India’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of a leading Muslim journalist and fact-checker arrested last month over a 4-year-old tweet that, according to the police, “hurt religious sentiment” of Hindus.
Mohammed Zubair, a co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News and a critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, regularly tracks and highlights anti-Muslim hate speech by Hindu right-wing activists, mostly in his tweets.
Weeks before his arrest, Zubair highlighted what some interpreted as derogatory comments made by Nupur Sharma, a spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), about the Prophet Muhammad.
On Wednesday, the top court ordered that Zubair be released from jail immediately, noting that there was no justification for keeping him in custody and that “power of arrests must be pursued sparingly.”
Two hours later, Zubair walked out of New Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
Delhi police officially arrested Zubair on June 27 for his 2018 tweet. But many believe the BJP-led government targeted him because of his tweet in May about Sharma’s comments, a post that had been widely shared and had sparked strong protests against India in many Muslim countries.
After Zubair's arrest last month, police in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh filed seven new cases against him on charges that included "provocation to riot" and calling some Hindu religious leaders who practiced anti-Muslim speech “hatemongers,” among others.
On Friday, a Delhi court granted Zubair bail in the original 2018 tweet case. The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted him bail in the Uttar Pradesh cases.
The court has ordered the Uttar Pradesh police to consolidate all police cases against Zubair and transfer them to Delhi police. As Zubair has been released on bail, the court ordered that the Delhi police may continue investigations in the cases.
While granting bail, the court turned down the Uttar Pradesh government’s plea to stop Zubair from tweeting.
“We cannot ask a journalist not to write. … We cannot stop him from tweeting. We cannot anticipatorily interdict him from exercising his right of free speech,” the court said.
Zubair’s arrest reignited concerns about deteriorating journalistic freedoms in the world’s largest democracy. Soon after he was taken into custody, the hashtags #IStandWithZubair and #ReleaseZubair began trending on Twitter in India.
Global media rights groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders and human rights bodies, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned his arrest and demanded his immediate release.
Those who had expressed solidarity with Zubair after his arrest welcomed his release on bail Wednesday.
“The Press Club of India welcomes grant of bail to AltNews co-founder Muhammed Zubair by the Supreme Court today in all cases registered against him, restoring his personal liberty,” the organization tweeted.
Opposition Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra tweeted: “Stand up straight @zoo_bear [Mohammad Zubair] & continue to walk the talk. Truth always prevails.”
Zubair being granted bail is a heartening first step that “underscores the importance of the Indian judiciary as a safeguard against the abuse of state power,” said Rohit Chopra, an associate professor at Santa Clara University in the U.S. state of California.
“One hopes that the next step will be dismissing the cases against Zubair, all of which are patently absurd. These cases are clearly meant as a tool of harassment and to produce a chilling effect so that other government critics refrain from speaking up,” Chopra told VOA via email.
"Unless the Indian judiciary stands firm in defending constitutional rights and freedom of speech, there is absolutely nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again to anyone who draws the ire of the Hindu Right or the BJP government."