Hyderabad did not give any final opinion on this issue, whereas the Pune lab stated that it was in Raisuddin’s handwriting.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

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