Umar Khalid Denied Bail Again; Sharjeel granted bail in sedition case

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India Tomorrow

NEW DELHI–While former JNU student Umar Khalid was denied bail on Tuesday by a Delhi court in the larger conspiracy case related to the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots, prolonging his incarceration which has already spanned over three years and 8 months, another student activist Sharjeel Imam was granted bail in a sedition case.

The order by Additional Sessions Judge Sameer Bajpai of the Karkardooma Courts came months after Khalid withdrew his bail plea from the Supreme Court citing a “change in circumstances” in February this year.

The 36-year old Khalid has been languishing in Tihar jail since September 2020, charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for his alleged role in hatching a conspiracy that fueled the communal riots in the national capital in February 2020, during countrywide protests against CAA/NRC, which left 53 dead, mostly of Muslims. He is among over 60 people charged in the case, including activists like Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, and former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain.

The Delhi Police had claimed that the riots were a “pre-planned conspiracy” hatched by Khalid and his associates. However, Khalid and his supporters have consistently denied these charges, arguing that he is being persecuted for his dissenting views and peaceful participation in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests.

Tuesday’s order is the latest setback in Khalid’s protracted legal battle for bail. His first regular bail plea was rejected by the trial court in March 2022, a decision upheld by the Delhi High Court in October 2022. Khalid then approached the Supreme Court in April 2023 but withdrew his plea in February 2024, citing a “change in circumstances” and a hope for a fresh start in the trial court.

Earlier in February, Khalid’s father, Dr. SQR Ilyas, a prominent Muslim leader, explaining the decision to withdraw the bail plea, hoped that a fresh start in the trial court with positive step toward his bail, given the numerous adjournments (over 10) and the lack of a significant hearing in the Supreme Court since May 2023. According to him, Khalid’s plea has been listed for hearing 14 times since May 2023 when he filed a bail petition in the Supreme Court. Dr Ilyas added, “However, not even a single substantive hearing was held, even as he continues to languish behind bars without trial. On most dates, the case was simply adjourned by the top court, usually at the request of one of the parties.”

The Trial Court’s order

In its order, the Karkardooma court relied heavily on the Delhi High Court’s October 2022 verdict, which had concluded that the allegations against Khalid were “prima facie true” and that the stringent bail conditions under Section 43D(5) of the UAPA applied to him.

Judge Bajpai noted that the High Court had conducted a “surface analysis” of the evidence and found a prima facie case against Khalid. The trial court said it could not re-examine the facts or conduct a fresh analysis, as the High Court’s order had attained “finality” after Khalid withdrew his plea from the Supreme Court.

Crucially, the court rejected Khalid’s contention that there was a “change in circumstances” based on the Supreme Court’s recent judgment in the Bhima Koregaon case (Vernon Gonsalves vs. State of Maharashtra). In that case, the apex court had emphasized the need for a “surface analysis of the probative value of evidence” while considering bail pleas under the UAPA.

However, the trial court observed that the Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali judgment, which had made getting bail under UAPA extremely difficult, “was the basis of the Vernon case.” It said there was no change in the law, as the “words ‘surface analysis’ have been added in it.”

The court also rejected Khalid’s argument that he should be granted bail on grounds of parity, as some of his co-accused, like Kalita, Narwal, and Tanha, had been granted bail despite the prosecution attributing a more direct role to them in the riots.

Public Prosecutor’s arguments

During the hearing, the Special Public Prosecutor, Amit Prasad, vehemently opposed Khalid’s bail plea, accusing him of creating “media and social media narratives” to influence bail hearings. Prasad cited Khalid’s WhatsApp chats and social media posts by supporters like Teesta Setalvad, Amnesty India, and journalist Swati Chaturvedi, using hashtags like #FreeUmarKhalid. The prosecution argued that these efforts amounted to a “vicious media trial” aimed at swaying public opinion and the court’s decision.

