Setting aside the Delhi High Court order which declined him bail and rejecting the CBI’s arguments with the observation that there is not even a “whisper” that he has tried to influence witnesses, the Supreme Court Tuesday granted bail to Congress leader and former Union Minister P Chidambaram in the INX Media case.
Arrested by the CBI on August 21 for alleged corruption and in judicial custody since September 5, Chidambaram will, however, remain in Tihar Jail at least until October 24 because he is in the custody of the Enforcement Directorate till then. On October 17, he was arrested by the ED which is probing money laundering charges separately in the same case. He was remanded in ED custody for a week.
The bench of Justices R Banumathi, A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy said the findings of the Delhi High Court which had denied Chidambaram bail on the ground that the likelihood of him influencing witnesses cannot be ruled out “is not substantiated by any materials” and is only a “generalised apprehension and appears to be purely speculative”.
“The appellant is not a ‘flight risk’ and in view of the conditions imposed, there is no possibility of his abscondence from the trial. Statement of the prosecution that the appellant has influenced the witnesses and there is likelihood of his further influencing the witnesses cannot be the ground to deny bail to the appellant particularly when there is no such whisper in the six remand applications filed by the prosecution,” the bench said.
“The chargesheet has been filed against the appellant and other co-accused on 18.10.2019. The appellant is in custody from 21.08.2019 for about two months. The co-accused were already granted bail. The appellant is said to be aged 74 years and is also said to be suffering from age-related health problems. Considering the above factors and the facts and circumstances of the case, we are of the view that the appellant is entitled to be granted bail,” the bench said.
Directing that Chidambaram be released from jail if he is not wanted in any other case, the bench directed him to execute bail bonds for a sum of Rs 1 lakh with two sureties of like amount. It also asked him to deposit his passport with the special court if it has not been deposited already, and that he should not leave the country without its permission. He should also make himself available for interrogation.
While declining Chidambaram bail, the Delhi High Court had rejected the CBI argument that giving him relief would pose a flight risk and that he may tamper with evidence.
Agreeing with this, the Supreme Court said the case was registered on May 15, 2017 and the High Court had granted him interim protection from arrest on May 31, 2017 which remained in force till August 20, 2018 when the High Court finally dismissed his anticipatory bail plea.
“Between 31.05.2018 and 20.08.2019, when the appellant was having interim protection, the appellant did not file any application seeking permission to travel abroad nor prior to the same after registration of FIR any attempt is shown to have been made to flee.
On behalf of the appellant, it is stated that the appellant being the Member of Parliament and a senior member of the Bar has strong roots in society and his passport having been surrendered and ‘lookout notice’ issued against him, there is no likelihood of his fleeing away from the country or his abscondence from the trial. We find merit in the submission of the learned senior counsel for the appellant that the appellant is not a ‘flight risk’; more so, when the appellant has surrendered his passport and when there is a ‘lookout notice’ issued against the appellant,” the bench said.
Opposing his bail plea, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the CBI, had referred to many high-profile accused in economic offences fleeing the country and urged the court to take this into account.
On this, the bench said “…we are unable to accept the contention… that ‘flight risk’ of economic offenders should be looked at as a national phenomenon and be dealt with in that manner merely because certain other offenders have flown out of the country.
The same cannot, in our view, be put in a straight-jacket formula so as to deny bail to the one who is before the court, due to the conduct of other offenders, if the person under consideration is otherwise entitled to bail on the merits of his own case.”
It said “there has been no allegation regarding influencing of any witness by the appellant or his men directly or indirectly” till his anticipatory bail plea was dismissed.
“In the number of remand applications, there was no whisper that any material witness has been approached not to disclose information about the appellant and his son,” the bench said, adding that the plea that he was likely to influence witnesses if enlarged on bail seems to have been raised “only at the time of opposing the bail and in the counter-affidavit filed by the CBI before the High Court”.
“CBI has no direct evidence against the appellant regarding the allegation of appellant directly or indirectly influencing the witnesses,” the bench said and agreed with Chidambaram’s contention that “no material particulars were produced before the High Court as to when and how those two material witnesses were approached.
There are no details as to the form of approach of those two witnesses either SMS, e-mail,letter or telephonic calls and the persons who have approached the material witnesses. Details are also not available as to when, where and how those witnesses were approached”.
The bench said its comments should “be construed as expression of opinion only for the limited purpose of considering the regular bail in CBI case and shall not have any bearing in any other proceeding”.