Indian journalist denied bail amid controversy over court leak

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A Delhi court on Saturday has denied the bail petition of prominent Indian journalist Mohammed Zubair and sent him to 14 days of judicial custody over a 2018 tweet for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.

A controversy erupted ahead of the court’s decision when a senior police officer declared to the media at least three hours before the judge pronounced the order that Mr. Zubair’s bail had been denied and he has been ordered to undergo two weeks of judicial remand.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) KPS Malhotra later retracted the statement when Mr. Zubair’s lawyer accused the police of leaking the order to the press.

“I had a word with my [investigating officer], I misheard it due to noise and inadvertently the message was posted in the broadcast,” said Mr. Malhotra.

Mr. Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews, was arrested by the police days after he brought international attention to controversial remarks by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party spokesperson.

Slamming the leak as “scandalous”, Mr. Zubair’s attorney Soutik Banerjee said: “We had made arguments and were waiting for the order. The judge had not sat, but I am shocked to see that DCP KPS Malhotra has leaked in the media that our bail application was rejected and 14 days’ judicial custody has been granted.”

Mr. Banerjee demanded “serious introspection” and said: “It is extremely scandalous and it speaks to the status of rule of law in our country today that even before the judicial magistrate has sat and pronounced the order, the police has leaked the order to the media.

“How KPS Malhotra knows this order is beyond me and this calls for serious introspection,” he said.

Earlier in the day, special public prosecutor Atul Srivastava informed the court of three fresh charges against Mr. Zubair, relating to allegations of receiving foreign funding, as he opposed his bail application. He argued that the police are investigating the donations that Mr. Zubair allegedly received from other countries including Pakistan and Syria.

Mr. Zubair was arrested on 27 June following a complaint by a Twitter user over a satirical tweet posted over four years ago, allegedly mocking the Hindu god Lord Hanuman.

The complaint, filed by an anonymous account going by the handle @balajikijaiin, flagged a 2018 tweet which included a screengrab from 1983 movie Kissi se Na Kehna – a hotel name earlier signboarded “honeymoon” written in Hindi changed to Hindu god, Hanuman.

A report from Indian media outlet The Wire has now linked the anonymous Twitter handle to Vikash Ahir, state president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini and co-convenor of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Mr. Zubair’s arrest led to a huge outrage from journalists and activists as it came just days after he flagged controversial and derogatory remarks made about the Prophet Muhammad by the BJP’s now-suspended spokesperson Nupur Sharma.

India faced widespread condemnation from Islamic nations and the US, prompting the BJP to issue an apology and distance itself from Ms Sharma.

Earlier in court, Mr. Zubair’s counsel Vrinda Grover moved a bail plea on the grounds that her client was no longer needed for investigation. “I am not some terrorist that they need to secure my presence,” she said on his behalf.

“We are not living in a police state. Till they demonstrate a prima facie case, if it’s made out, I’ll submit to law. But if they don’t, it’s not a police state,” she added.

Ms Grover argued that the police are now accusing her client of accepting money only because the original investigation pertaining to his tweet is a “dead end”.

“I (Zubair) am making a statement: I was not taking the money. It was the company [Alt News],” she said.

“This is to the company, not to me. It hasn’t gone into my account. I am making a categorical statement.”

The court was informed that Mr. Zubair’s phone was stolen by an unidentified individual and that the phone seized by police was not used to send out the tweet in question.

“Is it a crime to change my mobile phone or sim card? Is it a crime to reformat my phone? Or is it a crime to be clever. None of this is offence under Penal Code. If you don’t like someone, that’s okay but you can’t cast aspersion on a person of being clever”, she said.

She added that the tweet was an image of a film and that her client did not say a word. “My tweet doesn’t refer to any religion or religious group. It doesn’t say anything inciteful for any god,” she said demanding that if the prosecutors have a problem with the film, they should sue the censor board which certified it.

“If we have lost any sense of humour then even penal code will not help us.”

In response, the prosecutor quipped that “there are other movies also where there are many vulgar things. Can we upload anything we want?”

He said that the police are still probing the matter and may drop some offence or add new ones. (Source: Independent UK)

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