India's top court lets off lawyer who criticized judiciary

NEW DELHI — In a surprise ruling Monday, India’s top court ordered a prominent lawyer only to pay a fine of 1 rupee (less than 2 cents) after his conviction in a highly watched criminal contempt case sparked a debate on freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy and the independence of its judiciary.

Prashant Bhushan, 63, was found guilty in August of criminal contempt for posting two tweets in which he criticized the Supreme Court’s chief justice and said the courts had played a role in “how democracy has been destroyed in India” since Prime Minister took office in 2014.

Bhushan could have faced a jail term of six months. The judges said if he fails to pay the 1 rupee fine by Sept. 15, he’ll be jailed for three months and debarred from practicing law for three years.

Bhushan agreed to pay the fine but said he will pursue the course of legal review against his conviction order. “The case has inspired several citizens to raise their voice against injustice,” he told reporters.

In June, Bhushan tweeted a photograph of the chief justice posing on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle without a face mask or a helmet and accused him of “denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice” while the court’s work was curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The motorcycle belonged to the son of a local leader from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the central city of Nagpur.

During the hearing in early August, the court said Bhushan’s tweets threatened “to shake the confidence of the public” and chided him for a “calculated attack on the very foundation of the institution of the judiciary.”

Before handing down the verdict, he was given a chance by the court to apologize, but he defended himself by saying the right to free speech included the right to criticize members of the judiciary.

“I do not ask for mercy,” Bhushan told the court in his response on Aug. 20. He said the tweets — since taken down by Twitter — represented his “bona fide beliefs.”

The Supreme Court said last week that Bhushan’s response was “even more derogatory” than the tweets themselves.

In 2017, the court found a senior judge guilty of contempt and sentenced him to six months in jail.

Bhushan’s conviction led to sharp criticism from former judges, senior lawyers, opposition politicians and civil rights groups, many of whom called the verdict a setback that could erode the credibility of the judiciary.

“The Supreme Court of India’s decisions affect the lives of millions of Indians,” said Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy. “For it to place itself above criticism by resorting to the archaic, colonial contempt of court law as it is doing in the Prashant Bhushan case strikes a blow to the very heart of free speech. The law ought to be rescinded.”

In 2002, Roy was sentenced to one day in jail after being found guilty of criminal contempt of court, a charge she denied.

Bhushan, India’s most respected public interest lawyer, has of late been an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court and has often accused it of siding with the government. He also has been one of the Modi administration’s staunchest critics and has filed multiple public interest lawsuits against the government, seeking more transparency and accountability.

A champion of public interest litigation, Bhushan had also filed several corruption cases against the current main opposition Congress party, which led the country from 2004 and 2014. He also was a core founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party, which has governed in the capital, New Delhi, since 2015, and from which he was unceremoniously ousted the same year.

In recent years, Indian authorities have increasingly used criminal laws, including ones regarding sedition and criminal defamation, against dissenters, journalists, rights activists, lawyers, academics and students. Many people have been arrested and jailed.

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