The Supreme Court, while granting bail to Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair in multiple alleged hate speech cases, said that the criminal justice machinery was "relentlessly employed" against the fact-checker, adding that arrest must not be used as a "punitive tool."
"As evident from the facts narrated above, the machinery of criminal justice has been relentlessly employed against the petitioner (Zubair)," the bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud said in its 21-page judgment.
In the verdict that was issued on 20 July and subsequently uploaded on its website on Monday, 25 July, the bench, which also comprised Justices Surya Kant and AS Bopanna, said that Zubair was subjected to multiple probes across the country despite the fact that the same tweets gave rise to similar offences in the First Information Reports (FIRs).
"Consequently, he would be required to hire multiple advocates across districts, file multiple applications for bail, travel to multiple districts spanning two states for the purposes of investigation, and defend himself before multiple courts, all with respect to substantially the same alleged cause of action," the court observed.
"Resultantly, he is trapped in a vicious cycle of the criminal process where the process has itself become the punishment," it added.
Police's Power To Arrest Is Not Unbridled: SC
The apex court further said in its judgment that while the police were vested with the power to arrest people during the investigation, this power was not "unbridled."
"Arrest is not meant to be and must not be used as a punitive tool because it results in one of the gravest possible consequences emanating from criminal law: the loss of personal liberty. Individuals must not be punished solely on the basis of allegations, and without a fair trial," the court said.
The top court had delivered the verdict upon an appeal by the fact-checker to quash all FIRs filed against him in Uttar Pradesh.
The court had ordered his release on interim bail in all the cases and transferred them to the Delhi Police's Special Cell.
'Gag Orders Have Chilling Effect on Freedom of Speech'
The court also noted that criminal law and its process must not be used as a "tool of harassment."
While hearing the counsel's submission to bar Zubair from tweeting while he is on bail, the bench said that gag orders have a "chilling effect" on the fundamental right to freedom of speech.
"A blanket order directing the petitioner to not express his opinion - an opinion that he is rightfully entitled to hold as an active participating citizen - would be disproportionate to the purpose of imposing conditions on bail. The imposition of such a condition would be tantamount to a gag order against the petitioner," the court added.
In its judgment, the court had also disbanded the Special Investigation Team (SIT) created by the UP Police to probe cases against the fact-checker, who was initially arrested by the Delhi Police on 27 June on the charge of allegedly hurting religious sentiments.
During the course of his incarceration, several FIRs were lodged against him across UP, in Hathras, Sitapur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Ghaziabad, and Muzaffarnagar.