The Bombay High Court on Tuesday upheld the bail granted to 26-year-old Areeb Majeed, who had allegedly travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State in 2014. The High Court dismissed the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) plea to set aside the bail granted by a special court in March 2020.

Who is Areeb Majeed?

Areeb Majeed, a resident of Kalyan on the outskirts of Mumbai, was among one of the first group of youngsters alleged to have left the country in 2014 to join the terrorist organisation Islamic State. In May 2014, when he was a civil engineering student, Majeed and three others — Aman Tandel, Fahad Shaikh and Saheen Tanki — boarded an Etihad Airways flight for Abu Dhabi and travelled to Baghdad along with a group of pilgrims.

The investigating agencies claimed that the four youngsters subsequently separated from the group and joined the Islamic State. The family members of the four men filed missing complaints in the city in 2014, after which the investigating agencies, including the Maharashtra police and the Anti-Terrorism Squad, began their probe.

While Tandel, Shaikh and Tanki were not found, Majeed was claimed to have been arrested on November 28, 2014, from the international airport in Mumbai when he landed from Turkey. The NIA, which took over the probe, claims that Majeed had returned to the city with ulterior motives to commit a terror attack. Majeed, however, told the special court in 2016 that his return was arranged and facilitated by high-ranking diplomatic and central government officials in coordination with officials of the NIA.

What did Majeed argue before the court and what was NIA’s counter to it?

Since his arrest in 2014, Majeed filed four applications before the special court, which were rejected. On March 17, 2020, Majeed’s fourth bail plea was allowed by the special court in Mumbai, but was stayed till March 27 on a plea by the NIA, seeking time to approach the High Court. Since the lockdown was imposed during that time, the plea did not come up for hearing until recently.

Majeed, who argues in-person, had submitted before the special court that the pace of the trial was slow and there was a likelihood that a long time would be required for examining the remaining witnesses. He submitted that in five years, only 51 witnesses were examined and only a day in a week was allotted to his case, due to which the progress of the trial was slow.

He also claimed that the deposition of the witnesses who had been examined in the trial court so far showed that there was no evidence against him prima facie, with 12 witnesses turning hostile. The special court had accepted this contention and arrived at the conclusion that the prosecution had not succeeded in proving the prima facie case against him at this stage.

In its appeal before the High Court, the NIA had opposed this contention of Majeed. The NIA submitted that as many as 107 witnesses are yet to be examined, and this was not a stage for the court to conclude that the prosecution could not prove the guilt of the accused. The NIA claimed that Majeed had returned to the country with the intention to commit terrorist activities, including blowing up the police headquarters in Mumbai.

Majeed argued before the High Court that this was an “imaginary theory” and while he could not shy away from the fact that he had left India as a 21-year-old to go to Iraq and Syria, his return was facilitated by authorities.

What did the High Court say while granting bail to Majeed?

The High Court accepted Majeed’s submission that undertrials cannot be allowed to languish in jails for years together and that the right to a fair and speedy trial is recognised under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The division bench of Justices S S Shinde and Manish Pitalesaid that when an accused faces charges under special acts like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the parameters of bail are more stringent, as a consequence of which undertrials remain in custody while the trials are pending.

“The courts are required to perform a balancing act so as to ensure that a golden mean is reached between the rights of the individual and those of the society at large,” the court said

It added that Majeed had spent more than six years in jail and there is no likelihood of the trial being completed within a reasonable period of time in the future. The court considered his educational and family background and allowed him bail with stringent conditions, including asking him to visit the local police station twice a day.

The court, however, set aside the special court’s observation that at this stage the prosecution has not succeeded to prove the prima facie case. The High Court said there was no change in circumstances in merits from the two previous bail applications which were rejected. It also said that merely because some witnesses had turned hostile, it could not be a ground to revisit findings on merits of the previous orders.

It is NIA’s case that Mr. Majeed, along with three other absconding accused, had visited Iraq ostensibly for pilgrimage in a group. However, the four men never visited the sites of pilgrimage and instead escaped into Iraq and Syria with the intention of indulging injihadi activities by joining Islamic State for Iraq and Levant (ISIL). As per the NIA, all four men formed a lawful associationwith an intention to promote terrorism in Iraq, Syria and India. They also participated in terrorist activities in Syria and Iraq and they were likely to commit such acts in India also. Mr. Majeed allegedly returned to India with the intention of carryingout such terrorist acts in India, including blowing up the Police Headquarters at Mumbai. On November 29, 2014, the NIA arrested Mr. Majeed, and he is currently lodged at Arthur Road jail.

The court observed, “Mr. Majeed is an educated person, who was completing his graduation in Civil Engineering when he left for Iraq at the age of 21. He categorically stated before us that as a 21-year-old, he was carried away and that he had committed a serious mistake, for which he had already spent over six years behind bars. In the past six years of his incarceration, he has argued his case on his own before the NIA Court. He represented his own case before this Court as well as the NIA Court and we couldfind that he was presenting his case by maintaining decorum andin a proper manner.”

The court also took into account, “His father is a doctor of Unani medicine and his sisters are also doctors. His brother is an engineer. This shows that he comes from aneducated family and that if stringent conditions are imposed upon him, with an undertaking to cooperate with the trial proceedings before the NIA Court, his release on bail may not be harmfulto the society at large and it would not adversely affect the trial proceedings.”

The 37-page judgment said, “There is no dispute about the fact that right to fair and speedy trial is recognised under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court and various High Courts, including this court, have consistently held that the undertrials cannot be allowed to languish for years together in jail, while the trials proceed at snail’s pace. If ultimately, the accused are found to be not guilty, the number of years, months and days spent by such accused as undertrials in jail, can never be given back to them and this is certainly a violation of their valuable right under Article 21 (no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty). The courts are required to perform a balancing act, so as to ensure thata golden mean is reached between the rights of the individual and those of the society at large.”

courtesy IE