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NIA gets a mouthful from Delhi HC as key accused in J&K terror funds case gets bail

Srinagar businessman Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali was chargesheeted by the NIA on January 18 along with Pakistan-based terrorist leaders Hafiz Saeed, Syed Salahuddin, seven Kashmiri separatist leaders and others for allegedly trying to create unrest in the Kashmir Valley.

Written by Pritam Pal Singh | New Delhi | Updated: September 14, 2018 4:58:50 am
A bench of Justice S Muralidhar and Justice Vinod Goel granted Watali bail upon furnishing a personal bail bond of Rs two lakh with two sureties of a similar amount.

The Delhi High Court Thursday granted bail to Kashmiri businessman Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, who was arrested by the NIA in a terror-funding case involving Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, and observed that nothing has been shown to suggest that his trade was “geared toward funding of terrorist activities”.

In its 40-page bail order, a bench of Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel directed Watali not to influence or intimidate prospective prosecution witnesses or tamper with the evidence in the case. The court also ordered 70-year-old Watali to surrender his passport before the trial court and said he will not travel abroad without prior permission of the court.

“The documents (seized in the case) do not enable this court to prima facie conclude, as the trial court has in its order stated, that appellant (Watali) received money from A-1 (LeT chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed) or PHC (Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi) or others and was passing on the said funds to the Hurriyat leaders for funding terrorist activities and stone pelting,” the High Court said.

Zahoor Watali was arrested August 17 last year

“The court is not satisfied at this stage that there is prima facie material to show the involvement of Watali in any criminal conspiracy with the other accused, justifying the accusations for the offences under section 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC or sections 121 (waging or attempting to wage war against India), 121-A (conspiracy to wage war), or 124-A (sedition) of the IPC.”

The HC ordered his immediate release on bail, subject to his furnishing a personal bond in the sum of Rs two lakhs with two sureties of like amount to the satisfaction of the trial court. The court also imposed certain conditions of Watali, including that he report to the Investigating Officer (IO) in charge of the case as and when required. The HC also made clear that if there is any breach of the conditions, it will be open to the NIA to apply to the trial court for cancellation of bail.

Watali had challenged the special court’s (NIA) June 8 order rejecting his bail plea. He was arrested on August 17, last year and chargesheeted by the NIA on January 18 along with the head of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed, and the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Sayeed Salahudeen, along with 10 others.

All the accused were chargesheeted under stringent anti-terror laws, for allegedly hatching a conspiracy with Saeed and Salahuddin to wage a war against India. Earlier, Kamran Yusuf, a photojournalist and Javed Ahmad Bhatt a hawker of home appliances, were granted regular bail after the chargesheet was filed. Only Hafiz Saeed and Salahudeen have not been arrested in the case.

Probing the Jammu and Kashmir terror funding case, the NIA had alleged that Zahoor Watali moved money from Pakistan to Kashmir to fuel stone-pelting and unrest in the Valley. He was allegedly the connection between LeT chief Hafiz Saeed and Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

In its 1,200 page chargesheet filed in a special court in February this year, the NIA cited a diary, recovered from the office of Watali, as key evidence. Doubling up as an account book, the diary allegedly has entries of receiving several lakh rupees against the name of Hafiz Saeed, mentioned in brackets. There are corresponding entries for payments made to one “Fantoosh”, which the NIA claimed is the nickname of Altaf Ahmed Shah, son-in-law of Tehrek-e-Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

On the dairy, the HC concluded that a sheet of paper produced by the NIA containing typed entries and in loose form, cannot constitute material to even prima facie connect Watali with the crime with which he is sought to be charged.

“The conclusion of the trial court that this document shows the connection of the appellant with the other accused as regards terrorist funding does not logically or legally flow from a plain reading of the document,” it added.

Senior advocate Vikas Pahwa, appearing for Watali, had said no offence under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was made out against him in the chargesheet. Pahwa said the probe in the case was already concluded and the charge sheet was filed.

Opposing the bail plea, senior advocate Sidharth Luthra, appearing for the NIA contended that Watali could not satisfactorily explain the sources from which he had received the funds.

“It also emerged during the course of the hearing of this appeal that neither the All Parties Hurriyat Conference nor any of its 26 constituent organisations are banned organisations within the meaning of the UAPA,” the court said.

The HC further observed that “this court holds, for the limited purposes of the present appeal, that there are no reasonable grounds to form an opinion at this stage that the accusations against the appellant under the UAPA are prima facie true.”

“It must be noticed at this stage that the NIA does not dispute that Watali is a leading businessman in Kashmir. He runs a conglomerate of business entities and has been active in the context of the Indo-Pakistan trade. Nothing has been shown to this court from the entire bunch of documents which would suggest that these trade activities were geared toward funding of terrorist activities, as alleged in the charge-sheet,” the bench said.14

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