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'Drop all falsed charges': 150 citizens demand early release of AltNews co-founder

Counterview Desk 

About 150 concerned citizens have demanded the release of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checkng newsportal AltNews, arrested over a 2018 tweet which allegedly hurt religious sentiments, even as booking for criminal conspiracy and having received foreign funds in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
Denied bail last weekend and sent to 14-day judicial custody, the concerned citizens, in a statement, regretted that while the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Delhi police on a petition filed on behalf of Zubair challenging the legality and propriety of his police remand and the seizure of his electronic devices, the “frivolous case” continues.

Excerpts:

The illegal arrest of Mr. Mohammed Zubair happened on June 27, 2022, by the Delhi Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity over a tweet from 2018. The IPC Sections included 153(a) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence) and 295(a) (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs).
As a part of AltNews which runs a factchecking website it was the job of Mr. Mohammad Zubair to verify news from across the political spectrum on social media. We believe that Mr. Zubair is being targeted maliciously for performing the role which a media person is expected to perform, namely scrupulous fact checking as well as exposing fake news and political disinformation. Mr. Zubair’s courageous, conscientious and exemplary work as a journalist upheld the highest standards of the media and his work burnished India’s global image as a democracy in which truth could be told to power.
According to the Delhi Police, the reason for his arrest is a 2018 tweet wherein Mr Zubair posted a screenshot of a 1983 film by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. However, Mr. Pratik Sinha, the co-founder of AltNews, tweeted that Mr. Zubair was called for questioning by the Delhi police in another case for which he already had protection from the court; but arrested without any notice.
The 1983 tweet is simply a pretext of seizing Mr. Zubair’s phone and laptop as investigation of the offence is barred by limitation. The seizure of the electronic devices is illegal as they are irrelevant to the FIR. Apart from violating his fundamental right to privacy his journalistic integrity and confidentiality of information and sources, we apprehend that the police may tamper with the seized material and build a false conspiracy to implicate him and other members of civil society as was done with some of the Bhima Koregaon accused by planting material on their laptops.
It is also suspicious that the account from which the complaint came was an anonymous Twitter handle @balajikijaiin by the name of Hanuman Bhakt. The account came into being on October 2021, had only one follower, and this complaint was his first tweet Although in court during Zubair’s remand, the police had submitted that the person running the Twitter account was “not anonymous”.
However, according to news reports the Delhi police sent a notice under Section 91 of CrPC to Twitter, India, in which the investigation officer informed the website about the case and they’ve asked them to provide IP log details of the anonymous Twitter handle @balajikijaiin, registration details of the account, mobile number, connected email ID, and device used by the user. This exposes the malafide of the police which is now trying to trace the complainant after using his tweet as material for an FIR against Zubair.
By failing to exercising his judicial role, the Judicial Magistrate ends up empowering the arbitrary state to flout constitutional safeguards
Apart from the above illegalities, after Zubair’s arrest his lawyers were not given a copy of the FIR despite repeated requests. They were given a copy only after the police remand order late into the night of the 27th of June. Zubair was taken around with policemen without name tags; these are all violations of the DK Basu guidelines of Arrest and Detention issued by the Supreme Court of India.
We are also perplexed that remand was granted to the police for such a frivolous case. Under the Constitutional scheme, the Magistrate is not expected to function as a glorified post office, blindly accepting the remand report and ordering remand. The Judicial Magistrate should have ensured that the mandate of Sec 41A CrPC is followed as well as the guidelines laid down in Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar to ensure that police officers do not arrest accused unnecessarily and Magistrate do not authorise detention casually and mechanically. By failing to exercising his judicial role, the Judicial Magistrate ends up empowering the arbitrary state to flout constitutional safeguards with impunity.
We demand that Delhi Police immediately release Mr. Zubair and drop all false charges against him. We also demand that the Delhi Police Commissioner take stern action against errant officials who violated the DK Basu guidelines during the arrest of Mr. Zubair. Given the illegal manner of Mr. Zubair’s arrest we are also deeply concerned about Mr. Zubair’s safety and prospect of torture in police custody.
It is ironical that on the same day as Mr. Zubair’s arrest, India along with G7 countries, signed the ‘2022 Resilient Democracies Statement’, wherein the Indian government committed to “guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors” and “protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline”.
We hope that the Government of India will respect its obligations under the Indian Constitution as well as international laws which India has agreed to be bound by. India in accordance with its self-assumed obligations should also stand by the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 1998 by the UN general Assembly, ensuring the safety of all those who are critical of the government including HRDs in India, and protect the freedom of expression and opinion of all.
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