Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, held guilty of contempt for his tweets criticising Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and the Supreme Court, has been fined Re 1 by the top court. If he doesn't pay the fine by September 15, he can face jail for three months and a ban from practicing in the Supreme Court for three years.
"Freedom of speech cannot be curtailed," said the Supreme Court while handing down the sentence, referring to "sane advice" from Attorney General KK Venugopal to the court and to Prashant Bhushan.
Prashant Bhushan, photographed holding up a Re 1 coin, announced at a press conference: "I propose to submit to the order and respectfully pay the fine."
He said he had always believed the Supreme Court is the "last bastion of hope for the weak and oppressed" and that he never intended to hurt the judiciary, but wanted to express his anguish on a "deviation from its record".
The Supreme Court, which had asked for an unconditional apology from the lawyer, noted, "We gave several opportunities and encouragement to (Prashant Bhushan) to express regret. He not only gave wide publicity to the second statement but also gave various interviews to press."
The court was apparently referring to Prashant Bhushan's statement refusing to retract his comments or apologise, saying he considered it the discharge of his "highest duty" and apologising would be contempt of his conscience and the court. Mr Bhushan had also said that open criticism was necessary to "safeguard the democracy and its values."
The statement "was to influence independent Judicial function," the Supreme Court said, adding that while freedom of expression was important, rights of others should also be respected.
The court also referred to the unprecedented press conference by four Supreme Court judges on January 12, 2018, which Mr Bhushan had cited to argue that even judges had gone public with their criticism of the court.
"We hope it was the first and the last occasion that judges have gone to the press, and God gives wisdom to protect its dignity by an internal mechanism. Particularly when allegations made, if any, publicly cannot be met by sufferer judges," the Supreme Court said.
Soon after the ruling, Mr Bhushan had tweeted: "My lawyer and senior colleague Rajiv Dhavan contributed 1 Re immediately after the contempt judgement today which I gratefully accepted." He also said it was "heartening to see this case has become a watershed moment for freedom of speech".
My lawyer & senior colleague Rajiv Dhavan contributed 1 Re immediately after the contempt judgement today which I gratefully accepted pic.twitter.com/vVXmzPe4ss— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) August 31, 2020
In the last hearing, Attorney General KK Venugopal had suggested that Mr Bhushan be pardoned with a warning. "Bhushan's tweets seek the improvement of the administration of justice... Let democracy follow in this case when he has exercised his free speech... It will be tremendously appreciated if the court leaves it at that," he had said.
Mr Bhushan's counsel Rajiv Dhavan had argued that top court's order giving him time for an unconditional apology, was "an exercise in coercion". Mr Dhavan had urged the top court to show "judicial statesmanship" and not make Mr Bhushan a "martyr" by punishing him for contempt over the tweets.
In one of the tweets, Mr Bhushan had said four previous Chief Justices of India played a role in destroying democracy in India in the last six years. Another tweet reacting to a photo of Chief Justice Bobde on a Harley Davidson last month had flagged that he was without a helmet and face mask while keeping the court in lockdown and denying citizens their right to justice.
The Supreme Court had said during arguments that freedom of speech is not absolute. "You may do hundreds of good things, but that doesn't give you a license to do ten crimes," the court had said.
Mr Bhushan has already expressed regret in another contempt case involving his comment that half the 16 Chief Justices of India were corrupt, in an interview to Tehelka magazine in 2009. The word corruption, he told the court, was used in "wide sense meaning lack of propriety" and not financial corruption. The Supreme Court says it wants to explore whether corruption charges can be made against sitting and retired judges and the procedure to deal with it.