Fact-checker Mohammed Zubair today got another bit of temporary relief from the Supreme Court, which noticed a "vicious cycle" and told the Uttar Pradesh police not to take any action in five cases against him until the next hearing on Wednesday. He's already got bail from the Supreme Court in a sixth case in UP, but is under arrest in a case registered in Hathras.
He has sought bail and cancellation of all six FIRs, registered in Sitapur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Ghaziabad, Muzaffarnagar, and Hathras districts. The primary allegation against him is that he hurt religious sentiments, though some FIRs mention other offences too. "This kind of targeting must end. This is an abuse of the process of law," his lawyer, Vrinda Grover, said during the hearing.
The Supreme Court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna said it would hear his plea on July 20, but added, "What we can say is that there should be no precipitatory steps against him until then." When the state government asked that there be no halt on other courts passing orders, Justice Chandrachud said, "But the problem is the vicious cycle. He gets interim bail in one case but gets arrested for some other case."
The cycle started from Delhi. Mr Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking site Alt News, was originally arrested there on June 27 in a case over a four-year-old tweet that had an image from a 1983 movie. Then he was arrested in case in Sitapur, UP, over calling some Hindu right-wing leaders "hatemongers".
He's since got bail in the Delhi case from a district court; and in the Sitapur case from the Supreme Court. Yet, he is now under arrest in a similar case in Hathras. A hearing is scheduled in a local court there today.
UP Police has formed a special investigation team (SIT) for all six cases — which Mr Zubair wants the Supreme Court to disband.
After his lawyer made an urgent mention of his plea today, Justice DY Chandrachud said, "We dealt with the Sitapur FIR earlier." The lawyer pointed out that now there are six in all, some from last year. "In some he was sent to judicial custody. His electronic devices were seized. As soon as he got protected in one case, they arrested him in another case," the lawyer said. "Today in Hathras, 14 days of police remand is being sought."
At this, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the UP government, said, "I have not even got the chance to see the plea yet." The state had earlier today opposed this hearing, saying it was not aware of the facts so it be heard tomorrow.
Mr Zubair's lawyer, pleading for bail, pointed out, "The maximum punishment for charges levelled is three years."
When Tushar Mehta questioned the urgency, Vrinda Grover told the court, "They announced cash rewards for information on Mohammed Zubair... The complainant in the Hathras case, a man called Deepak Sharma, made communal statements on social media while filing the complaint. Are these the kind of complaints for which journalists will be punished?"
She pointed out that the Hathras FIR was filed on July 4, when Mr Zubair was already in custody of Delhi Police.
The court issued a notice to the state government to respond by Wednesday, while providing temporary relief.