Ex-FM evades arrest after HC dismisses bail plea, SC refuses instant relief in INX Media case
Former Finance and Home Minister P Chidambaram is on the run from the law after the Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to come to his rescue following the Delhi High Court’s dismissal of his bail petition in the INX Media bribery case. Soon after the apex court’s denial of relief, sleuths of Enforcement Directorate and CBI landed at Chidambaram’s home in Jor Bagh, but the senior Congress leader could not be traced.
Chidambaram, who enjoying interim protection from arrest from March 2018 onward, suffered a major setback on Tuesday afternoon after the Delhi High Court dismissed his anticipatory bail plea, paving way for CBI and ED to arrest him. The former Minister was on the Supreme Court complex throughout the day, awaiting the HC order, to approach the SC.
The High Court held that he was “prima facie the kingpin” in the INX Media bribery and money laundering cases and “simply because he is a Member of Parliament it would not justify grant of pre-arrest bail to him”. Holding that the former Union Minister’s custodial interrogation was required for an effective investigation, the High Court said, “granting bail in cases like the instant one will send a wrong message to society”.
Justice Sunil Gaur, who is due to retire on Thursday, said this court cannot permit the prosecution in this “sensitive case to end up in smoke like it has happened in some other high-profile cases”.
“Facts of the case prima facie reveal that petitioner is the kingpin, that is, the key conspirator in this case. Law enforcing agencies cannot be made ineffective by putting legal obstacles,” the judge said.
The High Court also said this was a “classic case of money laundering” and the twin facts which have weighed to deny pre-arrest bail to him are “gravity” of the offence and “evasive” replies given by him to questions put to him while he was under protective cover extended to him by this court.
In the Supreme Court, all Congress lawyers were present before the Registry for urgent hearing. However, the apex court did not grant any relief, asking Chidambaram to mention the case on Wednesday morning before a seniormost judge.
The High Court said, “It cannot be forgotten that the petitioner (Chidambaram) was the Finance Minister at the relevant time and he had given FDI clearances to INX Media Group for receiving overseas funds to the tune of `305 crore.”
The 24-page judgment said the gravity of offence committed in this case amply justifies denial of pre-arrest bail and it was of the prima facie opinion that it was not a fit case for granting the relief to him.
It said, “Economic offences constitute a class apart and need to be visited with a different approach in the matters of bail.
“Taking note of huge magnitude of conspiracy angle qua the petitioner, it would be premature to jump to a conclusion that the provision of Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) would not apply to the instant case, as it cannot be said that the amount involved is below Rs 30 lakh. Rather money laundering involved in this INX Media scam is Rs 305 crore and Aircel-Maxis scandal is Rs 3,500 crore.”
The court observed that the economic crimes of such “mammoth scale are craftily planned and executed”. “In this case, in view of the enormous material placed on record in respect of distinguished entities, various transactions etc, this court unhesitatingly opines that bail plea is not acceptable,” it said.
CBI had registered an FIR on May 15, 2017 alleging irregularities in the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearance granted to the INX Media group for receiving overseas funds of Rs 305 crore in 2007 during Chidambaram’s tenure as Finance Minister. Thereafter, the ED in 2018 lodged the money laundering case in this regard. Chidambaram’s son Karti was arrested in this case in February 2018.
In 2007, INX Media TV Channel owners Peter and Indrani got FIPB (Foreign Investment Promotion Board) approval only to bring Rs 5 crores as foreign investment. But they illegally brought Rs 305 crores and were caught by Income Tax (IT) in 2008. When they got a notice from the IT Department, Indrani and Peter approached then Finance Minister P Chidambaram for relief. In her confession statement, Indrani said that Chidambaram promised to save her from Income Tax prosecution and asked her to give Rs 5 crores to Karti. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) found that this bribe money was parked in Karti’s two controversial firms - Advantage Strategic Consulting and Chess Management Services. After getting the bribe, Chidambaram, who headed the FIPB, gave an illegal post-facto clearance to INX Media and blocked the Income Tax prosecution for illegally routing Rs 305 crores from tax havens.
INX media bribery case was unearthed after ED’s Investigating Officer Rajeshwar Singh conducted raids at Chidambaram’s home and Karti’s firms in connection with Aircel-Maxis probe in December 2014. The ED and Income Tax joint probe also exposed the illegal assets in 14 countries and 21 foreign bank accounts of the family. The ED has already attached Rs 54 crore worth properties of Karti and his companies in Delhi, Ooty, Chennai, London and Spain in connection with INX Media case.