Communalism

Lawyer’s office raided arbitrarily by Delhi Police

Print edition : January 29, 2021

Mehmood Pracha, the advocate whose premises were raided in end December by the Delhi Police. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The police raid on the premises of an advocate who represents several of the North-East Delhi riot accused to search for “incriminating documents” was not only an arbitrary and illegal act but also a breach of client-attorney privacy.

On December 24, 2020, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police raided the premises of Mehmood Pracha, the advocate who represents several of those accused in the North-East Delhi violence of February 2020 and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan who participated in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests of December 2019. Armed with a local court’s warrant to search for “incriminating documents” and “metadata” from Pracha’s official email account, the police seized his computer and laptop in an operation that began around noon on December 24 and continued into the wee hours of the following day.

The police accused Pracha of forging a notary stamp on an official document. A first information report (FIR) had been registered in August, based on the complaint of one Sharif Malik, who claimed that Pracha had told Irshad Ali, the owner of a mattress shop destroyed in the violence, to get Malik as a witness to strengthen Ali’s case.

The police claim that Malik’s statement, given along with the shop owner’s, was “false and concocted”, and that Pracha had forged a notary stamp on an official document using the name and stamp of a notary who had been dead for several years. The police also alleged that Pracha had summoned Ali to his office.

This was denied by Ali, who told Frontline that it was he who approached Pracha after discovering that the police had wrongfully charged his friends with burning his shop. Earlier, the police had submitted a report before the sessions court, alleging that “Ali stated that one lawyer namely Mehmood Pracha called him to his office and told him about a complainant of a similar incident and there is also an eyewitness Sharif (Malik) who witnessed the whole incident as he was present there on February 24th and 25th.”
Also read: Aftermath of the Delhi riots

Ali said that he had registered an FIR on February 25 stating that this shop had been looted. Later, he saw the CCTV footage and identified three locals, Mintu, Navneet and Deepak. Ali alleged that the investigating officer had forced him to name his friends, which he had refused to do.

Two months later, Ali’s friend Yusuf’s brother Gulfam was arrested for looting his shop although Gulfam had not been seen in the CCTV footage. Following this, Ali approached Pracha with Yusuf’s help and discovered that besides Gulfam, his friends Arshad and Abid, too, had been named as accused and mentioned in the FIR. Ali claimed the investigating officer wrote down the names himself. He asked: “Why would my friends set my shop on fire?”

It is about this meeting that the police claimed that Pracha had suggested adding Sharif’s case to Ali’s complaint, a claim rebuffed by both Ali and Pracha. That, however, failed to convince the police, who went on to search Pracha’s premises, an operation that Pracha claims turned ugly and violent. Pracha told Frontline: “Our staff members have recorded a video. We have it on record. We will show [it] at an appropriate time.”

Breach of privacy

The said video made its way into social media and was widely shared on Twitter. In the video, Pracha was seen objecting to the seizure of his laptop by the police. He cited the client-attorney privilege and claimed that the seizure of the laptop would be in violation of the court order. Pracha has other clients who have nothing to do with the incidents of violence in North-East Delhi, and he said their privacy, too, had been breached by the police action. He told Frontline: “The order passed by the learned court and the subsequent search order is per se illegal, and clearly violates the client-attorney relationship. It is a patently illegal order by the magistrate. The guidelines passed by the Bar Council of India prohibit an advocate from divulging anything about the client. I am glad I was able to live up to the duty of a lawyer.”

As for why the police had seized Pracha’s computer and laptop when they could have accessed the email from Pracha’s outbox, he said: “It is a matter of investigation. I would like to know in what circumstances the order was passed, and what they (Delhi Police) did in the garb of the order. The order specifically talks of one mail which is also part of the client-attorney relationship. I would not have allowed it but for the existing court order. I was in two minds initially. If I had not complied, it would have harmed my client more. So I allowed them access to [the] outbox plus the document they cited, claiming it was sent from our computer. But there were 200 people in all who had come to my office. Twenty of them were with guns and hacking machines. They were here for 15 hours as if they were investigating a robbery. They took all our phones. All our computers were in their possession.”
Also read: Lawyer-police tussle in Delhi

The police claimed that Pracha had misbehaved with them and refused to cooperate. The Counter Intelligence Unit of the Delhi Police’s Special Cell lodged an FIR against Pracha under Indian Penal Code Sections 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty) and 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public function). Even as he denied the police’s claim that he had been abusive and aggressive during the search, Pracha said: “The magistrate’s order was strange. Anything that goes from my computer is received by another computer, by the addressee. And the addressee was the Commissioner of Police. There was actually no justification for this search warrant. …We cooperated to the best of our ability under the circumstances. We unlocked our computers and the office was provided to the police for their investigation. The police personnel directed us to show the material ourselves, and on failure to comply, they threatened to take away the computers. We have everything on record.”

In the video, Pracha was seen claiming he had evidence linking members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to the North-East Delhi violence. He said: “We have evidence against about two dozen people, mostly from the RSS. The involvement of the police is now becoming clear. We are trying to ensure that people do not lose faith in the Constitution of India and the judiciary.”

Pracha, who said that the search warrant was meant to intimidate him, moved the court for a copy of the videography of the search conducted at his premises. Pracha told the court he was threatened by the investigating officer. The court asked the police to preserve the recording safely. The matter is due to come up for a hearing later in January. However, Pracha is yet to get a copy of the legal recording.

Police raid criticised

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) expressed “shock, deep concern and dismay” at the search operation and seizure conducted by Delhi Police. It called the Delhi Police raid on Pracha’s premises an arbitrary, illegal and brazen exercise of brute power and the actions taken by them “contrary to law against members of the legal fraternity”.
Also read: Policing and private initiatives

The statement issued by the SCBA read: “Search and seizure conducted at the premises of a member of this association is a malicious act which defeats the right of an advocate to practise his profession without fear or favour. Such actions are intimidatory and designed to abuse the due process of law by coercing an advocate to succumb to police threats and methods unheard in legal annals.” The statement added that the police action violated the right of the accused to a fair trial guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the Delhi High Court Women Lawyers’ Forum wrote to the Delhi High Court Bar Association expressing concern over investigating agencies arraigning lawyers as the accused in criminal cases. Terming the raids an “act of vindictiveness”, the letter stated: “Raids in the office of Mr Mahmood Pracha is the latest example of intimidation by the Delhi Police. Mr Pracha is representing several accused persons in the recent riot cases in Delhi. The recent trend indicates that there are other lawyers too who are being intimidated and discouraged from representing their clients in these cases. However, this is also a larger issue that goes beyond the riots case, wherein lawyers who are vocal about defending civil liberties are being systematically targeted.”

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