India’s top court on Monday ordered a prominent lawyer to pay a fine of 1 rupee (less than 2 cents) after his conviction in a highly watched criminal contempt case that sparked a debate on freedom of speech and the independence of the judiciary in the world’s largest democracy.
Prashant Bhushan, 63, was found guilty in August of criminal contempt for posting two tweets in which he criticised 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 Narendra Modi 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 September 15, he will be jailed for three months and debarred from practising law for three years.
I do not ask for mercy.
Bhushan has yet to comment.
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 (BJP) in the central city of Nagpur.
‘I do not ask for mercy’
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 apologise, but he defended himself by saying the right to free speech included the right to criticise members of the judiciary.
“I do not ask for mercy,” Bhushan told the court in his response on August 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 senior judge CS Karnan guilty of contempt and sentenced him to six months in jail. Karnan had accused judges of corruption. Many social media users pointed out that Karnan, then a sitting judge, was targeted for being a Dalit – a Hindu from the lowest rung of the faith’s caste hierarchy.
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.
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 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, one of India’s most respected public interest lawyers, has of late been an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court and has often accused it of siding with the government.
He also is a staunch critic of the Modi administration 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 removed the same year.
In recent years, Indian authorities have increasingly used criminal laws, including ones dealing with sedition and criminal defamation, against dissenters, journalists, rights activists, lawyers, academics and students.
Many have been arrested and jailed.