Five days after Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair was arrested by the Delhi Police over a 2018 tweet, charges pertaining to “criminal conspiracy” and “disappearance of evidence” were added against him.
Apart from this, the Delhi Police has also added section 35 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, in the FIR against Zubair, said DCP (IFSO) KPS Malhotra.
About the “disappearance of evidence” accusation, a senior Delhi Police officer claimed that “Zubair did not carry his ‘main’ phone for the interrogation on 27 June.” It is pertinent to note that the 27 June interrogation was in relation to another case, and not this one about the 2018 tweet.
The senior Delhi Police officer told The Quint, “The phone Zubair carried with him was formatted. That’s destruction of evidence.”
The Quint’s Legal Editor, Vakasha Sachdev, however, said, “A person can't be told to keep all their data at all times just because the police might want to look at something in the future. Until and unless the police can point to a specific file which was relevant evidence to a specific crime, they cannot just term formatting of a phone as destruction of evidence."
He added, "With regard to the original offences Zubair has been booked under, the formatting of his phone would in any case be irrelevant, as the original tweet, or even other tweets, have not been denied by him, and can be viewed on any device.”
What's The Case About?
The contentious 2018 tweet for which Zubair has been booked carried a picture of the signboard of a hotel visibly changed from 'Honeymoon Hotel' to 'Hanuman Hotel'. It is accompanied by the text: “BEFORE 2014: Honeymoon Hotel. After 2014: Hanuman Hotel”. A Twitter user, @balajikijaiin, had tagged the Delhi Police.
At the time of publication of this piece, a Delhi court judge was yet to pronounce his order on the bail hearing of Zubair.
As per Live Law India, at the hearing, special public prosecutor Atul Srivastava claimed that Zubair came to the office of the Special Cell (of the Delhi Police) with a phone.
"When it was analysed, it was found that prior to that day, he had been using another sim. When he received notice, he took out the sim and put it in a new mobile. Please see how clever this person is.”
As per Live Law India, advocate Vrinda Grover, who represents Zubair, said in court, “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 an offence under the Penal Code.”
On behalf of Zubair, advocate Grover added, “I was told that I formatted the phone. It’s a private property, I can do absolutely anything with my phone. You didn’t ask me to bring my phone.”
It’s pertinent to note that Zubair’s 2018 tweet is on his timeline and has not been deleted. “Threads of such tweets would be prepared and pre-planned. They were sent out to people in advance. By probing his electronic devices, we want to know who are the other people involved,” a senior Delhi Police officer made this claim to The Quint.
The Quint’s Legal Editor, however, said, “Even if the tweets were pre-planned and discussed with others, the police have to be able to show some sort of public order disturbance as a result of Zubair's tweets, otherwise this is well within the right to freedom of speech as well as the right to privacy."
"When there has been no such impact on public order, there is no question of looking to see who Zubair has been speaking to. If we go by the Delhi Police's argument, then any person can be randomly stopped on the street and their device examined in connection with any tweet or social media post, regardless of any connection to a crime,” he added.
Section 35 of the FCRA Added to FIR
The Delhi Police has also added section 35 of the FCRA in the FIR, confirmed DCP Malhotra.
He claimed that an “analysis of the reply received from Razorpay payment gateway revealed that there are various transactions, in which the either the mobile phone number is of outside India or the IP address is of foreign countries and cities including Bangkok, Australia, North Holland, Singapore, Victoria, New York, England, Riyadh region, Sharjah, Stockholm, Abu Dhabi, and Washington, among others.”
DCP Malhotra alleged that Rs 2,31,933 have been received by Pravda Media – the parent company of Alt News.
As per Live Law India, at the bail hearing, advocate Grover who represents Zubair, said, “Alt News runs a company under section 8. They are saying I am a journalist; I cannot receive FCRA. This is to the company, not to me.”
(With inputs from LiveLaw.)