SC orders release of NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha, declares his arrest 'invalid'

ASG SV Raju, representing the ED, sought clarification on whether the declared void arrest might preclude them from exercising their rightful powers to arrest.
Prabir Purkayastha, the founder and editor-in-chief of NewsClick.
Prabir Purkayastha, the founder and editor-in-chief of NewsClick. Photo | NewsClick.in

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Wednesday declared the arrest of NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha as "invalid" in a case under the anti-terror law and directed that he be released from custody. The order was issued by a bench of Justices B R Gavai and Sandeep Mehta.

According to the FIR, the news portal allegedly received huge funds from China to "disrupt the sovereignty of India" and cause disaffection against the country.

The apex court observed that a copy of the remand application in the "purported exercise of communication" of grounds of arrest in writing was not provided to Purkayastha or his counsel before the passing of the remand order dated October 4, 2023, which "vitiates" his arrest and subsequent remand.

"As a result, the appellant is entitled to a direction for release from custody by applying the ratio of the judgement rendered by this court in the case of Pankaj Bansal (judgement)," the SC bench said in its order on Wednesday.

"Accordingly, the arrest of the appellant (Purkayastha), followed by the remand order dated and so also the impugned order passed by the High Court of Delhi, are hereby declared to be invalid in the eyes of law and are quashed and set aside," it said.

In October 2023, the Supreme Court, in the Pankaj Bansal case, firmly ruled that the grounds for arrest under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) must be provided to the accused in writing, "without any exceptions."

The court further observed that Purkayastha should be released from custody, subject to the furnishing of bonds to the trial court's satisfaction.

The bench also made it clear that none of the observations made by it shall be treated as a comment on the merits of the case.

Meanwhile, Additional Solicitor General (ASG) SV Raju, representing the ED, sought clarification on whether the declared void arrest might preclude them from exercising their rightful powers to arrest.

To this end, the court told him, "We could not say anything on that... Whatever you are permitted to do under law, you are permitted."

Purkayastha, 74, is currently lodged in Tihar jail in a case registered by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) against him under the anti-terror law UAPA (Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act) over allegations that his company had received money for Chinese propaganda.

During its previous hearing on April 30, the top court had questioned ED officials regarding its failure to notify the lawyer of Purkayastha of the agency's intention to seek his remand in a UAPA case filed against him. The court had reserved its verdict on the bail plea after hearing a detailed argument from the ED and Purkayastha's counsel.

"It is a big haste to have the remand order passed on October 4, at 6 am, without informing him (Purkayastha)," the two-judge bench had observed.

"Why did you not inform his lawyer? What was the hot haste in producing him at 6 AM? You arrested him at 5.45 PM the previous day. You had the whole day before you. Why the haste?" the top court had asked.

The top court passed these remarks after hearing the Special Leave Petition (SLP) filed by Purkayastha, seeking immediate interim bail due to seriously deteriorating health conditions.

In response, ASG Raju had said that 6 am was the time of production and not that of the order. He had maintained that the time was written by mistake by the trial court judge. "Actually, the ED produced him at 6 am at the judges residence, and we wanted to do early searches at 6:30 am. The time has been mistakenly written," he said.

Responding to the court's queries, the ED had also said that there was no requirement to give grounds for arrest under UAPA and PMLA in writing, as they had already recorded the reasons to believe in writing.

Lawyer Zoheb Hossain, appearing for the ED, said, as per the law and statute laid down in the guidelines, there was no such mandate as far as communicating and writing are concerned.

On October 3, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police had arrested the NewsClick founder and the organisation's HR head, Amit Chakraborty, after raiding around 30 locations connected with the online news portal and its journalists in a case filed under the UAPA. In April, a Delhi court had allowed Chakravarty to turn approver in the case.

According to the FIR, huge funds for the news portal allegedly came from China to "disrupt" India's sovereignty and "illegally cause disaffection" against the country.

It was also alleged that Purkayastha conspired with a group—the People's Alliance for Democracy and Secularism (PADS)—to sabotage the electoral process during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

(With additional inputs from Online Desk, Agencies.)

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