After spending four days in police custody, Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of digital fact-checking website Alt News, was denied bail in the 2018 tweet case by the Patiala House court on Saturday, July 2. The four-day police custody of Zubair ended on Saturday, and the Delhi Police sought further custody of Zubair for 14 days. The Patiala House Court had granted his custody after the Delhi Police alleged that he had not been cooperating during the investigation and that devices he had used for tweeting had to be recovered. Zubair had tweeted an image from a movie, however an anonymous Twitter account claimed that sentiments of Hindus had been hurt, based on which the Delhi police arrested him.
The Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) told the court that, as per their findings, Zubair had allegedly accepted donations from foreign countries including from Pakistan and Syria and this required further investigation. Zubair has categorically denied this. Asking for further custody, the SPP informed the court that new provisions including 120B of the IPC (Criminal Conspiracy) and Section 35 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act,(FCRA) which refers to punishment for accepting foreign contribution or any currency or security from a foreign source, have been charged against Zubair.
The SPP contended that Zubair was using a different sim card when he came in for questioning to the special cell office, but changed it later after questioning. Alleging that Zubair was being ‘clever’, the SPP sought his further custody. Zubair's arrest has been condemned by media organisations, rights activists and others. An investigation by The Wire showed that an anonymous account with links to the BJP's Yuva Morcha had claimed that Hindu sentiments had been hurt by the tweet.
Advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for Zubair, told the court that the tweet was made using Zubair’s current mobile device and there was no need for seizure of his laptop. She further argued that his phone was stolen in 2021, and he had filed a police complaint then too. Alleging that the entire process was meant to harass Zubair, Grover questioned the ‘updates’ being given to the media about the case by Delhi Police. She also asked if losing a mobile phone or being clever was a crime in the country.
Grover also questioned the accusation that Zubair’s 2018 tweet hurt sentiments and told the court that it was an image of a film with no reference to any religion or religious group. She also argued that there was nothing inciteful towards any deity in the tweet. She said that there is no scope to charge Zubair under sections 153A (promoting religious enmity) and 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts to outrage feelings by insulting religion).
She also told the court that it was ‘misled’ to think that Zubair personally received foreign contributions, and that the funds were transferred to the official Alt News bank account. “[The money] hasn’t gone into my account. I am making a categorical statement,” Grover said on Zubair’s behalf.
The SPP argued against granting bail to Zubair, alleging that various materials from his phone had been deleted after he had been taken in for questioning the first time. The police also argued that since the 2018 tweet in question has not been deleted from social media, it is a “continuous offence”.
Zubair was arrested by the Delhi Police on June 27 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through one of his tweets, and was sent to one-day police custody by the trial court on the same day. After being produced on the expiry of his one-day custodial interrogation, his custody was extended by another four days by Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Snigdha Sarvaria.
Earlier this month, a case against Zubair was registered under sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, language, etc.) and 295A (deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Police said the case was registered on the complaint of a Twitter user who accused him of hurting religious sentiments.
While seeking an extension of Zubair's custody by five days, the police had earlier told the trial court that the accused was allegedly “following a trend” where he used religious tweets in an effort to get “famous”, and that there was a “deliberate effort to create social disharmony and hurt religious feelings”. The investigating agency had also said that the accused joined the probe but did not cooperate and various materials from his phone were deleted.
Advocate Vrinda Grover had opposed the police plea alleging that the agency had called Zubair for questioning in some other case but he was arrested in the present case in haste.
Zubair's counsel had also said that the photo which the accused used in the tweets is from an old Hindi film from 1983 by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Kissi Se Na Kehna, and that the film was not banned. The trial court had, however, rejected the submission saying it was of no assistance to the accused at this stage.
Considering that the mobile phone/laptop of accused used by him for posting the tweet in question is to be recovered at the instance of accused Mohammed Zubair from his Bangalore residence and that accused has remained non-cooperative and the disclosure statement on record, four days PC (police custody) remand of accused is granted since accused is to be taken to Bangalore, the trial court had said in a 3-page order.