Explained: The case of Areeb Majeed, man ‘with ISIS links’ whose bail Bombay HC recently upheld

Areeb Majeed, a resident of Kalyan on the outskirts of Mumbai, was among one of the first group of youngsters alleged to have left India in 2014 to join the Islamic State. What is the case against him? What has he argued?

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 Pitale said 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.

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