The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted interim bail to Alt News Co-founder Mohammad Zubair in all the FIRs lodged in Uttar Pradesh against him concerning his alleged derogatory tweets, saying it finds no reason or justification for the deprivation of his liberty to persist any further.
The top court said it is a settled principle of law that "the existence of the power of arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of arrest and the exercise of the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly."
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Surya Kant, and AS Bopanna said fairness to Zubair would require that the entirety of the investigation into all the FIRs be clubbed together and should be handled by one and the same investigating authority.
It said "the overlap between the allegations in the FIRs, emanating as they do from the tweets of the petitioner (Zubair), would only go to emphasise the need for a consolidated as opposed to a piecemeal investigation by a diverse set of law enforcement agencies."
It said, essentially, the gravamen of allegations against the petitioner pertains to tweets that have been put out by him.
"Having found from the record that the petitioner has been subjected to a fairly sustained investigation by the Delhi Police, we find no reason or justification for the deprivation of the liberty of the petitioner to persist any further. Consequently, we are of the view that the petitioner shall be released on interim bail in each of the FIRs which form the subject matter of these proceedings under Article 32 of the Constitution", it said.
The top court, which did not upload the detailed order on its website but the operating part only, said it would take some time to transcribe the detailed judgement and directed that Zubair will be enlarged on interim bail in all the FIRs lodged in UP after depositing a bail bond of Rs 20,000 with the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate at Patiala House Court, New Delhi.
"Immediately upon the presentation of the bail bonds, the Superintendent at the Tihar Jail shall take necessary steps to ensure that the petitioner is released from judicial custody no later than by 6 pm today (Wednesday)", it said.
It said the investigation into the FIR registered by Delhi Police's special cell pertains to offences, which have also been invoked in the FIRs lodged in Uttar Pradesh.
The bench said, "We are accordingly of the view that the alternate prayer, which has been pursued on behalf of the petitioner, should be accepted as a consequence of which all the FIRs which have been registered against the petitioner, including the six FIRs which have been noted, arising out of his tweets, should be transferred for investigation to the special cell of the Delhi Police".
The bench directed that the SIT, which has been constituted by the UP Police shall be rendered "redundant and shall be disbanded".
It said while the court is inclined to direct the transfer of investigation of the FIRs which have been registered in Uttar Pradesh to the special cell of Delhi Police, "we reserve liberty to the petitioner to take recourse to remedy under Section 482 of CrPC in the event he is advised to seek the quashing of FIR before the Delhi High Court. All proceedings in connection with the FIRs shall lie before the Delhi High Court for such remedies as are available under the law".
It said directions for the transfer of investigation of the FIRs, which have been registered in Uttar Pradesh to the special cell of Delhi Police, shall apply to all the existing FIRs forming the subject matter of the tweets as noted earlier, and to any future FIR to be registered against him under the same subject matter.
"We also order and direct that the petitioner shall be entitled to protect the order of interim bail which has been granted by this court, not only in respect of the FIRs which have already been registered, but in respect of any FIR which may be registered on the same subject matter as regards the tweets put out by him," it said.
While dictating the order, the bench said, "In the present case, there is absolutely no justification to keep the petitioner in continued custody any further and subject him to numerous rounds of proceedings before diverse courts, when the gravamen of the allegations arises out of tweets which have been put out by the petitioner, which forms the subject matter of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Delhi Police".
It said the grant of bail by the Patiala House Court on July 15, 2022 (in the Delhi FIR), has not been sufficient to secure the personal liberty of the petitioner, embroiled as he is in successive FIRs, which have been registered in diverse police stations of Uttar Pradesh.
The top court refused to restrain Zubair from tweeting in the future as sought by the UP government, saying can a lawyer be restrained from arguing.
“How can a journalist be restrained from tweeting and writing? If he violates any law by tweeting, or, for that matter any citizen speaking in public or private, then he can be proceeded as per the law,” the bench said in a lengthy order passed after more than a nearly two-hour hearing.
Zubair was arrested by the Delhi Police on June 27 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through one of his tweets.
Multiple FIRs were lodged against him in UP -- two in Hathras and one each in Sitapur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad, and at Chandauli police station -- for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.