Dignitaries urge SC to reconsider decision to start contempt proceedings against Bhushan

New Delhi, Jul 27 (PTI) Over 130 dignitaries, including former apex court judge Justice M B Lokur and renowned writer Arundhati Roy, urged the Supreme Court on Monday to 'reconsider' and 'withdraw' its decision to 'initiate suo-motu contempt proceedings' against activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan.

The top court had on July  22 issued show cause notice to Bhushan on the contempt proceedings initiated against him for his two allegedly “derogatory tweets against the judiciary”. It had also sought the assistance of Attorney General K K Venugopal in the case.

Former judges, retired senior government officials, politicians, former ambassadors and activists have issued a statement expressed solidarity with the activist-lawyer, saying that “initiation of contempt proceedings against Bhushan who had articulated some...concerns in his tweets, appears to be an attempt at stifling such criticism”.

'In the interest of justice and fairness and to maintain the dignity of the Supreme Court of India, we urge the Court to reconsider its decision to initiate suo-motu contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan and to withdraw the same at the earliest,' the statement said.  Besides Justice Lokur and Roy, the statement has been signed by the likes of former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Ramdas, CPI General Secretary, D Raja, social activist Harsh Mander and journalist P Sainath.

It said that Bhushan “has been a relentless crusader for the rights of the weakest sections of our society and has spent his career in pro bono legal service to those who do not have ready access to justice'.

“In the past few years, serious questions have been raised about the reluctance of the Supreme Court to play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights of people by the state.  “These questions have been raised by all sections of society -- media, academics, civil society organisations, members of the legal fraternity and even by sitting and retired judges of the Supreme Court itself,” the statement said.

It said that most recently, the apex court's reluctance to intervene in a timely manner to avert the migrant crisis during the lockdown came under intense public scrutiny.  Concerns have also been raised regarding the decision of the court not to restart physical hearings, even in a limited manner, despite passage of five months since the onset of the COVID pandemic, it said.

The signatories urged the judges of the Supreme Court to take note of these concerns and engage with the public “in an open and transparent manner”.  “The initiation of contempt proceedings against Bhushan who had articulated some of these concerns in his tweets, appears to be an attempt at stifling such criticism, not just by him but by all stakeholders in the Indian democratic and constitutional setup.  “We believe the institution must address these genuine concerns,” the statement said.

An institution as important as the Supreme Court of a country “must be open to public discussion without the fear of retribution or action of criminal contempt”, it said.

“Indeed, criminal contempt as an offence has been circumscribed and made redundant in most functioning democracies, such as the USA and the UK,” the signatories said.

The statement added that “even in India, the principle that criticism of the judiciary should not be stifled by the indiscriminate use of the power of contempt has been recognized by the Supreme Court as well as by academics and advocates of repute...” While referring to recent tweets by Bhushan, the apex court on July 22 said these statements were prima facie capable of 'undermining the dignity and authority' of the institution of the Supreme Court in general and the office of Chief Justice of India in particular, in the eyes of public at large.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, which took suo motu (on its own) cognisance in the matter, also issued notice to Attorney General K K Venugopal seeking his assistance.

The bench referred to one of the tweets 'made against the CJI'. It also referred to another tweet by Bhushan on June 27.

Bhushan has been raising issues pertaining to judiciary and recently he was critical of the way in which the top court handled the matters related to migrant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. PTI UK SJK SA

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