India court acquits foreigners over Tabligh event during pandemic

Court says prosecution failed to prove presence of 36 foreigners inside the Muslim missionary movement’s headquarters.

Indian paramedics check Tablighi Jamaat members before they were taken to a quarantine facility, in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi [File: Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – An Indian court has acquitted 36 foreign nationals charged with violating COVID-19 protocol by attending a Muslim religious congregation in the capital New Delhi.

The court of Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Arun Kumar Garg on Tuesday said the prosecution had failed to prove that the foreign nationals charged in August had, in fact, been present at the New Delhi headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, between March 12 and April 1.

In March, the Tablighi Jamaat hit the headlines after Indian authorities blamed a congregation at its headquarters in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area for causing a spike in COVID-19 infections. The movement’s headquarters were sealed off and thousands of attendees quarantined as Indian news channels and social media vilified the Jamaat members for weeks, calling them “corona bombs”.

Dozens of cases were filed against the non-Indian Tablighi Jamaat members by various Indian states and hundreds of them were blacklisted from travelling to India for 10 years.

The organisation’s head, Mullah Muhammad Saad, was charged with culpable homicide, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, for violating a ban on large gatherings to check the spread of the coronavirus.

In August, 36 foreign nationals were charged under various sections of the Indian penal code, including disobeying an order duly promulgated by a public servant, a negligent act likely to spread infection of a dangerous disease, and disobeying regulations of the Epidemic Act of 1897.

The accused hailed from 14 countries, including the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Thailand and Indonesia, Indian media reports said.

Tablighi Jamaat members being taken to a quarantine facility in Nizamuddin, New Delhi [File: Manish Swarup/ AP Photo]

Mujeeb-Ur-Rehman, one of the lawyers representing the foreign nationals, told Al Jazeera that the court pulled up the police for charging people who had not even attended the religious event.

Rehman said the judge observed during the trial that the whole chargesheet was “just a script” and told the prosecution they “must go to a good scriptwriter”.

“It’s a great win, not only for the foreigners but also for the public here… [if] you want justice, you can go to the court and the justice system is in such a way that if you are on side of the truth, you can win the case and we have proved that,” 39-year-old Irfan, one of the acquitted foreign nationals who only gave his first name, told Al Jazeera.

“I am happy the case has been dismissed,” he said.

Irfan said he had come to New Delhi from Brisbane, Australia, in March to visit friends, right before the nationwide coronavirus lockdown was imposed.

At the time, he was sent to a quarantine centre in the capital. When he was discharged from the facility, he found out that a case had been filed against him.

Irfan said the accusations against the foreigners and members of the Tablighi Jammat were not “just shocking but also nonsensical”.

Rehman said the allegations against the foreign nationals “were influenced by media trials”. “The media was just looking at it as an opportunity to malign the Muslims,” he said.

In August, a Mumbai court had also struck down criminal cases against 34 Tablighi Jamaat members, including 29 foreign nationals, over similar charges.

“A political government tries to find a scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity, and the circumstances show that there is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats,” the court had said.

“The material of the present matter shows that the propaganda against the so-called religious activity was unwarranted,” it added.

Source: Al Jazeera