Delhi High Court grants student activist Sharjeel Imam bail in Delhi communal riots case [29.5.2024]

More than four years after he was arrested, the Delhi High Court on Wednesday granted bail to student activist Sharjeel Imam in connection with a 2020 communal riots case involving allegations of sedition and unlawful activities.

Imam had assailed a trial court order refusing to release him even though he had undergone more than half of the maximum sentence that could be awarded to him, if convicted. He claimed he was entitled to bail under the criminal statute.

"Appeal is allowed," a bench of Justices Suresh Kumar Kait and Manoj Jain said after hearing the counsel for Imam and the Delhi Police.

He will, however, stay behind bars as he has not been granted relief in the case involving alleged larger conspiracy behind the 2020 North East Delhi riots which left more than 50 people dead and hundreds of others injured.

According to the prosecution, Imam made speeches at Jamia Millia Islamia on December 13, 2019 and at the Aligarh Muslim University on December 16, 2019 where he threatened to cut off Assam and the rest of the North East from the country.

In 2022, the trial court had framed charges against him under Sections 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity), l53B (Imputations prejudicial to national integration), 505 (Statements conducing to public mischief) of IPC and Section 13 (Punishment for Unlawful Activities) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terror law.

Delhi Police counsel opposed the appeal and said Imam's case was not covered by the law on grant of bail to undertrials who have served more than half of the maximum sentence.

He claimed the delay in conclusion of the trial was attributable to Imam himself.

The activist's lawyer contended material witnesses were yet to be examined in the case and the trial in the FIR cannot be concluded in view of the Supreme Court direction keeping in abeyance the operation of section 124A (sedition).

Imam was booked in the case registered by Delhi Police's Special Branch, which was initially registered for the offence of sedition and Section 13 of UAPA was invoked later. He has been in custody in the case since January 28, 2020.

Imam had claimed before the trial court that he has been in custody for the last four years and the maximum sentence for the offence under section 13 (punishment for unlawful activities) of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is 7 years.

As per Section 436-A CrPC, a person can be released from custody if he has spent more than half of the maximum sentence prescribed for the offence.

The trial court, while refusing to grant him bail on February 17, had ruled that the accused's custody could be extended for a further period in "exceptional circumstances" after hearing the prosecution's case.

It had said Imam delivered various speeches in Delhi, Aligarh, Asansol and Chakband that incited people and ultimately triggered the communal riots in different parts of Delhi.

The trial court had also stated that although Imam did not ask anybody to pick a weapon and kill people, his speeches and activities mobilised the public which disrupted the city and might have been the main reason for the outbreak of the riots.

It added that while it cannot take into consideration section 124A IPC, if the acts and actions of the applicant are considered, they can be termed as seditious in a normal dictionary meaning.

On May 11, 2022, the Supreme Court had stayed till further orders the registration of FIRs, probes, and coercive measures for the offence of sedition across the country until an appropriate forum of the government re-examines the colonial-era penal law.

Imam is an accused in several cases arising from the communal riots of 2020, including the case involving alleged larger conspiracy behind the violence. He is in judicial custody in the conspiracy case as well.

30 May 2024