‘NewsClick’ founder and editor Prabir Purkayastha walked out of jail on Wednesday evening, as friends and family cheered around him.

Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court ordered Purkayastha’s release, stating that his arrest in an Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) case was invalid, as its grounds were not supplied to him or his counsel in writing before his remand.

A bench of Justices B. R. Gavai and Sandeep Mehta directed that Purkayastha be released from custody on furnishing bail bond to the satisfaction of the trial court. However, the Apex Court clarified that the order should not be read as comments on the case’s merits.

The Supreme Court while quashing the arrest and remand order of Purkayastha also said that ‘grounds of arrest’ should be provided to the accused in writing by the law enforcement agencies and not just the ‘reasons of arrest’ given through the arrest memo.

“From the detailed analysis made… there is no hesitation in the mind of the court to reach to a conclusion that the copy of the remand application in the purported exercise of the communication of the grounds of arrest in writing was not provided to the accused appellant or his counsel before the passing the order of remand dated October 4, 2023, which vitiates the arrest and subsequent remand, of the appellant,” the court order read.

The Bench added, “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. Accordingly, the arrest of the appellant followed by the remand order…, and so also the impugned order… passed by the High Court of Delhi, are declared to be invalid in the eyes of law and are quashed and set aside.”

Addressing the media outside the Rohini Jail, Purkayastha said that it is going to be a long fight.

“I am not going to say much. I am happy to be out and I am really happy with the solidarity I have received with all the people and the people in the struggle in various parts of the country. This is going to be a long fight. And we will fight in courts as much as we are able to,” Purkayastha said.

Purkayastha and the news website’s human resources (HR) head Amit Chakraborty were arrested in October last year by the Delhi Police Special Cell and sent to judicial custody in November.

This was after a report in the ‘The New York Times’ said that ‘NewsClick’ got money from United States resident, billionaire Neville Roy Singham, who is accused of spreading Chinese propaganda in India and abroad. Chakraborty became an approver in the case in January. The Delhi Police filed a chargesheet in the case in a Delhi court in March.

Speaking to The Citizen, a former NewsClick employee on the condition of anonymity said that while they are happy on Purkayastha’s release this is in no way a win for the press. “From a false case to languishing in jail without a trial, this is not a win for the press freedom. Also, there are so many people inside the jail who have seen similar fate. While the judiciary did its work and we have no option but to have faith in it, the injustice all the political prisoners are going through is outrageous,” they said.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) S. V. Raju, who argued in favour of the police, said while Purkayastha's arrest has been declared void, it may not stop them from exercising their correct powers to arrest.

Justice Gavai replied, "Whatever you are permitted to do under the law, you are permitted."

The Supreme Court had on April 30 questioned the Delhi Police for hastily producing Purkayastha before the magistrate without informing his lawyer after his arrest. The top court had also found it surprising that the remand order was passed even before his lawyer received his remand application.

Senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, appearing for Purkayastha, said he was arrested on October 3 and produced before the magistrate at 6 am the next day.

“Only legal aid lawyers and the additional public prosecutor were present, and Purkayastha's lawyer was not informed. When Purkayastha objected to this, the investigating officer informed his lawyer through telephone and the remand application was sent to him on WhatsApp,” Sibal said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 14, lifted the stay on the bail granted to rights activist Gautam Navlakha, who was arrested in the Elgar Parishad case. The Bombay high court had granted Navlakha bail on December 19 last year, but the court had then agreed to a three-week stay on its decision in which the National Investigation Agency (NIA) could approach the Supreme Court.

Navlakha was arrested on April 14, 2020. Since November 19, 2022, he has been under house arrest in Mumbai.

On Tuesday, the bench of Justices M. M. Sundresh and S. V. N. Bhatti stated that there was no reason to extend the stay further, since others in the case too have been granted bail and Navlakha has been incarcerated for four years now. It said that Navlakha must deposit Rs 20 lakh as security cover for the house arrest costs, and that would be a precondition for his bail, ‘LiveLaw’ reported.

“We are inclined to not extend the stay as High Court order is detailed in granting bail. Trial would take years and years and years for completion. Without going at length into contentions, we will not extend the stay,” ‘Bar and Bench’ quoted the court as saying.

The NIA has sought to retrieve the “cost” of the security cover Navlakha’s house arrest from him, and has now quoted a figure of more than Rs 1.7 crore. The court had earlier said that the accused was liable to pay the cost.

Senior Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, appearing for Navlakha, has challenged the amount the NIA is quoting, and said it is “unsustainable”. Ramakrishnan said that house arrest is not a luxury, nor was it granted as a favour and was “an alternative form” of custody.

Navlakha was ordered to be placed under house arrest in light of his age, deteriorating health, and other factors consistent with the law on house arrest laid down by the Supreme Court. Ramakrishnan submitted that the jurisprudence on house arrest in India is yet at a nascent stage, and such questions as to costs require further consideration.

She also drew the court’s attention to the fact that the dues claimed run contrary to the guidelines for police protection issued by the Government of Maharashtra, which place a cap on the quantum of fees, if any, which can be claimed.

In another important case, Kashmiri journalist Asif Sultan was granted bail by a special court in Srinagar in connection with a five-year-old case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Sultan was arrested in the case on February 29, two days after he was released from detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA).

The case pertained to an incident of rioting at Srinagar’s Central Jail in 2019, when a group of inmates allegedly set fire to a few barracks and threw stones at the prison staff.

The PSA allows authorities to hold individuals in custody without trial for up to two years, on grounds of national security and up to a year to maintain public order.

In its order on May 10, the special court under the National Investigation Act in Srinagar said that the police were given sufficient time of 72 days to interrogate Sultan in custody.

“The accused/applicant was already under PSA [Public Safety Act till February 2024,” said the court. “Further, it has not been brought to the notice of this court that the conduct of accused person/applicant in judicial custody is such that does not warrant the release on bail. The further detention of the accused person/applicant in the custody shall not serve any purpose.”

Judge Sandeep Gandotra also said that the chances of Sultan fleeing Jammu and Kashmir are remote as he is a permanent resident of the Union Territory. The court granted him bail and directed him to furnish a bail bond worth Rs 1 lakh.

Sultan, India’s longest imprisoned journalist, was first arrested under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in 2018 on charges of “harboring known militants” after he published a story about a slain Kashmiri militant.

He was granted bail in 2022 but authorities held him at a police station for five days before rearresting him under preventive custody. In December, a court quashed that second case and he was freed in February, only to be rearrested hours after he returned home on a prison riot charge.

The release of three journalists come at a time when India’s press freedom has slipped down significantly and has been criticised by foreign civil and journalist society.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American independent non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom on Wednesday welcomed Indian court decisions to grant bail to journalists Aasif Sultan, Gautam Navlakha, and Prabir Purkayastha and called on the authorities to drop charges against them.

“The Indian courts’ decisions to grant bail to journalists Aasif Sultan, Gautam Navlakha, and Prabir Purkayastha are welcome news. We urge the Indian authorities to respect the judicial orders and immediately free these journalists, who should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” CPJ India Representative Kunāl Majumder said.

“In all three cases, we have observed how authorities have tried to keep these journalists behind bars at all costs, particularly Sultan who has been arbitrarily detained for almost six years in a cycle of release and re-arrest. The Indian government must not target journalists for their critical reporting,” he added.

There are still many journalists, academicians and civil society members in jail who are awaiting justice from the court. This includes journalists like Rupesh Kumar from Jharkhand, who has been in jail since July 17 after he was arrested in connection with another case filed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA] as well as various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).