Supreme Court finds NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha’s arrest invalid, says he is entitled to be released from custody

Communication of grounds of arrest or detention in writing by the investigating agency or police was ‘sacrosanct and cannot be breached under any situation,’ the apex court held

Updated - May 15, 2024 07:33 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2024 11:06 am IST - NEW DELHI

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha. File

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it felt “no hesitation” to declare the arrest and remand of 74-year-old journalist and online portal NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) by the Delhi Police as “invalid in the eyes of law”, requiring his release from custody.

A Bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and Sandeep Mehta said neither Mr. Purkayastha nor his designated counsel were provided the grounds of his arrest in writing.

“The right to be informed about the grounds of arrest flows from Article 22(1) (an arrested person shall be informed of the grounds of arrest and allowed to consult a lawyer of his or her choice) of the Constitution and any infringement of this fundamental right would vitiate the process of arrest and remand,” Justice Mehta, who authored the judgment, held.

The mere fact that a chargesheet was filed in the case would not validate the illegality committed at the time of arrest and initial remand to police custody.

The apex court held that the rule to communicate the grounds in writing would extend equally in the case of detentions. Justice Mehta said, like arrests, the grounds of detention should also be communicated in writing to a detainee. Any lapse would be a violation of Article 22(5) of the Constitution, which mandates that a person under detention should be communicated the grounds of the detention order and allowed to make a representation against the detention at the earliest opportunity.

Communication of grounds of arrest or detention in writing by the investigating agency or police was “sacrosanct and cannot be breached under any situation”.

“Non-compliance of this constitutional requirement and statutory mandate would lead to the custody or the detention being rendered illegal,” the Supreme Court declared. Providing arrested persons or their lawyers the written grounds of arrest was made mandatory under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act by the Supreme Court in its Pankaj Bansal case judgment in 2023. The court has extended the same rule to UAPA cases through the current verdict in Mr. Purkayastha’s case. 

Explained | What makes the UAPA so stringent?

Mr. Purkayastha, who has been incarcerated for over six months, was accused of using Chinese funding to promote “anti-national propaganda” through digital media. Multiple journalist collectives had termed the raids at the homes of 46 journalists, editors, writers and professionals connected to NewsClick and seizure of their electronic devices, culminating in the arrest of its founder under the UAPA, as “especially chilling”.

Mr. Purkayastha was arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell on October 3, 2023 on the basis of a First Information Report (FIR) registered on August 17, 2023. The copy of the FIR was not uploaded in the public domain. Mr. Purkayastha’s request to provide him a copy was ignored by the police.

He was given a copy of the FIR only after he was remanded to police custody by a Sessions Judge at 6 a.m. on October 4, 2023. The senior journalist’s lawyer, advocate Arshdeep Khurana, was informed about the grounds of arrest on October 5, that is, 24 hours after his client was remanded to police custody.

Justice Mehta said there was no “rhyme or reason” for not sending the remand application to Mr. Khurana ahead of the early morning court hearing on October 4. Mr. Purkayastha was represented by a legal aid lawyer at the remand hearing. The police team chose to inform Mr. Khurana through WhatsApp about the remand order, that too an hour after the hearing.

In short, the Supreme Court concluded that Mr. Purkayastha was left heavily handicapped when his personal liberty was hanging by a thread on October 4 morning.

“This entire exercise was done in a clandestine manner and was nothing but a blatant attempt to circumvent the due process of law; to confine the accused to police custody without informing him the grounds on which he has been arrested; deprive the accused of the opportunity to avail the services of the legal practitioner of his choice so as to oppose the prayer for police custody remand, seek bail and also to mislead the court,” Justice Mehta concluded in a scathing judgment.

Additional Solicitor General S.V. Raju, for the Delhi Police, had argued that Mr. Purkayastha was “orally” informed about the grounds of his arrest.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, for Mr. Purkayastha, had countered that the power to arrest was not a discretionary one. “It should be supported by solid reasons. After all, a person’s liberty was taken away,” he had submitted.

Agreeing with Mr. Sibal, the Bench quashed the journalist’s arrest, the subsequent orders of the trial court remanding him, and set aside an October 13, 2023 order of the Delhi High Court upholding the journalist’s incarceration.

“There is no hesitation in the mind of this court that the copy of the remand application, in the purported exercise of communicating the grounds of arrest in writing, was not provided to the accused-appellant (Purkayastha) or his counsel before the passing of the order of remand dated October 4, 2023. This vitiates his arrest and subsequent remand,” Justice Mehta held.

However, the court said Mr. Purkayastha should furnish bail bonds for his release as a chargesheet had already been filed in the trial court by the police in the case.

“Though we would have been persuaded to direct the release of the appellant without requiring him to furnish bonds or security, a chargesheet has been filed. We feel it appropriate to direct the appellant to be released from custody on his furnishing bail bonds to the trial court,” the Supreme Court directed.

The court said its judgment was not a comment on the merits of the case against Mr. Purkayastha. 

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