New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday granted bail to AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair in each of the eight criminal cases registered against him by the Uttar Pradesh Police in different districts.
The court directed Tihar Jail superintendent to ensure Zubair is released before 6pm Wednesday.
A bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud noted in its order: “There is no justification to keep the petitioner in continued detention especially since the gravamen of allegations in the Uttar Pradesh FIRs is similar to that in Delhi Police FIR.”
The bench further said that the “existence of power of arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of powers of arrest, which must be used sparingly”.
Protection from arrest was extended to Zubair even with regard to all future FIRs that may be lodged in connection with the same subject matter.
The court also allowed Zubair’s plea to club all the FIRs and transfer the investigation in these cases to Delhi Police Special Cell, which too has lodged a case against him over a 2018 tweet.
The Delhi Police FIR is filed under various sections of the IPC, such as hate speech and hurting religious sentiments.
The UP FIRs invoke similar charges against Zubair for multiple tweets put out since 2014.
Consequently, the court disbanded and declared the special investigation team (SIT) set up by UP Police as redundant. It said all proceedings in connection with the FIRs shall now lie before the Delhi High Court. Similarly, the transfer of FIRs shall apply to all future FIRs that may be registered on the same subject.
The court order came on Zubair’s petition to quash the FIRs registered against him in UP. As an alternative prayer, Zubair had asked the court to club all the FIRs and transfer their probe to Delhi Police.
The court did not quash the FIRs, but gave Zubair the liberty to move the Delhi High Court under Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code if he wants to avail of this legal remedy.
The order requires Zubair to furnish a bail bond of Rs 20,000 before the chief metropolitan magistrate of Patiala House courts.
UP request for tweet restraint turned down
The UP government’s request to restrain Zubair from tweeting was turned down by the bench.
“How can we say that? It is asking a lawyer not to argue, a person not to speak. Whatever he does, he will be responsible in law, but we cannot ask a journalist not to write,” the bench told additional advocate general Garima Parshad when she sought the direction.
According to Zubair, all the FIRs in UP and the Delhi Police FIR are based on different tweets by him. However, the nature of allegations and offences in all these FIRs is the same, his petition added.
Moreover, the scope of the probe by UP’s SIT is similar to that of Delhi Police, which is probing a gamut of allegations against Zubair, including alleged violations under the foreign exchange regulation, he said.
Zubair was first arrested by Delhi Police on 27 June, after an alleged objectionable tweet by him was posted by an anonymous Twitter user who alleged it had hurt his religious feelings.
From Tihar jail, Zubair was taken to Sitapur in connection with a case registered against him for calling Hindu seers “hate-mongers” in one of his tweets.
On 8 July, the SC gave interim relief to Zubair and ordered his release in the Sitapur case. A Delhi court granted him regular bail on 15 July in the Delhi Police case. However, Zubair could not step out of jail due to the other cases pending against him in UP.
When, on 12 July, an SC bench led by Justice Chandrachud extended his protection in the Sitapur case, the UP police set up an SIT and his police custody was sought in yet another case lodged in UP’s Hathras.
Zubair approached the SC on 18 July to quash the UP FIRs. Before the court Wednesday, his counsel Vrinda Grover drew the bench’s attention to the tweets and their contents. She argued that the language in none of the tweets attracted the provisions of the criminal law.
On the contrary, she said, Zubair tagged UP Police to invite their attention to the alleged offences.
Also, Grover said, the substance of all the FIRs against the petitioner remained the same. The instrument of criminal law, she added, had been used to harass and silence the voice of Zubair. She alleged the multiple cases in UP are symptomatic of the abuse of statutory powers by state police machinery.
Grover denied the tweets provoked hatred or were derogatory of any religious denomination.
In response, UP government counsel Parshad claimed that Mohammad Zubair was neither a journalist nor a fact-checker, but someone who under the garb of fact-checking promoted provocative content, having the potential of creating a communal divide.
In defence of its decision to constitute a SIT to probe the FIRs registered against Zubair, the state further alleged that he put out “malicious tweet” for financial gains.
Parshad told the bench that Zubair got paid for his tweets, which she claimed he had admitted in his statement to the police. “The more malicious the tweet, the more payment he gets. He is not a journalist,” she alleged.
She said there was genuine apprehension that Zubair’s tweets spread hatred and created communal divide. The intention of the state behind filing the cases was to maintain peace.
As for the SIT, she said, it was formed so that local police stations do not act callously in case of any criminal wrongdoing.
In its order, the top court noted that it was evident that the Delhi Police Special Cell probe is comprehensive. Bail to Zubair in two cases did not secure his personal liberty as he “is embroiled in successive FIRs” in UP, the court recorded in its order.
“Essentially the gravamen of allegations are tweets by him. He has been subjected to fairly sustained probe by Delhi Police. We do not find reason for his deprivation of liberty to persist further,” the court said.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)