The Supreme Court on Thursday listed for July 8 an appeal filed by Mohammed Zubair, Mohammed Zubair, the jailed co-founder of fact-check website Alt News, for his liberty, right to free speech and protection from death threats.
Taking the case on board and after noting the plea for urgency, a Vacation Bench led by Justice Indira Banerjee, on an oral mentioning made by Mr. Zubair’s lawyer, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, ordered the case to be “listed on July 8 before the appropriate Bench subject to assignment”. The Chief Justice of India has to formally assign the case to a Bench.
On June 1, 2022, the Uttar Pradesh Police had registered a case against Mr. Zubair on the basis of a complaint that he tweeted “offensive words towards mahants of religious places symbolising our faith and thereby hurting our religious sentiments”.
He was accused of offences under Section 295A (insulting religion) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material) of the Information Technology Act. He is in judicial custody. Mr. Zubair was first arrested by the Delhi Police in a separate FIR, also accusing him of hurting religious sentiments.
In his appeal, Mr. Zubair urged the apex court to stay the investigation into the “absurd” charges and ultimately quash the FIR registered at Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh.
He contended that the police were following a “new strategy” for registering hate crime cases, that is, to “register FIRs against those engaging in hate speech and communal crimes, as well as to rope in all secular elements monitoring such crimes and protesting police inaction against the wrongdoers”.
He argued that “those who engage in hate speech are numerous and well-organised”.
“They operate as a group identifying secular persons who speak out against hate speech and then contact one another to file multiple FIRs against innocent people who are speaking out bravely against hate speech,” his petition said.
Mr. Zubair’s work at the website has attracted “unwarranted hostile attention by those engaging in hate speech”, it claimed.
“The only way forward for him is to go to the courts or to shut down his organisation completely. The latter is what the hate speech organisations supported by political parties want to force him to do. However, he has chosen the path of fighting legally for his rights under Article 19(1)(a) (right to free speech and expression) of the Constitution,” the petition submitted.
During the mentioning, Mr. Gonsalves said they had first approached the Allahabad High Court for anticipatory bail in the Sitapur case. The High Court had however found it “premature”.
Mr. Gonsalves, who initially sought a hearing at 2 p.m. on Thursday itself, said there was a rising concern about Mr. Zubair’s safety. The senior advocate even sought bail for his client.
“There are death threats against him. People on the other side doing hate speeches are very anxious... They have said on the internet that they will try to kill him. We are very worried,” the senior advocate pleaded. He said “ prima facie reading of the FIR reveals no crime”.