The Delhi government on Tuesday told the High Court that the foreigners who attended a Tablighi Jamaat congregation, linked to thousands of coronavirus cases, in the national Capital in March were not in any kind of custody, Bar and Bench reported. The government said the foreigners were just being “looked after”.

The Tablighi Jamaat is an orthodox Islamic sect with a presence in many countries. Many attendees at the Delhi congregation had tested positive for the coronavirus, and it is being treated as a cluster that infected thousands later on.

“These foreign nationals shall be released/handed over to government agencies if MHA [Ministry of Home Affairs] provides any directions or Delhi Police wishes to take their custody,” the Delhi government submitted in court. It said it had no problem with the release of the foreigners, but would abide by the orders the court passes.

The bench, comprising Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rajnish Bhatnagar, was hearing a petition filed by 20 foreigners who have been placed in institutional quarantine.

The petitioners complained that while Indians who had attended the congregation were released after their quarantine period was over on May 9, foreigners were directed to remain isolated in their centres, despite testing negative for Covid-19. The petitioners sought a direction from the High Court to end their allegedly illegal detention, claiming it to be in breach Articles 14, 21 and 22 of the Indian Constitution.

The Delhi Police told the court on Tuesday that nobody from the congregation has been arrested or detained in the connection with the first information report registered in the case. However, it argued that firstly, the foreigners were in violation of Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which prescribes the penalty for disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant. Secondly, they entered India on a tourist visa instead of a missionary visa, and then participated in the congregation in violation of the Foreigners’ Act.

The police said a foreigner on tourist visa can only take part in activities like sightseeing, casual meetings with friends or relatives, attending short-term yoga programmes and short-term medical treatment.

After hearing the submissions, the High Court allowed the counsel for the petitioners to find alternative accommodation for the foreigners. It said the authorities will inspect the suggested premises on Wednesday and file a status report with the court.

The case will be heard next on May 28.

On April 5, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said that the religious gathering had pushed up the doubling rate of Covid-19 cases in India to 4.1 days from the estimated 7.4 days. Last month, the Centre had also said that the Tablighi Jamaat was responsible for over 30% of the then 14,378 cases in the country. India now has over 1.45 lakh cases of the coronavirus.

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