Vadodara court takes judicial custody of two held in Lucknow in ‘forced religious conversion racket’

The Vadodara police has booked the two for alleged misuse of foreign funds of about Rs 20 crore, routed through AFMI trust, as well as alleged hawala transactions amounting to Rs 60 crore.

A Vadodara court took Salauddin Sheikh, the managing trustee of AFMI Charitable Trust, and Umar Gautam of the Islamic Da’wah Centre in Delhi into judicial custody on Saturday. Earlier, both were in judicial custody in Lucknow after being arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in an alleged case of ‘forced conversion racket’.

Lucknow police escorted Sheikh and Gautam to a Vadodara court, following a direction from the court to produce them in Vadodara in connection with a case filed by Vadodara Police. The Vadodara court has now directed city police, which have booked a case against the two for alleged misuse of foreign funds to the tune of Rs 20 crore as well as hawala transactions amounting to Rs 60 crore, to file a remand application seeking formal police custody of the accused.

On Saturday, following the direction of the Vadodara court to produce Sheikh –- a resident and businessman of Vadodara – and Gautam before the court, Lucknow police arrived with the two accused, who have been in judicial custody in the Lucknow Central Jail following their arrest by UP ATS in July. Vadodara Police Commissioner Shamsher Singh said the police approached the local court after officers of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) were unable to get a transit remand of the two accused from a Lucknow court in September. Singh said, “Sheikh and Gautam were produced in Vadodara as part of a court procedure after Vadodara police approached the court. Since the two accused were in judicial custody in Lucknow, the local court here directed the UP Police to produce them here so that the Vadodara Police could seek custody and continue with the probe into the alleged misuse of funds under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) as well as the hawala transactions of AFMI.”

Assistant Commissioner of Police, Crime, DS Chauhan told, “The SIT officials are in the court. We will file the remand application through the Special Public Prosecutor tonight. If the court allows a late-night hearing, we will seek the remand of the two accused right away.”

Singh added that Vadodara Police have also written to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to look into the money laundering aspects of the fund transfers. Stating that a case under relevant sections of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) could soon be booked by the ED, Singh said, “We have asked the ED to look into the trail of laundered funds, which also indicate a tax evasion. The ED is already probing the case (filed by the UP Police) and there is a possibility of a case of money laundering being booked against the accused.”

In July this year, ED had raided the office of the Islamic Da’wah Centre and residences of Gautam and other co-accused in the UP ATS case. Singh said that although the Vadodara Police case has “common aspects” with the case filed against Sheikh and Gautam in Lucknow, the Vadodara City Police are primarily probing the transactions of the AFMI. Singh said, “We are investigating a money trail of funds misused by the trust. Some of the foreign funds received by the trust for specific use were siphoned off for other activities, while the rest of the money was routed through Dubai via hawala transactions. Most of this money was used for construction of mosques in different states as well as other activities, including providing legal aid to anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests.”

According to Vadodara Police, 14 foreign trusts deposited about Rs 19 crore into the account of AFMI trust since 2017. At least Rs 10 crore has been siphoned off from the FCRA account of the trust for allegedly funding Gautam’s Islamic Da’wah Center and Fatima Charitable Trust.

Sources said that the AFMI has received funds from several foreign Islamic trusts. These trusts include USA-based Gujarati Muslim Association, Y Mamdani Charitable Foundation, Retail Global Fashion, Human Concern International, UK-based Ismail Ibrahim Kadujmar, Excel, Majlis-e-Al-Fala Trust, Firdaus Foundation, Bacchon Ka Ghar and Australia-based MYL Limbada, among others. While the Gujarati Muslim Association transferred Rs 7.44 crore to the AFMI Trust, the Majlis-e-Al-Fala Trust transferred Rs 2.06 crore. Vadodara Police also alleged that Sheikh diverted funds to construct 100 mosques in seven states across the country, and also provided Rs 60 lakh in legal aid to the accused in Delhi riots of 2020 as well as to anti-CAA protestors of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi.

Vadodara Police have booked Sheikh and Gautam under Indian Penal Code Sections 153A, 201, 406, 465, 467, 471, 120B and 114.

Earlier in August, Vadodara Police had also arrested an employee of AFMI trust’s Muslim Medical Centre located at Panigate in Vadodara for allegedly destroying a pen drive containing incriminating details of the trust’s financial transactions.

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