Supreme Court grants interim bail to Mohammed Zubair in Sitapur case

The Alt News co-founder however, is in judicial custody on orders of a Delhi court in a separate case

Updated - July 08, 2022 08:19 pm IST

Published - July 08, 2022 12:57 pm IST

Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News. File.

Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News. File. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Supreme Court on July 8 granted Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, interim bail in a case registered by the Uttar Pradesh Police accusing him of insulting religious feelings.

But Mr. Zubair may not immediately walk out of jail a free man. According to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the State of Uttar Pradesh, he is in judicial custody on the orders of a Delhi court in a separate case.

A Vacation Bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and J.K. Maheshwari stressed the bail had been granted only in the case registered at Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh. "This court is not concerned at this stage with any FIR other than FIR No. 0226 dated June 1, 2022 lodged at Police Station Khairabad, Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, which is the subject matter of these proceedings," the order read.

The top court directed that the interim bail would be alive for five days from July 8 or until further orders by a Regular Bench before which the case would come up next on July 12. The bail would be subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the Judicial Magistrate-I, Sitapur. Bail conditions would include barring Mr. Zubair from posting “any tweets”. He should also “not tamper with any evidence, electronic or otherwise in Bengaluru or anywhere else”. The court did not interfere with the investigation.

During the hour-long hearing, Additional Solicitor General S.V. Raju, for the Uttar Pradesh Police, said Mr. Zubair had insulted the religious feelings of the followers of Bajrang Muni Das by calling a religious leader a “hate monger”. He reasoned that Mr. Zubair had made allegations which could "incite disharmony".

“If you [Mr. Zubair] are such a nice person, you would have sent a letter to the police, why tweet?” Mr. Raju queried. The police had indeed arrested hate speakers in the past.

‘Habitual offender’

Mr. Mehta termed Mr. Zubair a “habitual offender” and part of a “syndicate” which “very repeatedly puts out tweets to sensationalise or destabilise the society”. He said there was an angle of foreign contributions from countries inimical to India's interests.

Mr. Gonsalves countered that his client was a "secular tweeter defending the Constitution". He represented a prestigious organisation which meticulously traced hate speeches and informed the police.

"The puzzling factor here is that a person who exposes hate speeches is in jail and those who are continuing to give hate speeches are out on bail… He [Mr. Zubair] did not insult any religion. He spoke out against those who made hate speeches of the most horrific kind. These people were arrested by the police and bailed out. Once out on bail, they continued giving hate speeches... What is his crime?" Mr. Gonsalves asked.

The senior lawyer urged the court to quash the Sitapur case entirely. He said Mr. Zubair was facing death threats. "His life is in danger. Many people are asking people to kill him... They are advising the police to torture him. He [Mr. Zubair] should be let out immediately. He should be allowed to go home," Mr. Gonsalves pleaded.

Mr. Mehta responded that Mr. Zubair had “six cases registered against him in the past two years".

"This is not the question of one tweet. Question is whether he is part of a syndicate. It has to be investigated," the Solicitor General argued. He said Mr. Zubair’s tweet had the potential to cause a law and order situation.

‘Suppressed facts’

The law officer contended that Mr. Zubair, though a fact-checker, had “suppressed facts” in the Supreme Court. He had not disclosed to the apex court on July 7 that courts in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh had previously rejected his bail applications and ordered for his remand.

Mr. Mehta said the State had dropped the charge of publishing and transmitting obscene material under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act. Instead, the charge of promoting religious enmity under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code was added against Mr. Zubair along with the original charge of Section 295A (insulting religion).

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