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Prashant Bhushan held guilty of contempt for tweets against CJI

Prashant Bhushan. File photo.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court on Friday found civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt by ‘scandalising the court’.

It said his tweet on a photograph of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad A. Bobde astride a bike and another on the court’s role in the past six years scandalised the Supreme Court as an institution.

The tweets had the effect of attempting to destabilise Indian democracy. Such malice should be dealt with an iron hand in the larger public interest. The magnanimity of courts should not extend to weakness, the top court said in its 108-page judgment.

The Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra said when a “scheme” was on to damage public confidence in the judiciary, those interested in fearless justice should stand firmly. The court could not ignore the disrespect and disaffection created by the “scurrilous” tweets.

The Bench fixed the sentence hearing on August 20. The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 punishes with imprisonment that may extend to six months or fine of ₹ 2,000 or both.

The judgment said punishing a lawyer was an extreme measure but nevertheless necessary to keep the “streams of justice pure, serene and undefiled”. Judiciary was the central pillar of Indian democracy. It was the duty of the court to punish to preserve its dignity, the judgment emphasised.

“If such an attack is not dealt with requisite degree of firmness, it may affect the national honour and prestige in the comity of nations,” the judgment written by Justice B.R. Gavai pointed out.

Defence dismissed

The Bench, also comprising Justice Krishna Murari, dismissed Mr. Bhushan’s defence that criticism was not contempt. Mr. Bhushan termed the tweets as expressions of his anguish that “everything is not hunky-dory”.

“Critics are instruments of reform, but not those actuated by malice but those who are inspired by public weal... Hostile criticism of judges as judges or judiciary would amount to scandalising the court,” Justice Gavai differed with the senior lawyer.

The court said Mr. Bhushan’s tweet gave an impression that “the CJI is enjoying his ride on a motorbike worth ₹50 lakh belonging to a BJP leader, at a time when he has kept the Supreme Court in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice. The court said the tweet was a “wild allegation” based on “distorted facts”. It was scandalous.

The court acknowledged that its contempt powers could be used only to uphold the majesty of law and not to vindicate an individual judge.

However, it reasoned that “any caricature of a judge calculated to lower the dignity of the court would destroy, undermine or tend to undermine public confidence in the administration of justice”. A defamatory publication concerning “the judge is a serious impediment to justice”.

The court said the second tweet gave the impression that the Supreme Court and four Chief Justices in the past six years played a vital role in what Mr. Bhushan termed the “destruction of democracy”.

“The Supreme Court is the epitome of the Indian judiciary. An attack on the Supreme Court does not only have the effect of tending an ordinary litigant of losing the confidence in the Supreme Court but also may tend to lose the confidence in the mind of other judges in the country in its highest court,” Justice Gavai observed.

The judgment said contempt, if not criminal contempt, was attracted if free speech was used to scandalise judges and the institution of administration of justice or undermine the authority or dignity of the Supreme Court or to shake public confidence in the judiciary.

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 8:13:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/prashant-bhushan-held-guilty-of-contempt-for-tweets-against-cji/article32351999.ece

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