In a criminal defamation case, Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years in prison.
The Gujarat state court convicted the Congress MP for remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surname at an election rally in 2019.
Mr Gandhi, who was present in court for the sentencing, is out on bail for 30 days and plans to appeal.
His party claimed he was targeted because he exposed the government’s “dark deeds.” Elections are due next year.
A spokesman for Congress said the ruling was full of “legally unsustainable conclusions,” but that the party’s politicians would not be silenced.
“Make no mistake: all your efforts to create a chilling, throttling, strangulating effect on open fearless speech relating to public influence will not deter Rahul Gandhi or the Congress Party,” Abhishek Manu Singhvi said at a news conference.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims that due judicial process was followed in the case, which dates back to the election campaign.
Mr Gandhi had said at a rally in Karnataka state in April 2019: “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.”
Nirav Modi is a wanted Indian diamond tycoon, while Lalit Modi is a former Indian Premier League commissioner who was banned for life by the country’s cricket board. Mr Gandhi claims that he made the remark to highlight corruption and that it was not directed at any particular community.
Supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they attend an election campaign rally addressed by Modi in Moran, Assam, India, on March 30, 2019.
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Mr Modi won by a landslide the last time around; here, BJP supporters are seen wearing masks of him in preparation for the 2019 election.
Other opposition politicians and organizations that have been deemed critical of India’s government have also been sued.
The Aam Admi Party (AAP), which rules Delhi, has two leaders in jail on politically motivated charges, and its leaders have expressed support for Mr Gandhi.
“We disagree with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this,” Arvind Kejriwal tweeted, adding that “it is the public’s and the opposition’s job to ask questions.”
Purnesh Modi, a BJP lawmaker who claimed Rahul Gandhi’s comments had defamed the entire Modi community, filed the case against him.
However, some experts were perplexed by the court’s decision in Surat, tweeting that “references to a generic class of persons” – surnames in this case – are not “actionable unless an individual can show a direct reference to themselves.”
“If a man says, ‘all lawyers are thieves,’ I, as a lawyer, cannot file a case against him for defamation unless I can show that it is directed at me,” Mr Bhatia explained.
Mr Gandhi’s lawyer, Kirit Panwala, told BBC Gujarati that their defense was based on four points: “First, Mr Gandhi is not a resident of Gujarat, so an inquiry should be conducted before the complaint.” Second, there is no Modi community. Third, there is no association of people with the surname Modi, and finally, there was no malice in Mr Gandhi’s speech.”
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India’s criminal defamation law is British-era legislation that allows for a maximum prison sentence of two years, a fine, or both, and free speech advocates have frequently argued that the law violates free speech principles and is used by politicians to silence their critics.
In 2016, some top Indian politicians, including Mr Gandhi, filed legal petitions to have defamation decriminalized, but India’s Supreme Court upheld the law’s validity, saying the “right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other.”
Following the conviction, some have questioned Mr Gandhi’s status as a member of parliament.
In India, defamation cannot be used to disqualify an MP. An MP can be disqualified for offenses ranging from promoting enmity to election-related fraud, but they can also be disqualified if sentenced for two years or more for an offense.
Mr Gandhi would be unable to run in the 2024 general election if he was sentenced to two years in prison.
“What they will do is go to the top court, which will stay the judgement,” a political commentator who requested anonymity says. “But the question is: does this judgement mean that there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over any leader?” Cases have been filed against leaders for a variety of alleged crimes. In most cases, nothing happens.”