India’s ex-opposition leader pleads not guilty to defamation

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India's opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi arrives at a court in Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in connection with two defamation suits filed against him. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
India’s opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi arrives at a court in Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in connection with two defamation suits filed against him. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

New Delhi (AP) — The former leader of India’s opposition Congress party and descendant of a string of prime ministers pleaded not guilty in two separate defamation cases filed against him in Gujarat state.

Rahul Gandhi entered the pleas in the two cases on Thursday and Friday. He was granted bail on a bond of 10,000 rupees (about $140) in the second case and requested to be excused from future court appearances, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Both cases were filed by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and involve statements made during the general election campaign in April.

In one, Gandhi is accused of referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a thief, and in the other, of calling India’s home minister, Amit Shah, an accused murderer.

Shah was arrested in 2010 in connection with the extrajudicial killing of a Muslim man in Gujarat, but was discharged due to lack of evidence in late 2014, PTI said.

Gandhi was charged with criminal defamation under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code, the news agency reported. The law dates back to the British colonial era and provides a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment.

A senior fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in Bangalore, Alok Prasanna, said Gandhi is not likely to be convicted.

“It is unlikely that these cases will reach a conclusion,” Prasanna said, adding that complainants tend to lose interest after about a year.

“It’s not the desire to get a judgment so much as to get their voice heard and to respond to allegations,” he said.

Gandhi has long been a target of defamation suits. Earlier this year, he pleaded not guilty in suits filed against him in the states of Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat, PTI said.

In 2016, the Supreme Court rejected Gandhi’s attempt to challenge the constitutional validity of one defamation suit lodged against him by a Hindu nationalist activist, it said.

Gandhi is a member of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and led Congress from 2017 to 2019. He resigned from the party leadership in July after Congress suffered heavy losses in the general election. He remains a Member of Parliament.

“It’s easy to file a defamation complaint before a magistrate’s court rather than filing a suit for damages,” said Chitranshul Sinha, a New Delhi-based lawyer and author of a book on sedition.

There is a long history across the political spectrum in India of accusing opponents of defamation, Sinha said.

“Criminal defamation proceedings are inexpensive, compared to civil suits,” he said.