A Delhi court on Thursday directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to immediately withdraw a look out circular issued against Aakar Patel, the former chairperson of human rights organisation Amnesty International India. The circular prevented him from flying abroad.

Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Pawan Kumar urged the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation to issue a written apology to Patel acknowledging the lapse on part of his subordinate. The court said that this “would go a long way in not only healing the wounds of the applicant but also upholding the trust of the public in the premier institution”.

On Wednesday, Patel was stopped from travelling to the United States from the Bengaluru airport. In a series of tweets, he said he was informed by immigration officials that he had been put on the exit control list by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

This happened even though he got his passport back through a court order specifically for the trip to the US between March 1 and May 30.

An immigration officer had told him that he was on the look out circular in connection with a case “the Modi government has filed against Amnesty International India”. The organisation has been accused of money laundering and criminal conspiracy in a case filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Amnesty International India has vehmently denied the allegation.

Hours later, he moved the court to revoke the look out notice.

The court on Thursday held that Patel had suffered mental harassment as he was not allowed to visit the United States on time. It allowed him to “approach the appropriate forum” for seeking compensation.

The judge held that the agency should not have issued the look out circular “merely on the basis of apprehensions arising out whims and fancies”. It also noted that a look out circular has a bearing on a person’s fundamental rights, and so, such a measure should be taken cautiously and in exceptional circumstances.

A look out notice is usually issued to prevent a person from leaving the country and remains valid up to a year or till the agency cancels or renews it.

At Thursday’s hearing, Patel’s advocate Tanveer Ahmed Mir asked the Delhi court to direct the central agency’s investigating officer Himanshu Bahuguna to reimburse the cost of his flight tickets to the US, The Indian Express reported.

“What the IO [investigating officer] has done is put me to a prejudice of Rs 3,80,000 [cost of Patel’s flight tickets],” his counsel told the court. “It is time that we send a suitable reply to law enforcement agencies and society. If he is not able to sustain this exercise, the IO [must] pay an amount of Rs 3,80,000 that is the least he owes me.”

Mir also argued that the investigating officer had failed to inform his client about the look out notice being issued. “Citizens rights cannot be railroaded by agency like this,” he added, according to Live Law.

He said the Central Bureau of Investigation’s response to Patel’s plea seeking withdrawal of the look out notice was “nothing but a mere rhetoric”.

The court asked the investigating officer and the federal agency’s counsel why the notice had been issued against Patel, Live Law reported. “The procedure is against you,” the judge said.

The agency’s counsel said the notice was issued because Patel was an influential person and claimed there was chance of “him fleeing from justice”, according to Bar and Bench.

The judge directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to file a compliance report on Friday at 4 pm.

Patel was scheduled to go to the US to give lectures at Michigan University, Berkeley University and New York University.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International had issued a statement asking the authorities to “revoke the arbitrary travel ban” on Patel.

“Denying Aakar’s right to freedom of movement to prevent him from exercising his freedom of expression is an alarming manifestation of the Indian government’s mounting crackdown on human rights defenders and activists,” said Kyle Ward, deputy secretary-general of Amnesty International.

Case against Amnesty

The Central Bureau of Investigation has said that the Amnesty International India Foundation Trust was given permission during 2011-’12 for receiving foreign contributions from the Amnesty International-United Kingdom. However, the permission was cancelled following adverse inputs from the security agencies.

The agency alleged that the Indians for Amnesty International Trust and the Amnesty International India Private Limited were then formed in 2012-’13 and 2013-’14 to “escape the FCRA [Foreign Contribution Regulation Act] route”.

In September 2020, the human rights organisation said it was forced to shut its operations as the Indian government had frozen its bank accounts. The group had said its “lawful fundraising model” was being portrayed as money laundering because Amnesty India had challenged the “government’s grave inactions and excesses”.

The Centre had described the allegations unfortunate, exaggerated and “far from the truth”. Amnesty’s “glossy statements” about humanitarian work and speaking truth to power were nothing but a “ploy to divert attention” from their activities, which were in “clear contravention” of Indian laws, the government had said.