Disbanding the Special Investigation Team formed by Uttar Pradesh and underlining that there is no justification to keep him in continued custody, the Supreme Court Wednesday granted interim bail to Alt News co-founder Mohammad Zubair in six cases filed against him in the state for allegedly hurting religious sentiments with Twitter posts.
Arrested on June 27 following a case filed in Delhi, he was released from the Tihar Jail Wednesday evening.
In an order dictated in open court, the bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Surya Kant and A S Bopanna said, “Having regard to the fact that the petitioner has been subjected to comprehensive investigation by the Delhi Police, we find no reason for his deprivation of personal liberty to sustain.”
It transferred the investigation in six FIRs in UP to the Special Cell of the Delhi Police as they involve the same alleged offensive tweets. Of the six cases, two are registered in Hathras, one each in Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad, Lakhimpur Kheri and Sitapur districts.
A seventh case in Chandauli, in which a chargesheet has already been filed, has also been transferred for trial before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Delhi’s Patiala House Courts. The case in Chandauli was filed against Zubair by an employee of Sudarshan News for allegedly spreading misinformation about the news outlet.
The bench stated that other than the seven current cases, any new FIR in future on the same tweets will also stand transferred to the Delhi Police Special Cell.
It granted Zubair the liberty to move the Delhi High Court for quashing of these FIRs even as the cases are clubbed and transferred.
“Fairness to the petitioner would require for the FIRs to be clubbed and handled by the same investigative agency. Overlap between allegations emanating from the FIRs emphasise the need for a consolidated as opposed to a piecemeal investigation by a diverse set of investigators,” the bench said.
“Consequently, the Special Investigation Team constituted by the Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, shall be rendered redundant and shall be disbanded,” it said.
While a copy of the detailed order, dictated in open court, is yet to be made available, the bench, in its directions, said, “The Superintendent at the Tihar Jail shall take necessary steps to ensure that the petitioner is released from judicial custody no later than by 6 pm today.”
After the order granting relief to Zubair was dictated, Senior Advocate and Additional Advocate General of Uttar Pradesh, Garima Prashad asked the bench to impose a bail condition restraining him from tweeting in future and sought an undertaking that he will not tamper with evidence.
“The evidence is all in public domain,” the bench said, refusing to impose any bail conditions separately. “It is like telling a lawyer that you should not argue. How can we tell a journalist that he will not write?” Justice Chandrachud said.
Prashad argued that Zubair cannot be considered a journalist.
Justice Chandrachud said, “What we say in public or private, we are answerable to the law. How can we pass any anticipatory order that someone will not speak?”.
Earlier, Prashad argued that Zubair “is promoting malicious and provocative content” under the guise of fact-checking.
“He gets paid for the tweets. More malicious the tweets, the more payment he gets. He has admitted. He has got over Rs 2 crore. He is no journalist,” she said.
Prashad referred to an incident on June 7 in Ghaziabad’s Loni where a video of an assault of a 72-year-old Muslim man was shared by Zubair and said tensions flared up only after the tweet.
“His lakhs of followers retweeted it and the entire incident was blown up and communal disharmony takes place in the same district. On June 22, he gave a written apology saying that without checking facts, he had gone ahead,” she said.
“Here is a person who, instead of informing the police of illegal speech or hatred, has been taking advantage of speeches and videos which have the potential of creating a communal divide and he has been sharing them repeatedly,” she said.
Prashad said the SIT was formed keeping in mind “the gravity so that local police stations do not callously apply the sections.”
However, Justice Chandrachud asked Prashad “where would the balance of justice really lie” when the same tweet is being investigated by the Delhi Police where Zubair has been granted regular bail by the Patiala House Courts on July 15.
Apart from the charge of hurting religious sentiments, the Special Cell of Delhi Police is also investigating Zubair under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 2010.
Zubair’s counsel Vrinda Grover called the state action against him an “orchestrated investigation.”
“If I am going to be put through this, I may not survive. And I don’t have resources. It is getting increasingly difficult for me to get a counsel to represent me in these cases. I say this with full responsibility,” she told the bench.