A Delhi court on Thursday sought response from Delhi Police on pleas filed by 35 foreigners challenging the framing of charges against them for attending the Tablighi Jamaat congregation here by allegedly being negligent and disobeying the government's COVID-19 guidelines. Additional Sessions Judge Sandeep Yadav directed the police to file the reply by September 22.
A magistrate court had on August 24 framed charges against 36 foreigners in all under sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 (disobeying regulation) of Epidemic Act, 1897. The charges were also framed under section 51 (obstruction) Disaster Management Act, 2005.
They were discharged for the offences under section 14 (1) (b) (violation of visa norms) of Foreigners Act, sections 270 (malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and 271 (Disobedience to quarantine rule) of IPC. The court, however, said there was not an iota of evidence to suggest that the accused had in any manner professed or propagated the principles and doctrines of the Tablighi Jamaat or had indulged in Tablighi work as alleged.
The punishment for the offences for which they have been charged ranges from six months to eight years of imprisonment. The pleas, filed through advocates Ashima Mandla and Mandakini Singh, claimed that the magistrate court has "grossly erred" in exercising its power and framing charges under sections 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, section 188 IPC, section 269 IPC, and section 51 of the Disaster Management Act, in the absence of "a shred of prima facie evidence either indicative of or incriminating" the accused qua allegations so levelled. They claimed that the framing of charges against the foreigners on "mere conjectures and surmises" was untenable in law. The accused entered the country on a validly issued Tourism visa on February 26 and visited the Markaz only on February 27 till February 29, they said.
"It is noteworthy that the magistrate court made an erroneous presumption based on the entry record of the accused in the Markaz register, in the absence of any shred of evidence pertaining to the duration of stay of the accused… "Conveniently so, the Prosecution has failed to come forward with any record thereby indicating let alone establishing the presence of the accused person inside the Markaz in the intervening duration between March 12-31," the pleas alleged. They further claimed that the prosecution has levelled unsubstantiated allegations against the foreigners in connection with Tablighi Jamaat by making inaccurate statements that people from Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries attended the religious congregation acting as coronavirus carriers.
"It is noteworthy that there is no material in the first place, to show that there was any event that the foreigners participated in, much less the dates of such participation. The statements of witnesses lend no support to the case of the prosecution in any way, as the prosecution have failed to both place and identify any foreign national at the Markaz, much less attributing a role to them, in the intervening period between March 12-31," the pleas alleged. They further said the magistrate court had failed to appreciate that even in the eventuality of foreign nationals being housed at Markaz pursuant to the nation-wide lockdown in the wake of the pandemic, it was nothing more than 'force of circumstances' as there was disruption in the operation of international flights to and fro as early as March 12 and March 16 and subsequently a complete ban from March 21 till April 15 at the first instance.
Further it was informed to the police that despite the ban, on the intervening night between March 23-24, 700 persons had left, however the Jamaat organisers were facing problems in sending public back from Markaz, they said. "The prosecution failed to bring on record letter dated March 25, addressed by one Maulana Yusuf on behalf of the Jamaat to the Station House Officer (SHO), Police Station Hazrat Nizamuddin stating that as on March 23, more than 1,500 persons were vacated from the Markaz premises and further the concerned SHO was informed that more than 1,000 persons were stranded inside the premises and the same was also in the knowledge of the designated SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate)," the pleas claimed.
They further said that despite the Centre's protocol for 14-days quarantine period, 955 foreign nationals were housed at quarantine centres for nearly two months, though they repeatedly tested negative and were released from the quarantine centres only after intervention of the High Court of Delhi. "Despite the factual matrix, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, without judicial application of mind, has roped the accused in the absence of prima facie evidence," the pleas alleged.