In a breather for Mohammed Zubair, the Supreme Court on Monday directed that no "precipitative steps" be taken against the fact-checker in the five cases he is facing in Uttar Pradesh, calling the FIRs a "vicious cycle" of police action.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and A S Bopanna said it would hear on July 20 the plea filed by Zubair, the co-founder of Alt News who is seeking quashing of the five FIRs registered against him for allegedly outraging religious sentiments.
"In the meantime, we direct that no precipitative steps shall be taken against the petitioner (Zubair) in connection with any of the five FIRs, which have been extracted above (in the order), without the leave of this court," the bench said while issuing notice to the UP government on his plea. Of the six FIRs registered against him in UP, Zubair is currently in judicial custody in a Hathras case while he has been granted interim bail by the top court in the Sitapur case.
The bench noted that Zubair was granted interim bail by the apex court in connection with the case lodged against him in Sitapur district in UP. The interim bail was last week extended till further orders. It also noted that Zubair was granted bail by a Delhi court on July 15 in a separate case lodged against him by the Delhi Police in the national capital. The case relates to an "objectionable tweet" he had posted in 2018 against a Hindu deity.
"What seems to be happening is the moment he got bail in Delhi, he got bail in Sitapur, the moment that happens, there is another FIR or he is produced in another FIR," the bench orally observed while terming it a "vicious cycle".
Human rights group Amnesty India, meanwhile, demanded immediate and unconditional release of Zubair, saying "debunking" fake news is not a crime. During the hearing in the apex court, advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for Zubair, said so far six FIRs have been registered in UP against Zubair -- two in Hathras and one each in Sitapur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Muzaffarnagar and Ghaziabad.
She argued that some of these are old FIRs of last year and recoveries have already been made from Zubair’s residence at Bengaluru and his electronic devices have been seized. Grover termed it as an "abuse of process of law" and said this kind of targeting must end.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was asked by the court to assist in the matter, said as per the chart given by the petitioner’s counsel, so far as Hathras FIR is concerned, application for 14-day police custody remand was filed on July 15 and it was listed for arguments today. "The judge may grant remand, in that case, he would be under police custody, or may not grant remand. Then he would be in judicial custody," he said.
"I don't think that your lordships will consider passing an order preventing a competent court from passing an order. It can always be set aside, interfered with or modified once it is passed," Mehta added. Referring to a status report of the Delhi Police Special Cell, Grover said the Delhi Police have expanded the scope of investigation and have said they are looking into the alleged larger conspiracy and into the funds also.
Grover referred to tweets and social media posts where rewards like Rs 1,000 for first FIR filed against the petitioner and the fact checking portal in states and Union Territories were announced to initiate legal action against them.
She alleged that a direct threat for Zubair to be killed was made but not a single action has been taken by the UP Police on any of these Twitter handles. "What is the prayer today which you are seeking," the bench asked. Grover said, "I am seeking interim bail in these FIRs as granted in the Sitapur case, while the matter is before my lords."
She said a probe has been done by the Delhi Police and things have already been seized. Grover said now the UP Police is saying that they need to go to Kolkata and Ahmedabad to be at the offices of Alt News.
The bench observed that today the matter is not on the board and the solicitor general was in the court for some other matter and it had requested him to wait. The top court observed that it would list the petition for considering the prayer for interim bail on July 20 and in the meantime it can say that no precipitative steps shall be taken against the petitioner in connection with these FIRs without the leave of the court.
"I do not think your lordships would consider a judicial order to be precipitative," Mehta said. The bench observed that contents of all these FIRs seem to be similar. Mehta said he has not seen all these FIRs.
Earlier in the day, the matter was mentioned for urgent listing before a bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana which granted liberty to the petitioner to mention the matter before a bench presided over by Justice Chandrachud.
Later in the day, Grover mentioned the matter before the bench headed by Justice Chandrachud which said it would hear it during the day itself. In its order, Justice Chandrachud-led bench noted that the subject matter of the present proceedings under Article 32 of the Constitution arises from five FIRs lodged against the petitioner.
"Since the petition is not on board today, we direct the registry to list it on July 20," the bench said. The fresh plea of Zubair has also challenged the constitution of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) by the UP government to probe these cases. It said all the FIRs filed in UP that has been transferred to the SIT for investigation are the subject matter of the FIR which is being probed by the Delhi Police Special Cell.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and A S Bopanna passed the order after the matter was taken up for hearing upon being mentioned by advocate Vrinda Grover, who represented Zubair. The bench, which heard submissions for some time, directed the apex court registry to list it on July 20. “In the meantime, we direct that no precipitative steps shall be taken against the petitioner in connection with these five FIRs….,” the bench said.
The fresh plea of Zubair has also challenged the constitution of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) by the Uttar Pradesh government to probe these cases. The plea said all the FIRs filed in Uttar Pradesh that has been transferred to the SIT for investigation are the subject matter of the FIR which is being probed by the Delhi Police Special Cell.
(with inputs from PTI)