Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi appealed against his conviction for defamation on Monday, seeking to overturn a judgment that resulted in his expulsion from parliament a year before a general election is due.
Gandhi, 52, was convicted last month in a case brought by a state lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after comments Gandhi made in a 2019 speech were deemed to be insulting to the prime minister and other people surnamed Modi.
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The court suspended the two-year prison sentence for Gandhi as he appeals his criminal conviction.
The first hearing will be on April 13, Hiral Panwala, a member of Gandhi’s legal team, told Reuters.
“In this struggle, truth is my weapon, and truth is my support!” Gandhi tweeted after he left the crowded court complex in Surat city in the western state of Gujarat, waving to supporters and Congress members who had gathered in large numbers.
Gandhi was accompanied by his younger sister, Priyanka Vadra, en route from the airport to the court in a bus with large windows through which Gandhi waved at supporters.
Gandhi’s conviction hinged on a comment he made while campaigning ahead of the last general election, when he referred to two fugitive businessmen, both surnamed Modi, and asked: “How come all thieves have the name Modi?”
Prime Minister Modi and his BJP swept back to power in that election. Gandhi’s Congress recorded its worst performance ever, winning 52 seats in the 542-member lower house of parliament.
A magistrate’s court in Surat last month ruled that Gandhi had defamed everyone with the surname Modi but his lawyer said Gandhi had been referring to Prime Minister Modi and the two businessmen while talking about accusations of high-level corruption.
“The 2019 speech was not aimed at defaming millions of people having the surname Modi,” Panwala told Reuters.
Gandhi will not have to attend the April 13 hearing.
Two more defamation cases have been filed elsewhere against Gandhi for the same comment and he is due to appear in court in one of them in the eastern city of Patna on April 12.
Gandhi is at the center of opposition politics and the main target of Modi’s BJP even though Gandhi’s Congress party is a shadow of its former self and the BJP looks set to dominate the next general election.
Opposition politicians say his trial and his disqualification from parliament are the latest example of the government’s strong-arm tactics, following various investigations and legal troubles faced recently by some opposition members.
BJP leaders reject that and say Gandhi’s case represents the Congress party’s arrogance and its readiness to hurt sections of society to settle political scores with the prime minister.
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