The rule of law and judicial independence are the cornerstone of a democracy, a top United States official said on Monday, when asked to comment on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in a defamation case

“We are watching Mr Gandhi’s case in Indian courts and we engage with the government of India on our shared commitment to democratic values, including, freedom of expression,” Department of State deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters at a news conference.

Gandhi, who was the MP from Wayanad, was disqualified as a Lok Sabha MP on March 24, a day after a Gujarat court convicted him to two years in jail in a defamation case for remarks made in 2019 about the prime minister’s surname.

Under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a legislator sentenced to jail for two years or more stands to be disqualified from the date of conviction until six years after serving time. Gandhi’s Lok Sabha membership will be reinstated if his conviction is stayed by a higher court.

Opposition leaders have alleged that the action against Gandhi was politically motivated, while legal experts have told Scroll that the Congress leader’s comments did not defame all persons with the Modi surname.

On Monday, US spokesperson Patel said that in its engagements with India, Washington DC will “continue to highlight the importance of democratic principles and the protection of human rights, including freedom of expression”.

When asked if the US was still engaging with Rahul Gandhi as well, Patel said it was normal for the United States to do so with members of Opposition parties in any country where it has bilateral relationships.

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