Alt News Co-Founder Walks Free After SC Grants Interim Bail

New Delhi- Alt News co-founder Mohammad Zubair, held in custody for 24 days on allegations of hate speech, walked free on Wednesday, hours after the Supreme Court granted him interim bail, saying the “exercise of the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly”.

Zubair was held in police and judicial custody following half dozen FIRs lodged against him in different parts of Uttar Pradesh for posting tweets that allegedly hurt religious sentiments. The UP state police had also set up a Special Investigation Team to probe the allegations.

On Wednesday, a bench of justices DY Chandrachud, Surya Kant and AS Bopanna ordered disbanding of the SIT and transfer of all the cases to Delhi, saying there was “no reason or justification for the deprivation of his (Zubair’s) liberty to persist any further.”

The SC bench also refused to restrain Zubair from tweeting in the future as sought by the UP government.

“Can a lawyer be restrained from arguing?” the bench asked. “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 bench said in a lengthy order passed after more than two-hour hearing.

“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,” it said.

Zubair, dressed in striped T-shirt and blue trousers, showed the victory sign as he hurriedly left in a car after his release from Tihar Jail at around 9 pm.

Earlier, the court said the directions for the transfer of investigations of the FIRs which have been registered in Uttar Pradesh to the special cell of Delhi Police shall apply to all the existing FIRs forming the subject matter of the tweets as noted earlier and to any future FIR to be registered against him under the same subject matter.

Fairness to Zubair would require that the entirety of the investigation into all the FIRs be clubbed together and should be handled by one and the same investigating authority, it added.

It said the overlap between the allegations in the FIRs, emanating as they do, from the tweets of the petitioner (Zubair) would only go to emphasise the need for a consolidated as opposed to a piecemeal investigation by a diverse set of law enforcement agencies.

The apex court said that essentially, the gravamen of allegations against the petitioner pertains to tweets that have been put out by him.

“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.

“Consequently, we are of the view that the petitioner shall be released on interim bail in each of the FIRs which form the subject matter of these proceedings under Article 32 of the Constitution”, it said.

The top court, which did not upload the detailed order on its website but the operating part only, said that it would take some time to transcribe the detailed judgment and directed that Zubair will be released on interim bail in all the FIRs lodged in UP after depositing a bail bond of Rs 20,000 with Chief Metropolitan Magistrate at Patiala House Court here.

“Immediately upon the presentation of the bail bonds, the Superintendent at the Tihar Jail shall take necessary steps to ensure that the petitioner is released from judicial custody….,” it said.

It said the investigation into the FIR registered by Delhi Police’s special cell pertains to offences, which have also been invoked in the FIRs lodged in Uttar Pradesh.

The bench said it was of the view that the alternate prayer which has been pursued on behalf of the petitioner should be accepted and “all the FIRs which have been registered against the petitioner including the six FIRs which have been noted arising out of his tweets should be transferred for investigations to the special cell of the Delhi police”.

The bench directed that the SIT which has been constituted by the UP police shall be rendered “redundant and shall be disbanded”.

It added that while the court is inclined to direct the transfer of investigation of the FIRs which have been registered in Uttar Pradesh to the special cell of Delhi Police, “we reserve liberty to the petitioner to take recourse to the remedy under section 482 of CrPC in the event he is advised to seek the quashing of FIR before the Delhi High Court.”

All proceedings in connection with the FIRs shall lie before the Delhi High Court for such remedies as are available under law, it added.

“We also order and direct that the petitioner shall be entitled to protecting the order of interim bail which has been granted by this court not only in respect of the FIRs which have already been registered but in respect of any FIR which may be registered on the same subject matter as regard to the tweets put out by him”, it said.

The bench said,”in the present case, there is absolutely no justification to keep the petitioner in continued custody any further and subject him to numerous rounds of proceedings before diverse courts, when the gravamen of the allegations arises out of tweets, which have been put out by the petitioner, which forms the subject matter of the investigation which is being conducted by the Delhi police”.

It said that the grant of bail by the Patiala House Court on July 15, 2022 (in the Delhi FIR), has not been sufficient to secure the personal liberty of the petitioner, embroiled as he is in successive FIRs which have been registered in diverse police stations of state of Uttar Pradesh.

Leaders of opposition parties welcomed Zubair’s release. Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said it is the “triumph of liberty over tyranny” and held that the judgement reaffirms abuse of power of arrest must be ended.

Zubair was arrested by the Delhi Police on June 27 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through one of 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 — for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.

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