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coronavirus: Foreign Tablighi members now stare at exit permit roadblocks

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NEW DELHI: Exonerated by more than one court, Tablighi Jamaat members from foreign countries, stuck in India for over six months, now have to go through what they describe as a “bureaucratic nightmare to get an exit permit”. Pending court cases caused by “double FIRs” and lookout notices issued against them by the home ministry have further added to their woes.

Nearly 193 Tablighi Jamaat members from foreign countries are stuck in Delhi because of the double FIRs lodged against them in various police stations across the city. Currently, these members are living in the four facilities temporarily set up by the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi, according to officials in the organisation. Starting next week, a local court shall expedite hearing these 29 FIRs as per the Delhi High Court directions.

In April, the ministry of home affairs banned hundreds of Jamaat members from entering India, for a period of 10 years, after the organisation’s religious congregation at Delhi’s Nizamuddin emerged as the biggest cluster for Covid-19.

On Wednesday, when a group of 14 Fiji nationals were about to board a flight back home after spending over Rs 2 lakh on a ticket, three of them were detained at the Delhi airport because there were FIRs against them in Saharanpur and Nagpur police stations.

Speaking to ET, Imroz Akbar from Fiji said, “We had a flight back home on March 20 that got cancelled.We had to return from the Delhi Airport. Due to the curfew, we took shelter in a local mosque from where the police detained us on suspicion of spreading Covid-19 and sent us to quarantine for two months. On Wednesday, we were happy that we were finally returning home after five months, only to be detained once again and told that there’s an FIR against me in Nagpur, even though I never visited the city.”

A Tablighi Jamaat volunteer on condition of anonymity said this was happening repeatedly. “How can one be implicated for the same offence twice. This has happened with members from several countries. The problem is that the FIR was never served to these people. So many of them don’t even know where these FIRs are lodged against them,” he asked.

The 912 Jamaat members in Delhi who pleaded guilty at the Saket court were asked to pay fines starting from Rs 5,000. “Since their visas were cancelled and they were implicated in a criminal charge, they need an exit permission from the government to leave the country, for which a bunch of documents have to be processed online with the FRRO…Ninety per cent of the foreigners do not know English or any Indian language which makes the process tedious,” said a member.

The organisation has informally appealed to its members to donate generously to fund the travel of these members. The members are also appealing to “friendly embassies” to talk to Indian officials and even escort them to the aircraft so that they are not de-boarded, similar to what some countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and Thailand are doing.

Apart from this, nearly 44 Tablighi Jamat members refused to enter the plea bargain are also undergoing trial now. According to the organisations, there are at least 750 Tablighi Jamaatis outside Delhi, of which only 112 have been able to leave the country so far.

While Uttar Pradesh and Bihar still have at least 60 members of the organisation in jail on criminal charges the Bihar government on Thursday agreed to consolidate all the cases in the State to be heard in a single court and to expedite the process, after the organisation approached the Supreme court.

While States such as Karnataka, TN, Andhra Pradesh, UP chose to file criminal charges against the members during the lockdown, some States such as West Bengal and Odisha detained the Jamaatis but did not press criminal charges. “People were put in jail in TN, Karnataka both until the Madurai bench of Madras High Court gave an order on their release in July..Karnataka then followed with a quashing order. The situation of foreign Jamaatis is the worst in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand as the courts are slow,” a member said.

Recently, the Bombay High Court quashed FIRs filed against 35 Tablighi Jamaat members saying they had been made “scapegoat”, and that the action against them was an “indirect warning to Indian Muslims” after the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In a scathing judgement, the court pointed out that the Tablighi reform movement has always had international visitors and they were free to travel within the country for religious programmes. High courts in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, have also concluded that the visitors should be let free, citing different reasons, while the Madras High Court termed the confinement “unreasonable, unjust and unfair.”

Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, an Advocate-on-Record practising at the Supreme Court said after release from quarantine, “the circumstances of many foreigners were so compelling that they preferred to enter into plea bargains in order to quickly reunite with their families.”

“Even thereafter, the exit procedures are so complicated that many are still awaiting clearance to travel…Whereas those jailed continue to be deprived of their liberty and dignity. We all know that the right to travel back to their countries, is a right not only recognised under our Article 21 but also under international law,” he said.

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