The Delhi Police has now accused journalist Mohammed Zubair of criminal conspiracy, causing disappearance of evidence and violating foreign funding norms, Live Law reported on Saturday.
The charges have been added to the case in which the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News had earlier been charged for hurting religious statements. The development came to light shortly before a magistrate court hearing on Zubair’s bail plea in the case.
The new charges against the journalist have been filed under Sections 120B and 201 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 35 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.
Zubair was arrested by the Delhi Police on Monday for allegedly hurting religious sentiments in a tweet he had posted in March 2018. A magistrate had initially sent him to police custody for a day. On Tuesday, Delhi’s Patiala House Court remanded him in police custody till July 2.
On Friday, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the police after Zubair challenged his police custody.
At Friday’s hearing Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had told the Delhi High Court that the filing of the FIR against Zubair was “only [the] initiation of proceedings”, Live Law reported.
“The investigating authority may receive several other docs [documents] or material or evidence which may show that no offence or very serious offence is made out which might not be in FIR,” Mehta had said, while appearing for the Delhi Police to oppose Zubair’s plea against custody.
Mehta made the submission a day after a four-member team of the Delhi Police flew Zubair to his Bengaluru home on Thursday to recover his electronic devices as part of the investigation.
Case has malafide intent, says Zubair at bail plea hearing
At the hearing of his bail plea, Zubair’s lawyer, senior advocate Vrinda Grover, told a magistrate court in Delhi that the case against the journalist had been filed with malafide intentions, Live Law reported. She argued that Zubair had already been in police custody for five days despite there not being a prima facie case against him.
“The idea was to trap me in a case which is a dead end,” Grover submitted to the court.
She pointed out that the tweet for which Zubair has been arrested was posted from his phone and there was no need for the police to seize his laptop and other electronic devices.
Responding to questions on why Zubair had formatted his phone ahead of appearing before the police, she said: “It’s a private property, I can do absolutely anything with my phone...You [police] didn’t ask me to bring my phone.”
Grover added that a case of tampering with evidence cannot be made out for formatting a private phone.
On the allegations of violation in foreign funding norms, Grover argued that the contributions referred to by the prosecution were made to Alt News, and not Zubair. The fact-checker website being registered under the Companies Act can receive foreign funding, Grover submitted.
The lawyer concluded her arguments saying: “I would humbly submit that Mohammed Zubair, a young journalist and a fact checker, a citizen who we all should be proud of, must be enlarged on bail.”
His bail order will be pronounced after lunch.
Case against Zubair
The first information report against Zubair was based on a complaint by Delhi Police Sub-Inspector Arun Kumar, who said he was monitoring social media when he came across the March 2018 tweet after a handle named Hanuman Bhakt raised objections.
The handle had taken objection to Zubair’s tweet, showing a hotel signboard with the name “Honeymoon Hotel” repainted to “Hanuman Hotel”. The journalist’s lawyer has argued in the court that the photo is a screenshot taken from a 1983 Hindi movie.
The anonymous handle had posted only one message on the microblogging site until Monday evening and had only three followers. On Wednesday morning, a message on the handle read: “This account doesn’t exist.”
However, now the handle is back online with nearly 2,000 followers.
Several press bodies have criticised Zubair’s arrest and called for his unconditional release. A spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday said that journalists anywhere in the world should not be jailed for what they write, tweet or say.