A group of 131 prominent names, including former Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur and former Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah, on Monday released a statement in solidarity with lawyer Prashant Bhushan in connection with the contempt proceedings against him, reported The Indian Express.

On July 21, the Supreme Court initiated suo motu criminal contempt proceedings against advocate Prashant Bhushan and social media platform Twitter India. The next day, the top court issued notices to Bhushan and Attorney General KK Venugopal for the lawyer’s alleged derogatory tweets against the judiciary. The case will be heard again on August 5.

The Supreme Court had observed that the tweets prima facie “brought administration of justice into disrepute and are capable of undermining the dignity and authority of the Supreme Court in general and the office of the Chief Justice of India in particular, in the eyes of the public at large”. A three-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari suggested that Twitter should disable Bhushan’s alleged contemptuous tweets.

In Monday’s statement, the signatories argued that Bhushan had only voiced concerns raised about the top court’s functioning and urged the Supreme Court to withdraw the case. “...in the interest of justice and fairness and to maintain the dignity of the Supreme Court of India,” the statement read. “An institution as important as the Supreme Court of a country must be open to public discussion without the fear of retribution or action of criminal contempt.” The group added that the action seemed to be an “attempt at stifling” criticism.

The group described Bhushan as a “relentless crusader” for the rights of those among the weakest sections of the society, according to The Wire. They added that Bhushan has provided pro bono, or free of cost, legal services to those who do not have easy access to justice.

In recent months, Bhushan took up the cause of migrant workers in the Supreme Court, arguing that the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 lockdown had created a humanitarian crisis. The judges had rebuked him for his criticism of the court. In the past, Bhushan has made statements about the treatment of activists such as Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj, who are imprisoned in the Elgar Parishad case.

The signatories cited Chief Justice of India SA Bobde’s elder brother advocate Vinod A Bobde’s remark that there cannot be a “situation where citizens live in fear of the court’s arbitrary power to punish for contempt for words of criticism on the conduct of judges, in or out of court”.

“In the past few years, serious questions have been raised about the reluctance of the Supreme Court to play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights of people by the state,” the group said. “These questions have been raised by all sections of society – media, academics, civil society organisations, members of the legal fraternity and even by sitting and retired judges of the Supreme Court itself.”

The Supreme Court had pulled up Bhushan in 2013 too, when he had made “disturbing remarks” against the judges hearing the coal scam. Bhushan had wondered why the court did not take action against Goolam E Vahanvati, the attorney general in the United Progressive Alliance-led government, for allegedly lying in court. He later apologised to the court.

In March 2019, Bhushan turned down the Supreme Court’s offer to “unconditionally apologise” to the court for seeking that Justice Arun Mishra recuse himself from hearing a contempt plea against him. In February 2019, Attorney General KK Venugopal had filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court against Bhushan for allegedly scandalising the court with his tweets on the turmoil in the Central Bureau of Investigation.

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Contempt proceedings: Why can’t you disable Prashant Bhushan’s tweets on your own, SC asks Twitter