Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) of England and Wales has come out in support of prominent human rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan who has been found guilty of committed contempt court for his two tweets regarding the institution of the Supreme Court of India and the office of the Chief Justice of India.
In his first tweet on June 27, Bhushan had said, “When historians in future look back at the last six years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction, & more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.”
Likewise, the second tweet dated June 29 commented on a viral picture that showed CJI Bobde on a Harley Davidson bike. The tweet in question read: “CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access Justice!”
In a statement issued on Tuesday, BHRC has expressed its deep concern that the Court in reaching its decision did not hold in contemplation that lawyers are entitled to, and should have, the freedom to voice publicly legitimate criticism of how justice is administered.
“Mr Bhushan’s tweets, as his affidavit in reply to the contempt attests, were part of a widespread debate and critical discussion in the legal community of how the Supreme Court of India – as the protector of the constitution and check on State power – administers justice. To stymie such criticism risks a chilling effect on appropriate and necessary debate to advance law reform in a democratic society”, the statement reads.
The statement adds that the right to freedom of expression in the context of legal process importantly preserves the principle of open justice – to allow scrutiny of proceedings to ensure proper judicial conduct and a fair trial, to enhance public confidence, to deter future offences, and to inform the public about matters in the public interest.
An independent and impartial judiciary, the statement says, is stronger when enabling open and public debate on its operations.
BHRC has also demanded that the Supreme Court enable an effective review process of the decisions of the Court to instigate contempt proceedings of its own motion and to convict Mr Bhushan of criminal contempt. It has also appealed to stay sentencing of Mr Bhushan until such review has been conducted.
Further, according to BHRC, in any event, discharge Mr Bhushan from serving any punishment for the offence, commensurate with the broader context of public debate and the right to freedom of expression and legitimate criticism that the legal profession is entitled to exercise.
BHRC has also called upon the Government of India and the Parliament of India to abolish with all due expediency the continued statutory offence of criminal contempt by scandal, preserved in section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, as a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, speech and legitimate criticism.