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Rahul Gandhi sentenced to 2-year jail in defamation case; Cong to appeal

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Surat/New Delhi: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was on Thursday sentenced to two years in jail by a Surat court in a 2019 criminal defamation case over his “Modi surname” remark, in a setback to the Lok Sabha MP who faces the risk of disqualification.
The court of Chief Judicial Magistrate HH Varma, which held 52-year-old Gandhi guilty under Indian Penal Code(IPC) sections 499 and 500, also granted him bail and suspended the sentence for 30 days to allow him to appeal in a higher court. Gandhi can escape immediate disqualification as a member of parliament if the appellate court suspends the conviction as well as the two-year jail term.
As the conviction ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections set off a political slugfest and posed another challenge to Gandhi with a bearing on his political future, the Congress said he will file an appeal.
Gandhi could have limited his speech to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi, and Anil Ambani, but he “intentionally” made a statement that hurt individuals carrying the Modi surname, and thereby committed criminal defamation, the court said in its 168-page order. Gandhi was present in the court when the verdict was pronounced.
Senior Congress leaders went into a huddle at its chief Mallikarjun Kharge’s residence in Delhi in the evening to discuss the future strategy and the political fallout for the party in the wake of the verdict. Sources said a petition to challenge the order is being prepared and will be filed in a District and Sessions court.
Gandhi took to Twitter to give his initial reaction by quoting Mahatma Gandhi in a tweet in Hindi about truth and non-violence.
“My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it. — Mahatma Gandhi.”
In another tweet, he paid tributes to freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru on their martyrdom day, saying they have learnt fighting fearlessly for the country holding on to truth and courage from these brave sons of Mother India.
A host of Congress leaders including Kharge and General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra attacked the BJP and its government at the Centre.
The BJP on its part asserted that the law has to take its course if Rahul Gandhi abuses people and slammed the Congress over its criticism of his conviction, asking whether the opposition party wants “complete freedom” for him to “abuse” others.
In its order, the court noted that the seriousness of the accused’s crime increased because a speech delivered by a member of parliament has a “very wide impact on the public.”
“And if the accused is given less punishment, then it sends a wrong message to the public and the purpose of defamation is not fulfilled and anybody will easily slander someone.”
The court also said the Supreme Court had in the past asked the accused to remain alert in the future after he apologised in a 2018 case for his `chowkidar chor hai’ remark.
“Despite the Supreme Court alerting the accused, there appears to be no change in his conduct.” The defamation case was filed against Gandhi for his alleged remarks “How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?” on a complaint lodged by BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi.
The MP from Wayanad in Kerala made the remarks while addressing a rally at Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, 2019 during the Lok Sabha poll campaign. Purnesh Modi welcomed the verdict.
According to the Representation of the People Act, a person sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more shall be disqualified “from the date of such conviction” and remain disqualified for another six years after serving time.
P D T Achari, a former Lok Sabha Secretary General and Constitution expert, said if the appellate court stays the conviction and the sentence then the disqualification will remain suspended. “The disqualification will last for eight years (in case he is disqualified),” he said, adding that a disqualified person can neither contest, poll or vote for a certain period. Sources said after going through the judgment, the Lok Sabha Secretariat will take a call on issuing a notification announcing a vacancy in the lower house.

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