The top court observed that the power of arrest must be exercised sparingly by the police
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted interim bail to Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair in all the seven FIRs registered against him in Uttar Pradesh and transferred all of them to Delhi police for investigation by its special cell. Hours after being granted relief from the apex court, Mr Zubair was released from Tihar Jail.
The Delhi police arrested Mr Zubair on June 27 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through his tweets.
Multiple FIRs were lodged against him in UP -- two in Hathras and one each in Sitapur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad, and at Chandauli police station -- on similar charges.
Noting that all the FIRs registered against Mr Zubair in Uttar Pradesh were largely on the subject matter of the Delhi FIR and either he was in judicial custody or an application for police custody has been moved in other FIRs, the top court observed that the power of arrest must be exercised sparingly by the police.
The court also relaxed its earlier order directing Mr Zubair not to post any tweets, observing that it is like asking a journalist not to write or an advocate not to argue. The court said that if any tweet posted by Mr Zubair is in breach of the law, action will follow accordingly.
Heading a bench also comprising Justices Surya Kant and A.S. Bopanna, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said that the bail granted to Mr Zubair will also be applicable in all the FIRs on the same subject matter that may be registered in the future.
The bench was of the view that there was "no justification" to keep Mr Zubair in continued custody and subject him to diverse proceedings when the gravamen of allegations arises from the tweets, which also form part of an investigation by the Delhi police in a case in which he has already been granted bail.
With the transfer of all the FIRs and the investigation into them to the Delhi police, the court also ordered the disbanding of the special investigation team (SIT) formed by the UP police to probe the FIRs against Mr Zubair in Uttar Pradesh.
The top court ordered that Mr Zubair be released on furnishing a bail bond of ~20,000 by 06.00pm today. It also transferred proceedings currently going on in an Uttar Pradesh court relating to Sudarshan TV to a Delhi court.
"Zubair has to file a personal bond of ~20,000 in connection with the seven UP FIRs. Also, he has to be presented before the chief metropolitan magistrate, Patiala House in New Delhi and immediately after submission of the bond, the Superintendent of Tihar Jails is directed to ensure he is released before 6pm on Wednesday itself," said the order.
Later in the evening, a senior official confirmed that, complying with the SC’s order, Mr Zubair has been released from Tihar Jail.
In all these matters, the order said, Mr Zubair can approach the Delhi High Court to pursue his plea for the quashing of the FIRs.
Accepting the alternate prayer of Mr Zubair to club all FIRs in Delhi with interim bail, the top court said the direction to transfer all UP FIRs to Delhi police shall also apply to the future FIRs registered on the basis of his tweets and he will be entitled to bail in all such future FIRs.
Seeking protection from the top court, Mr Zubair’s lawyer Vrinda Grover pointed out that all FIRs are on the same tweets, none of which remotely uses language that is improper or amounts to a criminal offence. She said this is a clear case of "silencing" a fact-checker by invoking criminal action under multiple FIRs.
"In this digital age, the job of someone who is debunking false information may draw the ire of others. But the law cannot be weaponised against him... The dormant FIRs are activated the moment I secure bail in any case. Old dormant FIRs get suddenly activated. There is a scenario of encircling me," she said.
Uttar Pradesh additional advocate general Garima Prashad insisted that Mr Zubair is not a journalist. "He calls himself a fact-checker. Under the guise of fact checking, he is promoting malicious and provocative content. And he gets paid for the tweets. More malicious the tweets, the more payment he gets. He has admitted that he has got over ~2 crore," she said.
She submitted that instead of informing the police of illegal speech or hatred, Mr Zubair has been taking advantage of speeches and videos that have the potential to create a communal divide and he has been sharing them repeatedly.