The Supreme Court on Monday said further hearing was required in the 2009 criminal contempt case against activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan and journalist Tarun Tejpal and adjourned the matter till 17 August, according to several media reports.
"We need to check whether statements made regarding corruption amount to contempt of court. Thus, we need to hear the matter," the Supreme Court bench said, as per Bar and Bench.
A bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra and comprising Justices BR Gavai and Krishna Murari, said that it will hear the matter and deal with the issue of whether comment on corruption against judges per se amounted to contempt or not, as per PTI.
The top court had in November 2009 issued a contempt notice to Bhushan and Tejpal for allegedly casting aspersions on some sitting and former top court judges in an interview to news magazine. Tejpal was then editor of the magazine.
On 4 August, the apex court had made clear to Bhushan and Tejpal that it would hear the case against them, if it does not accept their "explanation" or "apology" in the matter.
A bench of justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari had said that the court has not received the explanation/apology submitted by Bhushan and Tejpal and would pronounce its order on whether to accept them or not. "Explanation/apology submitted by Prashant Bhushan/Respondent No.1 and Tarun Tejpal/Respondent No.2, have not been received so far. In case we do not accept the explanation/apology, we will hear the matter. We reserve the order," the bench had said.
During the brief hearing conducted through video conferencing at 11 am, the bench told senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, appearing for Bhushan that there are freedom of speech and expression and the contempt of court.
"You have stood for freedom of speech and expression but it may be the case that you might have crossed the thin line of contempt. How do we save the grace of this system? I want to know from you as an amicus so that we can avoid this conflict. Suggest us some way out as the system also belongs to you," the bench said.
Dhavan said that late jurist Ram Jethmalani, while appearing in the case for Bhushan, had suggested something which if accepted can keep at rest the entire controversy. The bench said it does not want to curtail the freedom of speech and expression but for the contempt there is a thin line.
Justice Mishra then asked the court staff to mute the audio and make a phone call to Dhavan. The bench, which then assembled after nearly two hours, took other matters listed for the day. However, it resumed the hearing in the case at around 2.30 pm.
Later in the day, a statement was issued to media by Bhushan's office saying that the bench instead of an open court hearing in the morning spoke to the counsel for the respondents Rajeev Dhavan and Kapil Sibal over WhatsApp calls.
It said that the judges told the counsels that they wanted to put an end to the matter to protect the dignity of the court and of the judges. The statement said that the bench therefore asked the parties to issue statements tendering their apologies.
Accordingly, his office said that the statement was made by Bhushan to the apex court on 4 August. The statement said that advocate Prashant Bhushan refused to tender an apology but agreed to issue the statement.
"In my interview to Tehelka in 2009 I have used the word corruption in a wide sense meaning lack of propriety. I did not mean only financial corruption or deriving any pecuniary advantage. If what I have said caused hurt to any of them or to their families in any way, I regret the same. I unreservedly state that I support the institution of the judiciary and especially the Supreme Court of which I am a part, and had no intention to lower the prestige of the judiciary in which I have complete faith. I regret if my interview was misunderstood as doing so, that is, lower the reputation of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, which could never have been my intention at all," Bhushan's statement sent by his office read.
It added that Tejpal's statement made to the court apparently contained a conditional apology for the offense it had caused the institution of the Supreme Court, as mentioned by senior advocate Kapil Sibal appearing for Tejpal during the hearing.
Bhushan's office said that the court, however, reassembled in the afternoon and when Justice Mishra indicated that the top court may pass an order holding that any statement of corruption in the judiciary would amount to per se contempt, he was told by Dhavan, that such a finding cannot be and should not be rendered without hearing the parties.
The earlier discussion over WhatApp was only regarding whether the proceedings could be dropped in the light of the statements. Therefore Dr Dhavan told the court, if the Honourable judges wanted to render any finding on whether the interview amounted to contempt or not, they would have to hear the parties fully, on facts and law. The court thereafter reserved judgment, the statement of Bhushan's office said.
On 24 July, the top court had adjourned the hearing after senior advocates Rajeev Dhavan and Kapil Sibal representing them sought time to prepare. The matter was listed after nearly eight years and the last hearing in the matter was held on May 2012.
On 22 July, the top court had issued notice to activist-lawyer in the suo motu contempt proceedings initiated against him for his alleged derogatory tweets against the judiciary, saying his statements prima facie "brought the administration of justice in disrepute".
While referring to recent tweets by Bhushan, the apex court said these statements are 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.
With inputs from PTI