Sixteen months after the Andaman and Nicobar administration arrested freelance journalist Zubair Ahmed for his tweet asking why a family was put under home quarantine for speaking to a COVID-19 patient over the phone, the Calcutta High Court has quashed the FIR. Calling it âabsurd,â the court said that allowing criminal action against Zubair would be a âsheer abuse of the process of lawâ and a âmisuse of the power of the Court.â
Zubair was last year arrested by the Aberdeen police for his tweet dated April 26, 2020, where he had asked, "Can someone explain why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over the phone with Covid patients?" Zubair's tweet was based on a news report that said that four members of a family in Haddo, a town in Andaman, were forced to remain in home quarantine after one of them called up a relative who had tested positive for coronavirus to ask about his well-being. TNM had reached out to one of the people who confirmed that they were told to remain in home quarantine for 28 days because they had spoken over the phone with someone who had COVID-19.
Zubair was accused of âspreading panicâ and had been arrested on April 28, 2020, by the Aberdeen police. He was booked under Sections 51 (punishment for obstruction) and 54 (punishment for false warning) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, as well as sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 269 (Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerÂous to life), 270 (Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerÂous to life) and 505(1)(b) (Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Later that day, he was granted bail.
However, there was no further progress in the case and a chargesheet was not filed either, which is when Zubair decided to move the Calcutta High Court in April 2021 to quash the case. He said in his petition that the case against him does not hold, as his tweet attracted none of the offences he has been accused of committing.
Though the hearing of the case was slightly delayed due to the pandemic, it took the High Court only two hearings to realise that the case filed against him was âabsurd.â
âThis Court is of the view that allowing the criminal proceeding in terms of the FIR registered against the petitioner would amount to sheer abuse of process of law and misuse of the power of the Court as the allegation in the FIR appears to be absurd and no prudent person can ever reach a just conclusion that there is sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused/petitioner,â Calcutta HC held in its order dated September 8.
The court added that legally, the case against Zubair does not hold up since the FIR registered against him was registered by the police themselves, and not on the basis of a complaint filed by a common man.
âThe provision of Section 195 of the Code provides that no court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under Sections 172 to 188 of the Indian Penal Code, except on the complaint in writing to a public servant concern or of some other public servant to whom he is administratively empowered,â the High Court said. âIt was not wise even on the part of the learned court and the Magistrate for taking cognizance of any offence as alleged under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code,â the court added.
Speaking to TNM, Zubair welcomed the High Court order quashing the case against him, but pointed out that the tweet that he was booked under was merely an excuse, while the larger aim was to âteach him a lessonâ for reporting against the policies of the administration in Andaman and Nicobar.
"When I was arrested, I knew it was not just for this tweet. I was always writing about the administration, about the policies, and they were just looking for a chance. When they got the opportunity, they took action. I had raised many issues regarding the policies of the administration, and it (the arrest) was to teach me a lesson,â he said.
The case filed against him was nothing but an instance of harassment by the government, he said, adding that such arbitrary action not only causes mental and financial stress on people accused in such cases, it often scares other people and they avoid speaking out.
"Such cases have a chilling effect on people's freedom of speech and expression. People will think twice before questioning or tweeting something, thinking maybe this will offend the government and there may be a case. Itâs so easy for the police to file an FIR. But the onus falls on the people, who have to spend money and time to clear their name, to contest the FIR by going to the high court or going to trial. There is mental stress also. Even if you are let out on bail, there are many restrictions and bail conditions. We have to struggle to prove our innocence. This is nothing but harassment,â Zubair said.