"Investigation at Nascent Stage and Serious Offences Against Accused": Delhi Court Rejects Bail Plea by Mohammad Zubair

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A Delhi Court on Saturday rejected the bail application of  Mohammad Zubair, Co-Founder of fact checking news site Alt News, and also directed him to be placed in police remand for 14 days. 

The order has been passed by Justice Snigdha Savaria, who is Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Patiala House Court. 

Advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for Zubair, moved a bail application against his arrest along with an application bringing on record objections of the accused against the wrongful seizure of his electronic devices. 

Arguments made by the Accused  

Advocate Vrinda Grover argued that the accused is the co founder of fact checking website, Alt News, which carries with it the occupational hazard of being disliked by many people widely.  She further alleged that Zubair had been targeted with a number of baseless FIRs against him. 

She argued that the Delhi Police had issued to Zubair, a notice under Section 41A CrPC in FIR No. 194/2020 on June 24. The said notice directed him to appear before the IFSO, Special Cell at 2:00pm on the next day, i.e., June 27. 

On June 27, when the accused appeared before the Special Cell, he was not questioned about the facts of FIR No. 194/2020 for which notice summoning had been issued. Instead, he was made to wait and around 5:30 pm was made to sign on a fresh notice under Section 41A CrPC which pertained to another FIR altogether, namely, FIR No.172/2022. 

She further argued that a copy of the new FIR, i.e., FIR No. 172/2022 was never provided to the accused at the time. 

She pointed out that by the time the accused had received notice under Section 41A CrPC, the second FIR had already been registered against him. She questioned that if the police had to issue notice for both the FIRs, why did they issue notice only under one and not under the second? She argued that the police had a statutory duty to issue timely notice under the second FIR and should not have waited for the accused to first appear before them for serving said notice. 

On the point of seizure of the accused's electronic devices, Adv. Grover argued that the police had wrongly seized the accused's mobile phone, which was not even a part of the investigation conducted against him. 

She alleged that the accused had used a different phone to make the tweet, than the one he had on his person. The said phone had been snatched by a biker sometime in 2021 and the accused had also registered a Lost Article Report dated March 20, 2021 against the same. 

She argued that despite having informed the police that the phone on the accused's person was not the phone with which the contentious "hanuman-honeymoon" tweet was made, the police paid no heed to the accused. 

She further argued that despite fully cooperating in the investigation, the applicant was wrongly arrested the same day, i.e., on June 27, 2022 at 6:45 pm and produced before the Magistrate, Burari, who rejected the bail application filed by the accused. 

On the point of the contents of the tweet made by the accused, she argued that the account that had reported the tweet was an anonymous account created in 2021 under the name "hanuman Bhakt" and that reporting the said tweet of the accused by tagging Delhi Police and other authorities was the first tweet that Twitter handle had ever made. 

She also submitted that there is no further investigative purpose being served by keeping the accused in further custody and that the FIRs are intended to malign, harass and intimidate the accused. 

She argued that even otherwise, the FIRs have been filed under Section 153A and Section 295A of the IPC and that neither offences have been made out from the complaint in the FIR. 

Arguments made on behalf of the Public Prosecutor

Special Public Prosecutor, Atul Shrivastava, appearing for the Special Cell opposed the bail application of the accused on the ground of discovery of new facts against him. He argued that foreign contribution from different countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Australia, etc. have been made in favour of the company Pravda Media Foundation, in which the accused is a director. 

He argued that for the first 15 days of the investigation, the police remand can be obtained by the prosecution and therefore the bail application must be declined. 

Findings of the court 

On the point of police remand of the accused, the court found that the accused did not cooperate in the investigation. The order dated June 27 passed by the Duty Magistrate on first production of the accused before the court, notes that arguments made by Adv. Grover were also made before the Duty magistrate. However, the same were rejected on the ground that the accused refused to cooperate in the investigation. 

Similarly, since the accused remained uncooperative even thereafter, he was remanded to a further police custody for another 4 days by order dated June 28. 

The court held that the reasons for arresting the accused have been clearly set out in the case diary by the IO, which have also been perused on previous occasions by the court and found to be satisfactory.

With regard to the seizure of the laptop and mobile phone of the accused, the court held that it is clear that the mobile seized from the accused on June 27 was completely formatted and had no data on it. it was only under such circumstances and pursuant to the disclosure statement of the accused saying that he has used his mobile phone and laptop for tweeting that search warrant and police custody of the mobile phone and laptop was granted. 

While addressing Adv. Grover's contentions on the safety of the accused's data due to omission to seal the electronic devices, the court held that investigation against the accused was at a nascent stage and that his electronic devices were being analysed for evidence. Thus, the issue with respect to sealing of electronic devices couldn't be looked into at the present stage.

Moreover, the court also refused to go into the merits of the charges of FCRA violations against the accused and charges under Section 153A and 295A "Honeymoon-Hanuman" tweet made by him in 2018. 

The court also distinguished judgments cited by the accused, namely Siddharth Vashisht v State of Delhi [ILR (2002 II IL Delhi 489], Bilal Ahmed Kalu v State of Andhra Pradesh [1997(7) SCC 431], Amish Devgan v Union of India [2021 (1) SCC 1), Arnab Goswami v State of Maharashtra [2021 (2) SCC 427] and KK Girdhar v MS Kathuria decided on July 11, 1988 by the Delhi High Court, on facts and held that the principles for grant or refusal of bail is of no help to the accused as the present case is at the nascent stages of investigation and there is every likelihood that police remand of the accused would be required for carrying on further investigation of the case. 

Thus, the court held that no ground for bail was made out as the investigation in the present case is still at a nascent stage and charges against the accused are of a grave nature. Accordingly, the bail application of the accused ought to be dismissed, Court concluded. 

Case Title: State v Mohammad Zubair