when French national Mahdi Draa and British national Suhail Sheikh attended a religious congregation in India’s national capital New Delhi


India: Europeans cleared of spreading virus await return

Last year, when French national Mahdi Draa and British national Suhail Sheikh attended a religious congregation in India’s national capital New Delhi, little did they knew that their short excursion will turn into a harrowing experience.

Police detained them on wrongful charges of intentionally spreading the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now been overturned by the court.

“From the beginning, we knew that the accusations against us were false and that is why we decided to stay back and fight it legally, no matter the time and financial expenses it would cost or the emotional trauma of being separated from the family,” Draa, 52, from Paris’s northeastern suburb of Bobigny, told Anadolu Agency in an interview from New Delhi.

After spending months in detention, a Delhi court exonerated Draa and Sheikh along with 34 other foreigners on Dec. 15 from spreading COVID-19. They had arrived in India to attend the congregation of Tablighi Jamaat – an Islamic movement headquartered in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area.

As many as 2,765 foreign members of the Jamaat representing 40 countries were charged across India, for visa violations, flouting the government’s lockdown orders, and acting malignantly as well as negligently to spread the infectious disease.

In all the cases, authorities failed to establish these charges, leading to their acquittals. Various courts in their judgments made scathing remarks against authorities, saying “they [foreign nationals] were chosen to make them scapegoats” and their detention was “unreasonable, unjust, and unfair”.

Draa and Sheikh were part of the last group of 44 foreign nationals, who were also acquitted of all charges. Eight members had pleaded guilty and returned home. A Tunisian national passed away soon after the judgment. The rest are now awaiting final clearances by the authorities before they return to their countries.

For London resident Sheikh, an Indian origin from the southern state of Telangana, “it was a made-up case,” which the judges found flimsy and compared the charge sheet with a movie script.

Target of media and government

In the third week of March when India suddenly announced a nationwide lockdown, the Tablighi gatherings in Delhi involving several foreign nationals became the target of the media and the government. They labeled the event as “super-spreader” and attendees “human time-bombs” as few positive cases were traced to Jamaat headquarters.

Social media soon jumped in with hashtags like ‘corona jihad’ and ‘Nizamuddin terrorists’ started trending spreading mass misinformation against Jamaat and its members.

Acting tough, the Home Ministry responsible for internal security revoked their visas, confiscated passports, and issued a look-out-circular to prevent them from leaving the country.

Recalling the incident, Draa said he was picked up by the police along with 40 other Jamaat members and was kept in isolation. Sheikh was stopped at the airport and not allowed to board his flight to the UK.

Advocate Ashima Mandla, who represented their cases, said the police illegally detained and refused to release or allow them to return to their country of origin, even when they had tested COVID-19 negative.

“They tried to bury the case in voluminous charge sheets with unsubstantiated charges with no evidence that these people were indeed responsible for spreading infections,” she said.

By July, the Covid positive cases in India had exceeded one million. Police filed FIRs against several individuals for breaking lockdown rules. Even when weddings and religious events were held in abeyance of social distancing protocols, no community or group was blamed for intentionally trying to spread the infection.

Passport, phones confiscated

Draa said the isolation facility was no less than a prison, where three people were confined along with him in a room and prohibited from stepping out.

“Normally, the isolation should have lasted for 10-14 days but we were locked for over 100 days,” he said, adding that the lack of respect for laws by the law enforcement agencies shocked them.

He said the passports, phones, and laptops of his colleagues were forcefully taken away.

“I refused to give away my phone and passport and told the police to take permission from the French embassy, “he added. His little rebellion helped him to remain in contact with the family in France.

Draa said although he was not afraid of the lengthy confinement which had turned into illegal detention, the thoughts of the preceding events in Delhi and the alleged atrocities by the police against the Muslims loomed large at the back of his mind.

His arrival in India had coincided with nation-wide protests against the new citizenship law discriminating against Muslims and also communal riots in Delhi, which disproportionately targeted the minority community.

“We had heard about the complicity of the police in the riots and personally knew about the sufferings of Muslims. We believed the police will not act in the same way against foreigners, but the experiences of Jamaat members locked in prisons in different parts were quite complicated,” he said.

British national Sheikh said, while familiar with communalization in India, he felt disturbed to face such an attack personally which ended up in nearly nine months separation from his wife and kids in the UK, to clear his name from a wrongful case.

Staying back to counter charges

“Even though the corona pandemic was global, no other country targeted a specific religious community or group or blamed them for spreading it. The media in India spread misinformation and the government acted without any evidence, “he said.

While feeling hurt the Sheikh said he believes in the principle of “forget and forgiveness” and is ready to put the eventful year and unfortunate incidents behind.

Even though he was implicated and witnessed first-hand the effects of manufactured conspiracy in India, Draa praised the generosity of Indians, both Muslims, and non-Muslims who rallied to help them to fight the legal case.

“It is rare to meet people who are ready to take care of strangers without any limits or consideration, it is part of what we have learned here in India and that’s been exceptional,” he said.

Mandla, who alongside other lawyers represented the foreign nationals, strived to separate the facts from the media created misinformation. She hailed the move by Draa, Sheikh, and other foreigners deciding to stay back and counter the charges against all odds.

“The entire case was mounted mindlessly by the police on the orders of the executive, to blame someone for the pandemic,” she added.

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