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Delhi court grants bail to Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair

A Delhi court granted bail on Friday to Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair in a case related to a tweet in 2018, stating, “The voice of dissent is necessary for healthy democracy. Therefore, for mere criticism of any political parties it is not justified to invoke Section 153A (promoting enmity) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings) of the IPC.”

Mr. Zubair was arrested by the Delhi Police on June 27 in this FIR, registered based on a social media complaint claiming it hurt religious sentiments of Hindus. The tweet in question contained an image from a 1983 CBFC-approved film Kissi Se Na Kehna where a fictional hotel’s name had been changed from “Honeymoon hotel” to “Hanuman hotel”. With this, Mr. Zubair had posted the text: “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel/ After 2014: Hanuman Hotel”.

Granting Mr. Zubair bail in this case, Additional Sessions Judge Devender Kumar Jangala held, “The applicant/accused is also stated to have used the words “Before 2014 and After 2014” to point out towards a political party. In Indian democracies the political parties are open for their criticism… The voice of dissent is necessary for healthy democracy.”

While the scribe has been granted bail in the Delhi Police case, he will remain in jail till he is granted bail in all six FIRs registered against him in Uttar Pradesh. Of the six U.P. cases, Mr. Zubair has been arrested in three (Hathras, Lakhimpur Kheri, and Sitapur). In the Sitapur case, he has been granted interim bail by the Supreme Court and in the Hathras and Lakhimpur Kheri cases, he is currently in judicial custody. Mr. Zubair’s lawyers have already moved the top court seeking quashing of the U.P. FIRs or clubbing them together and moving them to Delhi.

As for the case over the 2018 tweet, the judge held that there was no offence in naming a hotel or institution after a Hindu god if done without malice, noting that “Hindu religion is one of the oldest religion and most tolerant”.

It added, “It is also not out of place to mention that the alleged tweet of the accused was made in the year 2018 but till the date of registration of the present FIR in 2022, no other complaint was received that the tweet of the accused is offensive to the Hindu community or showing disrespect to Lord Hanuman.”

The court went on to note that though the Delhi Police had registered the FIR based on the hurt sentiment of a Twitter user, “till today during the investigation the police has failed to establish the identity of said Twitter user who felt offended by the tweet of the accused” and record their statement under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

On the now-added charge under Section 35 of the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, the court agreed with Mr. Zubair’s lawyers that he and his company Alt News had exercised all necessary due diligence as called for under Section 39 of the FCRA to prevent the receipt of any foreign contribution.

The journalist had submitted that they had clearly mentioned on their website that they do not take foreign remittances and that their payments gateway had also said that foreign payments were not enabled for them. He had also submitted that the website does not allow one to donate unless they disclose their citizenship, PAN and other details.

Noting that all evidence in the case is documentary in nature, that the police had already questioned Mr. Zubair in custody for five days and that they had already made recoveries in the case, the court cited a Supreme Court judgment to reiterate that the object of denying bail is neither punitive nor preventative and that deprivation of liberty must be considered a punishment unless it is proved that it is required to secure the presence of an accused for their trial.

The court granted bail to Mr. Zubair on a bond of ₹50,000 and one surety of the like amount, adding that he must not leave the country without the court’s explicit permission, directing him to surrender his passport to the police within three days of his release from jail.

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