Over two decades ago, as a young university student leading an “underground movement” against the military regime in Myanmar, Ahmed Ali learnt to “distinguish between right and wrong”. But that came at a price. Ali had to flee Yangon in 2005 and take shelter in a refugee camp in Thailand, leaving his parents behind. “It was a difficult choice to make, but the right one,” Ali says. Cut to 2020 and the 42-year-old, now a US citizen, has made another difficult choice, which he believes is “also the right one”.
The pharmacy technician from New York is among 44 foreigners who have chosen to stand trial on charges of violating visa rules and Covid regulations after participating in the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi that was later linked to infections in 14 states.
About 250 others from a group of 955 foreigners who were detained in Delhi have left the country after opting for a plea bargain and paying fines ranging from Rs 5,000-10,000. Several more have opted for this route but been held back due to pending FIRs. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered that trial for those remaining in the capital be completed within eight weeks in a local court.
“What am I guilty of? We did not break any law. I left the Markaz (the Tablighi centre in Delhi’s Nizamuddin) before the national lockdown was announced (from March 24)… I will stay and fight. I don’t want to be known as the US national who broke the law in a foreign land,” says Ali.
On April 2, following a 36-hour operation across batches, around 2,346 people were evacuated by the Delhi government from the Markaz, which is the international headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat. On April 3, of the 2,547 Covid cases in India at the time, officials claimed that at least 25 per cent were linked to the Tablighi members who had travelled from Delhi to other parts of the country.
Ali came to India on March 12 with his wife and her parents, who are still with him. After spending around five days at the Markaz, the family took shelter at a mosque in old Delhi, from where the police took them to a quarantine centre. On May 10, the Delhi government ordered the release of all Tablighi members from quarantine centres. And 18 days later, the Delhi High Court allowed them to be shifted to alternative accommodation. Many were put up in private schools run by the community, while Ali and his family moved to a house in Shaheen Bagh.
In between, Ali tested positive and spent 20 days at the LNJP Hospital. “I have paid the price before for standing with what is right. I last saw my parents in 2005. Two years ago, my father passed away. I long to see my mother. But once again, I am ready to suffer for what I feel is just,” says Ali, who has been in the US since 2010.
According to a government representative involved in the Tablighi case, those who opted for a plea bargain and left after paying a penalty “made use of the legal provisions available to them in consultation with their embassies and lawyers”.
“But I fail to understand what law I have broken,” says Afuuan (52), an Indonesian national who is among those who have opted to stay back and stand trial. “I had left the Markaz by March 17. I have travelled across the globe and always followed the rules everywhere. Here, I am standing with the truth,” says the owner of an advertising firm in Sumatra.
“All of us have also been accused of indulging in preaching while on a tourist visa. The allegation is wrong as we were here to learn, not teach or preach,” he says.
“I would definitely like to go home but will not do so unless I prove that I am not guilty. I have learnt a lot from this country and would not like to return in a bitter state of mind,” says Afuuan’s compatriot, 31-year-old Julian Siah, who runs a travel business.
For Mahdi Draa (49), a French national who runs a car repair business in Paris, “the misbehaviour and ill-treatment by staff at quarantine centres continue to bother many of us”.
“I was taken to a quarantine centre from a mosque, not the building in Nizamuddin. For over 50 days, I could not even step out of my room without being shouted at. Once, I found a piece of soap in the food they served,” claims Draa.
“We are not troubled by India and its amazing people. But the system bothers us. We stand with the law and it says those who are not guilty cannot be coerced into saying so. Yes, I miss my two daughters, wife and parents. It is my sister’s marriage tomorrow. But I will try not to think about them as long as the legal fight continues,” he says.
Among those who have opted to pay a penalty and return home is 49-year-old Mounir, a Belgian national. “My mother died on May 5… Just because I am returning does not mean I am guilty.”
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