Khalid’s legal team, led by senior advocate Tridip Pais, mounted a spirited defense, questioning the evidence against their client and the charges leveled under the UAPA. Pais argued that sharing messages or creating narratives could not be equated with criminal or terrorist acts.

Defense’s Counter-Arguments

Khalid’s defense counsel, Senior Advocate Tridip Pais, vehemently challenged the prosecution’s assertions, arguing that mere meetings or sharing of messages did not constitute a “terrorist act” under the stringent UAPA. He contended that the chargesheet and supporting material presented by the prosecution failed to establish the ingredients of the alleged offenses, emphasizing the lack of credible evidence linking Khalid to any terrorist activities.

The defense counsel also highlighted the inconsistencies and contradictions in witness statements, questioning the reliability of the prosecution’s case. Pais argued that the court’s duty was not merely to read the chargesheet but to scrutinize the evidence meticulously and determine whether it substantiated the grave allegations against Khalid.

The defense highlighted the contradictions in the statements of prosecution witnesses and the lack of direct evidence linking Khalid to any terrorist activity or conspiracy. Pais asserted that the prosecution had failed to establish a prima facie case against his client under Section 15 of the UAPA, which deals with terrorist acts.

The defense also challenged the reliance on call data records (CDRs) and hearsay statements, arguing that mere meetings or associations did not constitute terrorism. Pais contended that the courts had painted everyone with a “broad brush” without distinguishing between acts or individuals.

The Delhi riots conspiracy case, which invoked the stringent UAPA, has been marred by controversies and allegations of political motivations as along with Khalid, several other anti-CAA activists, have been detained deaths in the case. Civil rights groups, both nationally and internationally, earlier criticized the government’s actions against Khalid and other anti-CAA activists, calling it an assault on freedom of speech and peaceful protest.

Khalid’s prolonged incarceration and repeated denial of bail have sparked criticism from activists and human rights bodies, with many seeing it as a case of politically motivated persecution and misuse of draconian laws like the UAPA to stifle dissent.

Reacting on latest denial of his bail plea, noted storyteller and screenwriter Darab Farooqui encapsulated this sentiment in a social media post, saying, “You know why Umar Khalid is not getting bail? Because his name is Umar Khalid.”

Senior journalist Nikhil Wagle echoed this sentiment, responding with “Absolutely true!”

Business journalist Somesh Jha went a step further, asserting that “Umar Khalid is paying the price of being a Muslim in India.” Jha questioned Khalid’s “crime” of leading peaceful protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and accused the Modi government of targeting him for his dissent.

His lawyers have indicated that they will explore all available legal avenues, including challenging the trial court’s order in the higher courts.

SHARJEEL IMAM GRANTED BAIL IN SEDITION CASE

In a related development, the Delhi High Court on Wednesday granted statutory bail to student activist and former JNU scholar Sharjeel Imam in a sedition and UAPA case relating to alleged inflammatory speeches made by him during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in 2019.

A division bench comprising Justices Suresh Kumar Kait and Manoj Jain allowed Imam’s bail plea, observing that he has already undergone over four years and seven months of incarceration, which exceeds half of the maximum punishment of seven years for the offences invoked against him.

Imam, a former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student, was arrested on January 28, 2020, for his speeches at Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, where he allegedly made remarks threatening to “cut off” Assam and other northeastern states from the rest of India amid protests against the controversial CAA.

The Delhi Police had booked him under sedition charges (Section 124A of the IPC) and provisions of the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). He was accused of making divisive speeches and mobilizing the public, which the authorities claimed was a significant factor in the outbreak of the deadly Northeast Delhi riots in February 2020.

However, the High Court, after examining the timeline of events, including the framing of charges and examination of witnesses, granted Imam statutory bail in the sedition case.

It is important to note that Imam will continue to remain in jail as he is also an accused in the larger conspiracy case related to the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots, which involves UAPA charges.

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