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Supreme Court grants arrest shield to Arnab, Assembly officer gets contempt notice

The Supreme Court issued a contempt notice Friday to the assistant secretary of the Maharashtra Assembly who, during a letter to Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, had questioned him for approaching the highest court against the breach of privilege notice and producing before it “confidential” communications from the Speaker and therefore the House Privileges Committee.

Stating that the “intention” of the Assembly officer seemed to be to “intimidate” Goswami because he “approached this Court” and to “threaten him with a penalty for seeking legal remedy”, the bench of judge of India S A Bobde and Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubra-manian directed that Goswami not be arrested within the privilege matter until further orders.

The bench allowed the Union of India to be impleaded within the matter following an invitation from senior advocate Harish Salve who appeared for Goswami. It issued notice to the Attorney General, and also appointed senior advocate Arvind Datar as friend of the court to help the court within the matter.

The bench was hearing Goswami’s petition challenging the breach of privilege notice to him which followed a motion within the House, accusing him of using derogatory language against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar within the coverage of the case concerning the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

After Salve delivered to the court’s notice to the October 13 letter from the assembly to Goswami, the bench said the “statements made by Mr. Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya, are unprecedented and have a tendency to interfere within the course of administration of justice. The intention… seems to be to intimidate the petitioner because the petitioner approached this Court and to threaten him with a penalty for seeking legal remedy.”

Explained: What constitutes a breach of legislature’s privilege?
“The office of Respondent No. 2 would are well advised to know that the proper to approach this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India is itself a fundamental right… there’s little question that if a citizen of India is deterred in any case from approaching this Court in exercise of his right under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, it might amount to a significant and direct interference within the administration of justice within the country,” the bench said.

“We have serious questions on what this letter means and about the intent of its author. we’ve not seen this during a court like this. you can’t threaten people and say, ‘how dare are you able to provide assembly notice to the Supreme Court’,” CJI Bobde said.

The bench issued notice to the assembly officer to showcase why action shouldn’t be initiated against him for contempt of court, and also asked him to be personally present on subsequent date of hearing.

Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami after hearing in Alibaug court on Wednesday midnight. (Express photo by Narendra Vaskar)
“We, therefore, issue notice returnable on 23.11.2020 to Mr. Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya, to point out cause why he shouldn’t be proceeded against for contempt of this Court in exercise of our powers under Article 129 of the Constitution of India,” it said.

It directed that “in the meanwhile, the petitioner shall not be arrested in pursuance of this proceedings”.

The court acknowledged that though the respondents are served notices within the proceedings which are pending for a few time, they were yet to form an appearance.

Producing the letter from the assembly officer, Salve said there’s just one precedent of this nature from the 1940s — a letter by a prisoner in Nagpur to the judge . That letter was withheld by the jail authorities and therefore the Court issued contempt.

Urging the court to grant Goswami interim relief, Salve said case after case was being filed against his client. At times, constitutional courts, he said, need to see the truth , not the smokescreen.

“Please protect him from any action during this case… He has been warned, ‘You abused us, you’ll spend Diwali in jail’,” Salve said.

He also mentioned the talk within the assembly regarding a suicide case during which Goswami has been arrested.

He said the Maharashtra Home Minister said on the ground of the House that the “accused” should be taken into custody. He said this was a matter of investigation and political directions cannot dictate it.

Turning to senior advocate A M Singhvi, who appeared for the State of Maharashtra, the CJI said the bench was concerned about the question of access to the court.

The CJI said people can’t be threatened indirectly during this manner by saying how are you able to produce this in court. “Who are these people? we would like an independent counsel who will assist us during this matter,” he said.

Singhvi said he are going to be exceeding his brief if he says anything thereon .

“During the course of hearing, we requested Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, learned Senior Counsel appearing for the State of Maharashtra, to reply to the present letter. But he expressed his inability to elucidate or justify the contents of the aforesaid letter in question since the letter is written by the office of the Respondent No. 2 and therefore the learned Senior Counsel is appearing just for Respondent No. 4 – State of Maharashtra,” the bench noted.

The order also noted that “though the said letter has been sent from the Office of the Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha Sachivalaya, who is that the Respondent No. 2 herein, it’s been signed by Mr. Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya”.

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