International Commission of Jurists urges review of criminal contempt laws after SC order on Prashant Bhushan sentencing

Prashant Bhushan speaking at a protest in New Delhi. (file photo). Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)  on Tuesday expressed its concern regarding the 31 August 2020 and 14 August 2020 decisions of the Indian Supreme Court to convict prominent human rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt of court, on the basis of two twitter posts in which the lawyer criticized the performance of the Indian judiciary.

While the Court only imposed a symbolic fine of one rupee, rather than imprisonment, the ICJ considers that the conviction appears to be inconsistent with international standards on freedom of expression and the role of lawyers.

The ICJ, an international human rights organization and a standing group of 60 eminent jurists—including senior judges, attorneys and academics, stressed that the ruling risks having a chilling effect on the exercise of protected freedom of expression in India and urged a review of the laws and standards on criminal contempt as applied by the Indian courts.

The two tweets published by Prashant Bhushan referred to the Chief Justice of India riding an expensive motorbike belonging to a BJP leader “when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice” and asserted that the Supreme Court and the last four Chief Justices of India had contributed to how, in his view, “democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency”

The Court in its 31 August judgment held that the tweets were a serious attempt to “denigrate the reputation of the institution of administration of justice” which, it said, is “capable of shaking the very edifice of the judicial administration and also shaking the faith of common man in the administration of justice.”

The Court considered that its ruling was consistent with freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, saying that it will have to balance its exercise of power to punish for contempt for itself (Article 129) with freedom of speech and expression.

The ICJ is concerned, however, that the conviction appears inconsistent with international law on freedom of expression as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19, ICCPR) to which India is a party.

While some restrictions of freedom of expression are permitted by international standards, a particularly wide scope must be preserved for debate and discussion about such matters as the role of the judiciary, access to justice, and democracy, by members of the public, including through public commentary on the courts.

Any restrictions must be strictly necessary and proportionate to meet a legitimate purpose, such as protecting public order or the rights and reputations of others.

“There is a general concern that the protection of freedom of expression is rapidly eroding in India,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ Legal and Policy Director.

“We have seen this recently around the COVID 19 crisis in relation to the imprisonment of human rights defenders, on draconian charges of sedition, rioting and unlawful assembly for protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.”

“While the Indian Supreme Court has over the years generally been an institution that has served to advance human rights in India and globally, we fear it now may be perceived as silencing criticism and freedom of expression by invoking outdated criminal contempt laws,” Seiderman added.

The ICJ joins the 1800 Indian lawyers in calling for the Supreme Court “to review the standards of criminal contempt”, emphasizing that the law is overbroad and should be aligned with international law and standards on the limited scope for restrictions on freedom of expression and criminal contempt.

“Prashant Bhushan is a lawyer and lawyers being part of the legal system have a ring-side view and understanding of the state of the court. Convicting a leading lawyer for contempt for expressing his views in this manner may have a chilling effect on lawyers, in particular considering his involvement in many public interest litigation cases,” said Mandira Sharma, ICJ South Asia Senior Legal Adviser.