Assam Govt Orders FIRs Against Absconding Declared Foreigners 

The Supreme Court has said it is not opposed to releasing foreigners from detention centres provided there was a way to ensure they would be available whenever needed by the authorities.

New Delhi: Following the Supreme Court’s reprimand to the Assam chief secretary Alok Mehta for his failure to act against foreigners entering the state without documents, the state government has directed the border police wing to lodge an FIR against those declared foreigners by the special tribunals who have gone missing over the years.

As per the record of the home ministry, as many as 91,609 people were declared foreigners till March 2018 by the Foreigners’ Tribunals functioning in the state – of these, 72,486 have gone missing. The state government’s affidavit, submitted to the apex court on April 25, said 900 declared foreigners have been lodged in detention centres. Several of the detainees have challenged the orders in higher courts.

As per the latest state government directive to the police, the FIRs would be lodged under the Passport Act and the Foreigners Act, 1949. Local media reports said a “manhunt” has been launched by the border police. “Necessary action will be taken against the absconders under the relevant sections of the Acts. It will also pave the way for attachment of the properties of the declared foreigners if they have made any,” Assam Tribune said, quoting “an official source” of the state police.

The May 9 report said, “Till yesterday evening, around 115 such missing declared foreigners have been caught by police across the state.”

In 2009, the decision to open detention centres within the state jails was taken by the then Congress government to avoid declared foreigners from going missing.

Early this year, rights activist Harsh Mander filed a petition in the Supreme Court to draw attention to the dismal condition of the six detention centres where the detainees have been living. The jail manual is not implemented while dealing with such detainees, which meant that they don’t have the right to parole and work inside the jail premises.

On April 25, the state government presented an affidavit suggesting the conditional release of the declared foreigners before the three-member bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, which is hearing the case. The CJI reportedly reprimanded the state and the Central government for not taking any measures for the deportation of foreigners.

It led Mander to file a fresh petition in the SC seeking CJI Gogoi’s recusal from the case claiming that his cross-questioning of the state chief secretary and the reprimand was due to his possible “bias” in the case. On May 2, Mander represented himself in the court seeking the CJI’s recusal and stated that his counsel Prashant Bhushan was no longer representing him. The CJI dismissed the petition stating that observation in the oral debate was made to test the case and that he took them to be the opinion of the judge. “You have to learn to trust your judges,” the CJI told Mander.

The court removed the name of Mander from the petitioner’s list and replaced it with the Supreme Court Legal Services Authority, and appointed Bhushan as the amicus curiae.

Also read: Detention Centres in Assam Are Synonymous With Endless Captivity

On May 9, Bhushan, appearing before the bench comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Jain besides the CJI, supported the state government’s suggestion of conditional release of the declared foreigners. CJI Gogoi reportedly said the court was not averse to ordering their release provided there was a way to ensure that they would be available whenever needed by the authorities. The bench asked Bhushan and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, present in the court, to suggest ways to ensure it.

Bhushan reportedly referred to the state government’s affidavit which suggested making the detainees wear radio collar devices and providing surety by two Indian nationals along with an amount of Rs 1 lakh. He said a time period of six months could be set for deportation, failing which they could be released on fulfilling the conditions. Mehta, however, objected to it stating that it might encourage illegal crossing over of persons from across the border. “You evolve a mechanism,” the CJI told them.

Mehta also told the court that the Central government has given diplomatic access to the declared foreigners lodged in detention centres through the Bangladesh assistant high commissioner’s office in Guwahati. However, a problem has arisen in the case of those who have declined to identify themselves as Bangladeshi nationals. Local media reports quoting government sources said only 88 of them have declared their address in Bangladesh.

So far, 100 tribunals are functioning in the state with the mandate of sieving through over three lakh cases of suspected foreigners. On May 9, Mehta told the court that the Central government plans to increase the number to 1,100 in the coming time. He said keeping in mind the load of pending cases, the Centre plans to increase the number of foreigner’s tribunals to 200 by July 2019, and thereafter 200 more every two months. The bench asked where they would get the legal personnel to head the tribunals, to this Mehta said retired judges would be roped in.

In 2014, when the Supreme Court increased the number of tribunals to 100 from 32, the state government couldn’t find as many judges to head them, leading it to accept senior lawyers of the high court for the posts.