The conviction of Rahul Gandhi by a Surat court in a defamation case was "erroneous and unsustainable" and will be challenged in a higher court, the Congress said on Thursday while expressing hope that the judgment will be stayed and quashed.
Gandhi was sentenced to two years in jail by the court in the 2019 criminal defamation case over his "Modi surname" remark, in a setback to the Lok Sabha MP who faces the risk of disqualification. The case was filed against him on a complaint by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi for his alleged remark, "How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?"
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said the trial court has given a 170-page judgment that is still subject to translation and the party is working towards filing an appeal against it in a higher court.
"We believe that this is full of errors and legally unsustainable in conclusion. But make no mistake generally...all your (government's) efforts to create a chilling effect, a throttling effect, strangulating effect on open, fearless speech relating to public interest will not stop either Rahul Gandhi or the Congress party," he told reporters at a press conference here.
Singhvi said the Congress has faith in the judiciary and will seek legal recourse to the Surat court's verdict and get relief.
Though this judgment is "erroneous", in-built corrective measures exist within the judicial system and "we will certainly invoke them", he said and added, "We are confident that the conviction will be stayed."
Gandhi after appearing before the Surat court returned to Delhi and was accorded a welcome at the domestic airport on his arrival. Some Congress MPs and leaders who were present at the airport, later held a meeting with him at his residence, sources said.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge later convened a meeting of top party leaders at his residence and discussed the situation arising out of Gandhi's conviction and whether he should attend Parliament.
Sources said the discussion took place as Gandhi faces disqualification from Lok Sabha in the wake of his conviction and two years sentence.
The Supreme Court in a 2013 verdict had said that any MP or MLA stands disqualified from the time of his conviction if a sentence of two or more years is pronounced.
Kharge also alleged that the BJP-led government wants to get Gandhi removed from Lok Sabha through disqualification as he speaks the truth.
Speaking at a book launch function, he said now "attempts are being made by taking refuge under laws to silence everyone".
"They (government) want to get him ousted (from Lok Sabha. The person who speaks the truth and exposes you, you want to remove him through such means. Nobody gets two years jail for defamation, someone is given one year, six months, or apology is sought, but the provision for (disqualification) is two years and that is why they have applied it in complete," Kharge said.
The BJP, however, asserted that the law has to take its course if Rahul Gandhi abuses people and slammed the Congress over its criticism of his conviction in a defamation case, asking whether the opposition party wants "complete freedom" for him to "abuse" others.
BJP leader and former law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad cautioned Gandhi, saying he will find himself facing "more troubles" if he doesn't refrain from making defamatory remarks, while Union Minister Piyush Goyal asked the Congress leader to apologise for his series of "defamatory" comments.
Both leaders also hit out at Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge for questioning the court's order and accused him of contempt of court.
Gandhi after attending court quoted Mahatma Gandhi on truth and non-violence.
"My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get to it -- Mahatma Gandhi," Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi soon after the court's verdict.
In another tweet, he paid tributes to freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru on their martyrdom day and said he has learnt fighting fearlessly for the country from these brave sons of Mother India.
"Coward, dictatorial BJP government is incensed at Rahul Gandhi and Opposition because we are exposing their misdeeds and demanding a JPC," Kharge tweeted. "Under its political bankruptcy, the Modi government sends police, ED and imposes cases on political speeches. We will appeal in the higher court," he added.
"We knew such a thing could happen... they kept changing judges. But we have faith in the judiciary and will fight as per the law," the Congress president said.
Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also took to Twitter to back her brother and attack the BJP.
In a tweet in Hindi, she said that "a scared machinery of power is trying to suppress the voice of Rahul Gandhi through 'saam, daam, dand, bhed' (using every trick in the book)".
"My brother has never been afraid, nor will he ever be. He has lived his life speaking the truth, will continue to speak the truth, will continue to raise the voice of the people of the country," she said.
Congress general secretary communications Jairam Ramesh said, "This is new India, if you raise your voice against injustice, then ED-CBI, police, FIR will be imposed. Rahul Gandhi is also being punished for speaking the truth, for raising his voice against a dictator."
He said this is not just a legal issue but also a political one and termed it yet another example of the politics of vendetta, fear and intimidation.
In Parliament, this government is relying on one set of techniques to throttle voices and if outside Parliament, a second set of tactics is being used which in recent times has had an effect inside Parliament too, Singhvi alleged and added that the third strategy of the government is to "file false, frivolous and vexatious" cases.
"No doubt there is a conviction, but this is an infirm, an erroneous and an unsustainable judgment. It will be challenged and we are hopeful it will be stayed and ultimately quashed," the Congress leader said.
He said he has no doubts that when it comes to Rahul Gandhi, this government will do everything which is "unethical and is devoid of principles".
Singhvi said any reasonable, fair, non-oppressive, non-bias system would give sufficient time to a person to take some legal steps to stay the conviction. "But, I doubt very much if this government will act in any of those four objectives, non-biased, fair, transparent or balanced," he said.
Asked about the issue of Gandhi is disqualified, he said as far as the government is concerned, Gandhi has sought to be de-facto excluded from Parliament already for last several days and weeks.
"What is the point of him going to Parliament and speaking where he is not allowed to speak before a prior apology. What is the point of supposedly talking in Parliament when the government of the day itself is disrupting it," he asked.
"So, de-facto there is no difference between him not speaking in Parliament and not formally entering Parliament. However, these are legal issues and the judgment has come today and some time needs to be given to a person to challenge it," Singhvi said.
-With PTI Input