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Fact-checker walks free after more than 20 days

In 'rebuff' to Yogi, Supreme Court grants bail to Mohammed Zubair

Apex court disbands the special investigation team set up by the government in Lucknow

R. Balaji New Delhi Published 21.07.22, 02:02 AM
Yogi Adityanath

Yogi Adityanath File Photo

The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed that AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair be released from jail immediately, granting him interim bail in connection with multiple FIRs, and restrained his arrest in any future FIR registered on the “same subject matter”.

The apex court clubbed six FIRs registered against Zubair in Uttar Pradesh, transferred their investigation to Delhi police’s special cell, and disbanded the special investigation team set up by the government in Lucknow. Zubair faces a case also in Delhi, in which he had already received bail from a local court.

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Further, the apex court transferred to a Delhi court the trial in a seventh case against Zubair in Uttar Pradesh, registered a year ago.

The bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and A.S. Bopanna refused to entertain the Uttar Pradesh government’s plea to restrain Zubair from posting any future tweets. Zubair, who specialises in analysing and calling out misinformation and disinformation, tweets using the Twitter handle @zoo_bear.

“How can we say that? It is like asking a lawyer not to argue… a person not to speak. Whatever, he does, he will be responsible in law, but we can’t ask a journalist not to write,” Justice Chandrachud observed.

“How can a journalist be restrained from tweeting and writing? If he violates any law by tweeting or for that matter any citizen speaking in public or private, then he can be proceeded as per the law,” PTI quoted the bench as saying.

How can a journalist be restrained from tweeting and writing? If he violates any law by tweeting or for that matter any citizen speaking in public or private, then he can be proceeded as per the law

The Supreme Court

The court said Zubair must be freed by 6pm. He was eventually released from Tihar jail here around 8.20pm after his counsel filed bail bonds in six cases lodged in Uttar Pradesh and the one in Delhi.

Around 7pm, a duty magistrate issued released warrants in all the cases, and the order was emailed to Tihar authorities. “Having found from the record that the petitioner has been subjected to a fairly sustained investigation by the Delhi police, we find no reason or justification for the deprivation of the liberty of the petitioner to persist any further,” the court said.

The court said: “The petitioner has been enlarged on bail. The order enlarging the petitioner on bail shall continue to remain in force.”

It added: “It is a settled principle of law that the existence of the power of arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of arrest, and the exercise of the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly.”

Zubair had petitioned the apex court seeking quashing of six FIRs registered in Uttar Pradesh, or their transfer to Delhi. While choosing the second option, the apex court said he could exercise all remedies now — that is, seek quashing of all the FIRs — before Delhi High Court.

On July 18, the apex court bench had observed that Zubair seemed caught in a “vicious circle” of being subjected to multiple FIRs, and that “the moment he gets bail in one case, he is remanded in another case”.

The Delhi case against Zubair is related to a 2018 tweet that is purported to have insulted Lord Hanuman. Three of the Uttar Pradesh FIRs are about a recent tweet he had posted accusing certain Hindu religious leaders of hate mongering. The main charges in all these cases are of promoting enmity between religious groups and outraging religious beliefs.

Garima Prashad, additional advocate-general appearing for the Uttar Pradesh government, alleged on Wednesday that Zubair had admitted to having been paid over Rs 2 crore for his various tweets.

“The more vicious the tweets, the higher was his payment,” Prashad said.

Zubair’s counsel Vrinda Grover wanted to counter the allegations but Justice Chandrachud proceeded to dictate the order for interim bail and release.

'The judgment which has been dictated in the open court may take some time to be transcribed. The operative order which has been pronounced is set out below,' the court said.

The petitioner shall stand enlarged on interim bail, subject to his filing a personal release bond in the amount of Rs 20,000 in connection with the following FIRs:

  • FIR No. 502/2021, dated 15.06.2021, PS Loni Border, district Ghaziabad u/s 153, 153A, 295A, 505, 120B and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
  • FIR No. 193/2021 dated 27.08.2021 registered at PS Chandauli for offences punishable under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  • FIR No. 511/2021, dated 18.09.2021, PS Mohamadi district Lakhimpur, u/Sec 153A, 153B/505(1)8 and 505(2) IPC.
  • FIR No. 226/2022 dated 01.06.2022, PS Khairabad, district Sitapur, u/Sec 295A(2) IPC and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  • FIR No. 286/2022 dated 10.06.2022, PS Sikandrarao, Hathras, u/s 147, 149, 153A, 353, 188, 120B of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, u/s 7 of the CLA Act;
  • FIR No. 237/2022, dated 04.07.2022, PS Hathras Kotwali on a complaint dated 14.06.2022 u/Sec 153A, 295A, 298 IPC and section 67 of the IT Act.

“As regards Crime No. 199 of 2021 dated 24 July 2021 registered at PS Charthawal, Muzaffarnagar, the chargesheet… has been filed. The proceedings in respect of the said case… shall stand transferred to the chief judicial magistrate, Patiala House Courts, and shall be taken up from the stage that has reached before the earlier court,” the court said.

It said the overlap between the allegations in the FIRs, arising from Zubair’s tweets, “would only go to emphasise the need for a consolidated as opposed to a piecemeal investigation by a diverse set of law enforcement agencies”.

Therefore, the “entirety of the investigation into all the FIRs be clubbed together and should be handled by one and the same investigating authority”.

The court said that if any future FIR is “registered against the petitioner hereafter in respect of the same subject matter as the above FIRs”, the directives for interim bail and transfer of investigation to the Delhi police special cell would apply to it.

The bench passed the directions after nearly hour-long arguments by Grover and Prashad.

Additional reporting by PTI

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