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Minutes after he said it is a free country where he has a right to say whatever he likes, the Supreme Court Friday issued suo motu contempt notice to its former judge Markandey Katju — a first in the country’s judicial history — for writing blogs that the court called “an assault on the judges”. At one point, it even called for his eviction from the court room.
“Prima facie, statements attributed to him in the blog seem to be an assault on the judges and not of the judgment,” said a three-judge bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi while issuing a contempt of court notice to Katju, who will now have to put forth his defence before the judges in court room number 6 where he once presided as a judge and passed orders. Katju was a Supreme Court judge between 2006 and 2011.
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Katju was issued a notice by the court last month over blogs in which he was critical of the September 15 judgment that had set aside the death penalty for the convict in Kerala’s Soumya rape-cum-murder case. The bench, also comprising Justices P C Pant and Uday U Lalit, had exonerated Govindachamy of the murder charge but sentenced him to life imprisonment for rape. Later, Katju, in his blogs, questioned the wisdom of the judgment and asserted that the convict was to be held culpable under the murder charge as well.
On Friday, after listening to Katju for nearly 45 minutes, the bench did not find merit in his arguments and dismissed a clutch of review petitions, seeking reconsideration of its September 15 judgment. It then took up Katju’s other two blogs in which he had commented on the judges who had passed the verdict.
On being asked by the bench, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said that Katju’s statements in the blogs relating to the Soumya’s case were “definitely intemperate but not bordering on contempt”.
The bench, however, decided to initiate suo motu contempt proceedings. When it asked him on what he had to say about initiation of contempt, Katju replied loudly: “I am not scared of all this… learn to be modest. I am here because you had requested me to come and assist you. How can you do this now?”
Justice Gogoi asked Katju not to provoke the court but the former judge replied that it was the court which was provoking him. At this, Justice Gogoi called for securitymen: “Is there someone to escort Justice Katju out of court?”
A couple of security officers then moved swiftly towards Katju, who remained defiant: “You cannot do this. Am I treated to be like this when I have come to this court on your request to assist you? Mr Gogoi, don’t threaten me with all this.”
The bench then dictated a short order, issuing a notice of contempt against Katju before the judges walked out of the court room. Some lawyers, who had crammed the court room to witness the first-of-its kind proceedings where a retired judge had been summoned to demonstrate why he had called a court judgment wrong, protested when the bench wanted the former judge to be removed. “No… it’s wrong,” the lawyers said in chorus, asking the security personnel to back off. This situation was, however, averted with the proceedings coming to an end quickly.
The contempt notice was issued after the bench dismissed the petitions against its judgment in 2011 Soumya rape-cum-murder case. The bench had set aside the death penalty awarded to the convict stating it has not been proved that Govindachamy threw the victim, Soumya, out of the a train or inflicted fatal injuries during the sexual assault that led to her death. It had, however, sentenced Govindachamy to life imprisonment on the charge of raping the 23-year-old victim.
On October 17, Katju was issued a notice by the bench, asking him to show up and justify his blog that described the judgment as legally flawed in setting aside the death penalty of the convict.
Katju turned up in a black suit and led arguments for nearly 45 minutes, contending it was a fit case where Govindachamy had to be held culpable under the murder charge for creating a terrible situation that had led to the death of the victim.
He began by saying: “A judge is not born not to commit mistakes. I have also made several mistakes as a judge.” The bench responded: “Please don’t remind us that. We know we are not infallible. You please tell us where have we committed mistakes in this judgment.”
Katju then pointed to several aspects which, in his opinion, were “grave errors” in the judgment and urged the bench to “apply common sense” in convicting Govindachamy under the murder charge. The AG, appearing for Kerala government, also supported Katju’s plea and asked for reconsideration of the judgment.
At one point, when the AG argued that no scientific evidence could be adequate to indicate exactly the degree of culpability of a man, the bench reminded Rohatgi that it cannot shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused.
“Please remember you are arguing in a death case. You are asking us to sentence a man to death when you are yourself not sure of the accuracy of the evidence. We have told we will not sentence a man to death unless we are 100 per cent sure of the guilt,” the bench said.