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An Indian court on Thursday heard an appeal from opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi to stay his conviction in a criminal defamation case for mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surname which resulted in his expulsion from Parliament.
Judge Robin Mogera said he will rule on the appeal on April 20. Attorneys representing Gandhi and the complainant, Purnesh Modi, a state lawmaker belonging to the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party, presented their arguments in court on Thursday.
Gandhi was exempted from appearing in court. His lawyer, R.S. Cheema, argued that the law mandates that only a person who is defamed can file a complaint.
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A stay of Gandhi’s conviction would stop any immediate by-election in his parliamentary constituency to replace him. After the April 20 ruling, the court will hear full arguments on the appeal from both sides for a final ruling on whether the conviction should be overturned.
Gandhi was convicted last month and sentenced to two years in prison over a 2019 speech in which he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Gandhi then referred to three well-known and unrelated Modis: a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League tournament and the prime minister.
Rahul Gandhi arrives at a court in Surat, India, on March 23, 2023. The court heard Congress leader Rahul Gandhis’ appeal to stay his conviction in a criminal defamation case for mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modis surname which resulted in his expulsion from Parliament. (AP Photo, file)
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Under Indian law, a criminal conviction and prison sentence of two years or more are grounds for expulsion from Parliament. Gandhi was immediately disqualified, dealing a huge blow to his Congress party ahead of general elections next year.
Gandhi risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next eight years if the court doesn’t overturn his conviction and two-year sentence.
The prosecution of Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and scion of the dynastic Congress party, was widely condemned by opponents of Modi as the latest assault against democracy and free speech by a government seeking to crush dissent. The speed of his removal from Parliament shocked Indian politics.
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Lawyer Harshit Tolia, representing complainant Purnesh Modi, told the court that it should not show any leniency to Gandhi.
“He is such a tall leader. Such a big personality, he can’t say sorry but only show arrogance. He isn’t entitled to any relief at this stage,” Bar and Bench, an online portal for Indian legal news, quoted Tolia as saying.