Alt News co-founder and fact-checker Mohammed Zubair walked out of the Tihar Jail hours after the Supreme Court granted him interim bail on Wednesday in six cases registered by the Uttar Pradesh Police accusing him of hurting religious feelings through his Twitter posts.
Though the apex court ordered the Tihar Jail Superintendent to ensure his release by 6 p.m., the fact-checker walked out of jail into a rainy night at well past 9 p.m.
The bail presents a decisive turn for Mr. Zubair, who has been booked in a “vicious cycle” of cases by the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh Police since his arrest in June 27.
“The existence of the power to arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of the power of arrest. The exercise of the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly,” a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and A.S. Bopanna told the U.P. government.
Uttar Pradesh Additional Advocate General Garima Prashad said the FIRs were registered by the State not out of “conscious viciousness”. Mr. Zubair’s tweets were “malicious”. The cases were an effort made to maintain communal peace and harmony.
When Ms. Prashad urged the court to bar Mr. Zubair from tweeting, Justice Chandrachud shot back, saying “how can we tell a journalist not to write? How can we tell him he should not utter a word? If he does something wrong, he is answerable to the law… We cannot stop a citizen from using his voice”.
Advocate Vrinda Grover, for Mr. Zubair, said Uttar Pradesh had “weaponised” the criminal law to wreak vengeance on a journalist for debunking false information. He had been embroiled in one criminal case after the other for exposing hate speech.
The court ordered the Tihar Jail Superintendent to ensure that necessary steps to release Mr. Zubair by 6 p.m. on Wednesday commence as soon as he produced his bail bonds before the Chief Judicial Magistrate at Patiala House courts in Delhi.
Though the court did not revoke the FIRs against Mr. Zubair, it gave him liberty to approach the Delhi High Court for quashing of any cases — present or future — that may be registered against him on the basis of these tweets. The Bench underscored that its bail order would protect the fact-checker if any future FIRs were registered on the basis of the very same tweets.
Justice Chandrachud observed there was “absolutely no reason or justification” for the Uttar Pradesh Police to keep Mr. Zubair in continued custody any further and subject him to “endless rounds of proceedings before diverse courts”. The gravamen of the allegations arising out of his tweets were already the subject matter of a “fairly sustained” investigation by the Delhi Police. The Bench noted that Mr. Zubair had already been granted bail in the Delhi case.
The charges in the Delhi case and the Uttar Pradesh FIRs clearly overlap, the Bench observed. The Uttar Pradesh Police had registered six FIRs, namely in Ghaziabad, Chandauli, Lakhimpur, Sitapur and two in Hathras. The court transferred all of them to the Delhi Police, rendering the Uttar Pradesh Police’s Special Investigation Team redundant.
“Fairness to the petitioner would require the entirety of the investigation to be clubbed and handled by one and the same agency… The FIRs require a consolidated investigation, and not a piecemeal one by a diverse set of law enforcement agencies,” the Bench observed.
The court also transferred to Delhi a case against Mr. Zubair in Muzaffarnagar in which the police have filed a chargesheet. This case is also based on the same tweets.
“The proceedings in the 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 Supreme Court ordered.