The top court said that Kappan will be granted bail, recognising “every person has the right to free expression”.
A journalist from the southern Indian state of Kerala, Kappan, 42, was arrested on 5 October 2020 by Uttar Pradesh police, along with three other men while he was on his way to Hathras in Uttar Pradesh from Delhi to report the gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by upper-caste men.
The victim of the Hathras gang-rape succumbed to her injuries two days later in hospital and was forcefully cremated in the middle of the night in an incident that made international and national headlines.
Kappan was charged with the colonial-era sedition law and the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act after Uttar Pradesh police accused him of criminal conspiracy and funding terror activities.
Kappan’s wife Raihana Kappan, who has been fighting for her husband’s release, told the media in Delhi that she was very happy with the decision, and maintained that the journalist was innocent.
“I express my gratitude towards the Supreme Court. He is innocent and has been lodged in jail for the last two years. Now, the Supreme Court has realised the hollowness of the case against him,” she said.
Announcing his release on bail on Friday’s hearing, chief justice UU Lalit and justice S Ravindra Bhat ruled that Kappan will have to stay in Delhi for the next six weeks and mark his presence at a local police station every week and then he would be allowed to return to his home in Kerala.
Kappan moved the Supreme Court after the Allahabad High Court denied bail to him on 2 August, saying he had no work in Hathras.
In his petition to the apex court, the journalist said he was arrested by Uttar Pradesh police on “trumped up” charges.
His petition added that his detention of nearly two years in jail also raised questions pertaining to the right to liberty, as well as the freedom of expression and speech vested in independent media under the Constitution.
Kappan’s family has alleged that he was “dragged and beaten with sticks on thighs, slapped on face” and raised concerns over his health, claiming that he was denied medication for diabetes. At the time of his arrest, the family said he was “forced to stay awake from 6pm to 6am on the pretext of questioning and subjected to serious mental torture”.
His wife told The Independent last year that their defence team was not given the full list of charges and their lawyer was not allowed to talk to him for the first one and a half months of his incarceration.
“Even the lawyer was not allowed to talk to him. I did not know if he was dead or alive,” she said last year.
Arguing against his release during Friday’s hearing, senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, representing Uttar Pradesh government, said Kappan was funded by the Popular Front of India (PFI) - a Kerala-based hardline Muslim organisation - to incite riots.
“On October 5, they had decided to go to Hathras to incite riots. He was funded with Rs 45,000 to create riots,” he said in courts. “He claimed to be accredited to a newspaper. But we have found that he was accredited to the official organization of PFI”.
He also said Kappan and his co-accused were going “distribute literature among the Dalit population” — the literature he cited as evidence, saying, it was a toolkit on how to incite riots.
“Every person has the right to free expression. He is trying to show that victim needs justice and raise a common voice. Is that a crime in eyes of law?” the chief justice asked in response.
Critics say Kappan’s is the latest in the long list of arrests of the country’s best known activists, intellectuals and journalists that has led to India’s plummeting ranking in the World Press Freedom Index.
According to the latest report by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, India’s ranking has fallen to 150th from last year’s 14. The organisation said the “pressure had grown on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line” and “journalists that don’t do so are arrested and jailed”.
Several prominent people on social media celebrated the Supreme Court order with comments such as “truth prevails” and “tears of joy”, but lamented that he had to spend two years in jail.
Mahua Moitra, a member of parliament, said: “Siddique Kappan granted bail by SC. Every person has right to free expression- trying to show victim needs justice & raise common voice. Will this be crime in eyes of law? - Supreme Court. Truth prevails.”
“Siddique Kappan granted bail by the Supreme court. He spent two years in jail for a story he did not even write. Tears of joy, literally. You are a fighter, Brother!” wrote journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani.
Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said: “The man who should never have been charged and certainly not arrested, has finally got bail in the country where the process is the punishment.”