The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted bail to former Union Minister and Senior Advocate P Chidambaram in the case registered by Enforcement Directorate in INX Media scam.
He has spent 105 days in custody since his arrest by CBI on August 21.
The SC bench of Justices R Banumathi, A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roya observed that Chidambaram satisfied the triple tests for granting bail, and criticized the Delhi High Court for making observations on the merits of the allegations. Justice A S Bopanna, reading out the judgment, observed that Chidambaram had participated in the investigation.
"we disapprove the manner in which the conclusions are recorded in paragraphs 57 to 62 (of Delhi HC judgment) wherein the observations are reflected to be in the nature of finding relating to the alleged offence", the SC said.
The Court however agreed with the Delhi HC's view that gravity of offence can be a factor for denying bail. Economic offences too fall within the category of grave offences, observed the Court. But even then, bail is the rule and jail is the exception. If the presence of accused for trial can be ensured, bail should be ordinarily granted, the apex court said.
The SC took into account following aspects while allowing the petition :
"Taking these and all other facts and circumstances including the duration of custody into consideration the appellant in our considered view is entitled to be granted bail. It is made clear that the observations contained touching upon the merits either in the order of the High Court or in this order shall not be construed as an opinion expressed on merits and all contentions are left open to be considered during the course of trial", the Court observed.
It was on November 28 that SC reserved judgment on the petition filed by former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram challenging the November 15 judgment of the Delhi High Court which refused him bail in the case registered by Enforcement Directorate in relation to INX Media money laundering allegations.
A three judges bench comprising Justices R Banumathi, A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy heard the arguments of Senior Advocates Kapil Sibal and Dr AM Singhvi for the former Union Minister and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta for ED.
The bail is subject to furnishing a bail bond of Rupees two lakhs and two sureties. Chidambaram cannot travel abroad without permission of the Court and cannot give press statements relating to the case. The Court has also forbidden him from contacting the witnesses in the case.
Though Justice Suresh Kumar Kait of the Delhi High Court found that Chidambaram satisfied the triple tests for grant of bail - no chance of absconding, tampering of evidence and influencing witnesses - bail was denied citing the gravity of offence.
Chidambaram challenged this order contending that gravity of offence cannot be a sole ground for rejecting bail. Both Sibal and Singhvi submitted that ED has not been able to trace out any evidence linking Chidambaram to the alleged money laundering transaction, despite several days of custody. It was also argued that the term of sentence was the yardstick of determine the gravity of offence. Since the offences under Prevention of Money Laundering Act are punishable with a term of less than 7 years, they cannot be termed as 'grave offences', submitted the senior lawyers. They also submitted that the High Court had reproduced the ED allegations in the judgment without application of mind.
Opposing the plea, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that economic offences should be treated as a class apart, as they affect the economic system of the country. India has international obligations to counter money laundering crimes. Granting bail in such offences will send a wrong signal to the society, SG submitted.
Chidambaram was arrested by the CBI on August 21 in the corruption case which was registered on May 15, 2017 alleging irregularities in a 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.
Both the CBI and Enforcement Directorate have registered separate cases against him in relation to the INX deal; the former for offences under Prevention of Corruption Act and the latter under Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
After spending 58 days in custody - 15 days CBI custody and 53 days judicial custody - the SC had granted him bail on October 22 in the case registered by CBI. The SC bench headed by Justice R Banumathi rejected the argument of CBI that Chidambaram posed a flight risk and that he could influence witnesses.
However, he could not get release from Tihar jail even after the SC relief as he was taken into custody by the ED on October 17.
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