Delhi Police was forced to issue a clarification today after it did not wait for the court's order but declared that fact-checker Mohammed Zubair has been denied bail. The court did, in fact, deny the bail, but only around 5pm, two hours after the message to journalists from a police officer led to a controversy.
“It is extremely scandalous and speaks volume of rule of law in the country that even before the judge has sat, police has leaked to media,” Mr Zubair's lawyer said about the officer's message.
Mr Zubair, a co-founder of fact-checking site Alt News who was arrested over a four-year-old tweet, was in police custody for the past five days and has now been sent in 14-day judicial custody.
He was produced in Delhi's Patiala House this afternoon court. Arguments were completed but the judge was yet to give any order when a deputy commissioner of police told journalists over WhatsApp that bail has been denied and Mr Zubair has been sent to judicial custody for 14 days. The officer — KPS Malhotra of the cyber crime unit — later said he had misheard a colleague.
"How KPS Malhotra knows what the order is, is beyond me. This calls for introspection," Mr Zubair's lawyer further said.
During the hearing earlier, police told the court that they have also charged Mr Zubair — accused of hurting religious sentiments — with criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence, and sections of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act or FCRA.
With criminal conspiracy added to the FIR, the Enforcement Directorate can step in for a money laundering probe.
Mohammed Zubair was arrested on June 27 and initially sent to one-day police custody by a duty magistrate the same day, barely a month after he flagged a video of suspended BJP leader Nupur Sharma's remarks against Prophet Mohammed on a TV show. The local court later gave the police another four days of custody. Meanwhile, he approached the Delhi High Court for bail, which issued notices seeking a response from the police but did not immediately decide on the bail plea.
Police have said the case against him was registered after an officer saw a complaint by a Twitter user against Mr Zubair's tweet.
In that tweet from March 2018, Mr Zubair had shared an image from Hrishikesh Mukherjee's classic 'Kissi Se Na Kehna'. It shows a hotel signboard that reads 'Hanuman Hotel' in Hindi, but paint marks suggest it was earlier called 'Honeymoon Hotel'. Mr Zubair wrote with the image, "Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel, After 2014: Hanuman Hotel", in what appeared to be a dig at the BJP coming to power in 2014.
"Many have tweeted the same, the only difference between those handles and mine is my faith, my name and my profession," his lawyer, Vrinda Grover, had told the court at the previous hearing.