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Delhi High Court adjourns hearing of Zubair plea

Cops have even seized journalist's new mobile phone: Lawyer
Zubair in Bangalore  on Thursday
Zubair in Bangalore on Thursday
PTI Picture

Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, PTI   |   New Delhi   |   Published 02.07.22, 03:42 AM

Delhi High Court on Friday adjourned till July 27 the hearing of AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair’s plea challenging his four-day police remand, which ends on July 2.

Zubair’s counsel Vrinda Grover contended in court that the appearance of the country’s second-highest law officer, solicitor-general Tushar Mehta, in the case to defend the police highlighted the government’s interest and “tells the whole story”.

Zubair, relentless in exposing the Right wing’s fake narratives, was arrested weeks after calling out now-suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s derogatory comments against Prophet Mohammed.

He was arrested on Monday on the charges of hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity through a 2018 tweet, which showed a still image from a 1983 Hindi film that had been screened without controversy. He was first sent to a day’s police custody by a magistrate and then, on Tuesday, handed four days’ police remand.

  • Grover told the single-judge bench of Justice Sanjeev Narula that several social media users had shared the image Zubair had tweeted but her client alone had been “targeted”, thanks to his profession and religion.
  • Grover accused the police of breaching the apex court’s Arnesh Kumar judgment of 2014, which said that accused should not be arrested in cases involving less than seven years’ jail. The charges invoked against Zubair, if proved, attract a maximum punishment of two years.
  • Grover said that despite the production of a police complaint filed for the loss of Zubair’s old mobile phone from which he had posted the 2018 tweet, the police had seized his present mobile phone.

“This remand order is not only mechanical but there is also non-application of mind. It violates my rights. It is a plunging dagger in my right to privacy. I (Zubair) am a journalist and my laptop is in their custody,” Grover said.

She urged the court to issue a notice on the petition to “decide the legality” of the remand and make the search and seizure subject to the outcome of the case. “If courts don’t stop this, nobody is going to be safe in this country,” she said.

While seeking Zubair’s demand, the Delhi police had told the lower court they needed to take him to his Bangalore home for the recovery of his laptop. The police did take Zubair to his Bangalore flat on Thursday.

“The tweet is dated March 2018. What is the purpose of spending public resources on this including a flight tour?” Grover said.

The case against Zubair was registered after a Twitter handle, Hanuman Bhakt @balajikijain, expressed anger at the 2018 tweet.

Grover underlined that the Hanuman Bhakt Twitter account was opened only in 2021.

“This was his first tweet. Till June 2022, this handle did not tweet at all. This Twitter handle pulls out (a tweet from) March 2018, perhaps with intent to mischief. Till then it had one follower. I wonder why there is no inquiry,” Grover said.

She said there was nothing offensive in the 2018 tweet and asked whether a case such as this required the seizure of the laptop and mobile of the accused.

“There is personal liberty at stake. The question is, does a case of this nature warrant remand? Could my laptop and mobile be directed to be seized?” she said.

Mehta told the court the matter was still under investigation and that the police were acting without bias. He said that even if the court concluded that the remand order was wrong, Zubair would still be sent to judicial custody.

He said a magistrate would consider this same issue on Saturday, when the current police remand ends, so the high court need not exercise its judgment in the matter.

Mehta said he did not understand the anxiety over the seizure of a laptop. Countering him, Grover said: “It’s my right to privacy. I will not grant access to my devices to the State. It is provocative.”

The high court had at the outset asked the petitioner’s counsel about the “limited shelf life” of the petition as his four-day custody was set to expire on Saturday. To this, the counsel responded: “I don’t think this is a shelf life matter. The issue is whether the remand order is a legal order.”

The issue is whether the trial court’s order was legal and whether a case of this nature even warranted Zubair’s remand, she said.

“Could I be detained in this manner? Could my phone and laptop be seized in this manner? This is the issue here,” Grover said.

She said that when the tweet was on Twitter’s server, why had the police needed Zubair’s mobile phone?

The judge asked the law officer whether the investigating agency would seek an extension of the petitioner’s remand before the trial court on July 2.

Mehta responded: “We don’t know. It would be presumptuous on my part. All these contentions can be raised there (trial court).”

The judge said: “I am confident that the magistrate will examine the case on the basis of material.”

The judge listed the case for further hearing on July 27 and said that proceedings before the trial court would continue without being influenced by the present proceedings.

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