Delhi court sentences Medha Patkar to 5-month jail in 23-year-old defamation case

Reacting to the court's verdict, the septuagenarian activist said that her lawyers will challenge the order.


Published Jul 02, 2024 | 11:22 AM Updated Jul 02, 2024 | 11:22 AM

Arrest order against Medha Patkar in defamation case travesty of justice

Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar was sentenced to five months simple imprisonment on Monday, 1 July, by a Delhi court in a defamation case filed by Delhi Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena 23 years ago when he headed an NGO in Gujarat.

Observing that false allegations made by a person of Patkar’s stature aggravated the offence, Metropolitan Magistrate Raghav Sharma also imposed a ₹10 lakh fine on her and asked her to pay the amount to Saxena.

The court, however, suspended the sentence for a period of one month to enable Patkar, 70, to move an appellate court against the judgment.

The court also said that Patkar’s age and ailments do not absolve her of the “serious” offence as Saxena experienced “profound damage to his reputation, trustworthiness, and social standing”.

‘Will challenge the order’

Reacting to the court’s verdict, the septuagenarian activist said that her lawyers will challenge the order.

“Truth cannot be defeated. Whatever work we are doing is for the poor, tribals and Dalits… We do not want destruction and displacement in the name of development.

“We do not have any desire to defame anyone. My lawyers will take further legal recourse… We will challenge it (court order),” she said outside the courtroom.

In its eight-page order, the magisterial court said, “While the convict is a distinguished social activist with numerous awards, this status makes her actions even more reprehensible and her respected position in society brings with it a responsibility to uphold the truth and act with integrity.”

“The fact that someone of her stature made such false and damaging allegations aggravates her liability, as it undermines public trust and sets a negative example,” the court added.

It said while Patkar’s age and medical condition were factors that necessitated a balanced approach, these did not “absolve her of the serious nature of her offence”.

“The aim is to impose a punishment that is both just and humane. A longer term of imprisonment of one or two years could be disproportionately harsh considering her age and health, and too short a term of one or two months would leave the complainant without justice,” the court said.

“Therefore, a sentence of five months simple imprisonment is appropriate, ensuring that the punishment is significant yet not excessively severe given her circumstances,” it added.

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Sentence suspended for one month

The judge orally observed that the sentence be suspended for one month to enable Patkar to file an appeal against the order.

The court said that the imposition of a ₹ 10 lakh fine would be a “compensatory measure” for Saxena, besides being a “tangible acknowledgement of his pain and distress”.

It said that the fine also acknowledged “the extensive harm and prolonged suffering” that Saxena endured over the 23-24 years of legal battle.

Underlining that sentencing must reflect the seriousness of the offence, the need for deterrence, and the protection of societal values, the judge quoted Lord Denning who had said that “punishment is the way in which society expresses its denunciation of wrongdoing; and in order to maintain respect for the law, it is essential that punishment should be adequate and effective”.

The court said that the unfounded accusations, such as Saxena’s “involvement in hawala transactions and compromising the interests of Gujarat’s people for foreign entities were designed to ruin the complainant’s public image and credibility”.

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The case

The court rejected Patkar’s plea for a grant of the benefit of probation, saying the relief was generally considered for first-time offenders or for offences where the impact on the victim was minimal, and in cases where the offender showed genuine remorse and potential for rehabilitation.

In the present case, however, Patkar’s actions exhibited a high degree of severity and intentionality, clearly aimed at inflicting significant reputational harm on the complainant and there was no indication of remorse or acceptance of responsibility for the damage inflicted on the complainant, the court said.

It said that granting probation would undermine the gravity of the offence and the suffering endured by the complainant and a sentence that reflected the seriousness of the offence was necessary to deter similar malicious actions in the future.

Also, allowing probation in this case would be contrary to the principles of justice, the court added.

Advocates Gajinder Kumar and Kiran Jai, appearing for Saxena, requested the court that the fine amount be given to the Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DLSA) to which the court said that upon receiving the compensation, they could dispense the amount as per their volition.

The offence entailed a maximum punishment of simple imprisonment of up to two years or fine or both.

Saxena’s case

Saxena had filed the case as president of the Ahmedabad-based NGO National Council of Civil Liberties against Patkar for her defamatory press release against him, issued on November 24, 2000.

On 24 May this year, the court had observed that Patkar’s statements calling Saxena a “coward” and alleging his involvement in hawala transactions were not only defamatory per se but also crafted to incite negative perceptions about him.

Also, the accusation that the complainant was “mortgaging” the people of Gujarat and their resources to foreign interests was a direct attack on his integrity and public service, it had said.

The arguments on sentencing were completed on May 30, following which the judgment on the quantum of sentence was reserved on June 7.

Patkar and Saxena have been locked in a legal tussle since 2000 after she filed a suit against him for publishing advertisements against her and the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Saxena had also filed two cases against Patkar in 2001 for making derogatory remarks against him on a TV channel and issuing a defamatory press statement.

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