NewsClick case: SC adjourns bail plea of founder Prabir Purkayastha, HR head

Purkayastha's lawyer Kapil Sibal argued that the UAPA offence was an untenable charge

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha (photo: NewsClick/ Facebook)
NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha (photo: NewsClick/ Facebook)

NH Digital

The Supreme Court on Monday, 11 December, adjourned the pleas by NewsClick founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha and its human resources head Amit Chakraborty challenging their recent arrest, so that a special bench could be constituted for the case.

A bench of justices B.R. Gavai, P.S. Narasimha and Prashant Kumar Mishra was hearing the special leave petitions countering a decision of the Delhi High Court which upheld their arrest by the Delhi Police in the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) case.

The allegation is that the news portal received Chinese funding to promote anti-national sentiments and news.

Appearing for Purkayastha, senior advocate Kapil Sibal questioned the legality of the arrest and pointed out that it was not tenable to charge Purkayastha of allegedly committing offences under Sections 13, 16, 17, 18, and 22 of the UAPA, in addition to the charges under Sections 153A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code that were levelled against him.

“Even if you accept everything, no offence is made out under the UAPA,” argued Sibal.

Sibal reiterated that the main argument was that Purkayastha was not supplied with the grounds of arrest at the time of his arrest. “The family members were also informed about the arrest. In the counter-affidavit of the state, it is submitted that the law does not require the grounds or time of arrest to be mentioned in the remand application,” said Sibal.

He explained that the Supreme Court in the Pankaj Bansal case had quashed his arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, because the grounds for arrest were not provided in writing to the person being arrested.

Senior advocate Siddhartha Dave, appearing for co-accused Chakraborty, echoed the submissions made by Sibal and added that Chakraborty was arrested despite not being mentioned in the first information report (FIR) that named Purkayastha, Gautam Navlakha and Neville Roy Singham.

Arguing against the points raised by Sibal, additional solicitor-general S.V. Raju said that the Pankaj Bansal ruling would not apply in this case as that arrest was made under the provisions of the PMLA and similar provisions do not exist under the UAPA.

Sibal's request for interim bail for his client, on grounds of his advanced age and medical conditions, was rejected, with a remark from Raju that Purkayastha was an "extended limb of Chinese espionage".

This drew Sibal's ire, with him responding, "Because the Chinese have allegedly invested in the company, they are being proceeded against under the UAPA. The Chinese have also invested in public authorities. Should UAPA charges be initiated against them? How can he say these things?”

Justice Mishra intervened to defend the law officer bringing up the allegation regarding Chinese funding and espionage. “It is there in the allegations. The facts of the case cannot be totally ignored. How can we say that you can't mention it?” said Mishra. 

Sibal then said he would argue on the merits of the case. "If you want me to argue on merits, I will. An intervention of this nature is very unfortunate in response to a medical bail plea," said Sibal. "The man is 75 years old; he has had multiple episodes while in jail. He is an asthma patient."

Raju claimed that it had become a 'fashion' for everyone to claim illness and get bail, and added that Purkayastha would get the best medical facilities while in jail. 

Countering Raju, Sibal pointed out that Purkayastha was not even medically examined once in jail. "Impose whatever conditions you want. What is the problem caused if he is released on bail?" said Sibal. 

Finally, Justice Gavai adjourned the case, stating that this was not a routine case for the current bench and so he would request the chief justice of India to constitute a bench for this case.   

On the same day, the Delhi High Court dismissed a plea by news website NewsClick seeking a stay on the income tax demand, citing pendency of its appeal before the commissioner of income tax (appeals).

A two-judge bench of Acting Chief Justice Manmohan and Justice Mini Pushkarna said the website has not been able to make out a prima facie case in its favour, and added that the petitioner has “a lot to answer” in the hearing of the appeal before the IT officials.

“In the current case, the assessing officer has given several cogent findings against the petitioner. In fact, the assessing officer—after analysing relevant facts—has virtually held that the transaction between the petitioner and the foreign entity was based on ‘reverse engineering’,” said the bench in an order passed on 29 November and made available on the court’s website on Monday night, 11 December.

A Delhi court had on 1 December extended the judicial custody of Purkayastha and Chakraborty by 21 days, to continue until 22 December. 

In August, a New York Times investigation had claimed that NewsClick was funded by a network linked to US millionaire Neville Roy Singham, in order to allegedly promote Chinese propaganda.

On 3 October, in a statement regarding the search, seizure and detentions carried out in connection with the UAPA case registered by its special cell, the Delhi Police had said that a total of 37 male suspects were questioned at the office premises, while nine female suspects were questioned at their residences. The police said digital devices, documents, etc., were seized or collected for examination.

Both Purkayastha and Chakravarty had moved the court earlier, seeking release of electronic devices seized by the police and bail, respectively. 

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