On 11 December, Monday, the Supreme Court adjourned the pleas by NewsClick founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha and its human resources head Amit Chakraborty challenging their recent arrest. This was so that a special bench could be constituted for the case.
It was during a hearing of the special leave petitions by a bench of Justices B.R. Gavai, P.S. Narasimha and Prashant Kumar Mishra. The petitions dealt with 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 pertains to reports that the news portal received Chinese funding to promote anti-national sentiments and news.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for Purkayastha, 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.
Sibal said, “Even if you accept everything, no offence is made out under the UAPA.”
The main argument, Sibal pointed out was that Purkayastha was not supplied with the grounds of arrest at the time of his arrest. Sibal said, “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.”
Sibal explained that in the Pankaj Bansal case, the Supreme Court 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.
Appearing for co-accused Chakraborty, senior advocate Siddhartha Dave echoed the submissions made by Sibal. He added that despite not being mentioned in the first information report (FIR) that named Purkayastha, Gautam Navlakha and Neville Roy Singham, Chakraborty was arrested.
Additional solicitor-general S.V. Raju, arguing against the points raised by Sibal, 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.
Meanwhile, Sibal’s request for interim bail — on grounds of health — for his client was rejected with a remark from Raju that Purkayastha was an “extended limb of Chinese espionage”.
An irate Sibal responded, “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?”
At this point, 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?” asked Mishra.
After several arguments and counter-arguments, 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.
The Delhi High Court, on the same day, 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).
On December 1, a Delhi court had extended the judicial custody of Purkayastha and Chakraborty by 21 days, to continue until 22 December.
A New York Times investigation, in August 2023, 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, the Delhi Police had said that a total of 37 male suspects were questioned at the office premises in connection with the UAPA case. Nine female suspects were questioned at their residences. Digital devices, documents, etc., were seized or collected for examination, the police said.
Purkayastha had moved the court earlier, seeking release of electronic devices seized by the police. Chakravarty had sought bail from the court.