Pointing out the gravity of charges against fact-checker Mohammed Zubair, a Delhi court on Saturday sent him to 14-day judicial custody in a case related to a tweet from 2018.
Mr Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking site Alt News, was arrested over a four-year-old tweet on June 27 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments, barely a month after he flagged a video of since-suspended BJP leader Nupur Sharma speaking against Prophet Mohammed on a TV show. He was in police custody for the past five days.
The police had produced Mr Zubair before the court on expiry of his five-day custodial interrogation and urged it to send him to 14-day judicial remand, saying they might need his custodial interrogation later.
“Since matter is at the initial stage of investigation and overall facts and circumstances of the case and nature and gravity of the offences alleged against the accused, no ground for grant of bail is made out. Bail application of accused is accordingly dismissed,” said the Delhi court.
During the hearing, public prosecutor Atul Srivastava informed the court that the police has invoked new provisions — sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the Indian Penal Code and section 35 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act — against the fact-checker.
He claimed that the accused accepted money through Razorpay payment gateway from Pakistan, Syria and other countries, which requires further investigation.
The lawyer for the journalist expressed shock over “leak” of news of the rejection of his client’s bail plea when the court was yet to pronounce its order.
“I am shocked to see that DCP KPS Malhotra has leaked in the media ki ‘hamara bail reject ho gaya hai. Aur 14 din ka JC grant hui hai’ (that my bail plea has been rejected and my judicial custody has been granted for 14 days). I have learnt this from the twitter posts of news channels and some law reporters. They all cited KPS Malhotra as source,” Soutik Banerjee was quoted saying by news agency PTI.
“It is extremely scandalous and it speaks of the status of rule of law in our country today. That even before the judicial magistrate has sat and pronounced the order, the police have leaked the order to the media. How KPS Malhotra knows what the order is. This calls for serious, serious introspection,” he added.
The police officer admitted to informing reporters incorrectly about Mr Zubair’s judicial custody.
“I had a word with my IO (investigating officer), I misheard it due to noise and inadvertently the message was posted in the broadcast,” he said in a WhatsApp message to reporters as reported by PTI.
Founded in 2017 as a non-profit, Alt News is among the world’s most prominent fact-checking outlets. Its founders – Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair – have been facing online trolling and police cases, particularly by right-wing groups, for years.