Clearing the decks for her return as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the Karnataka High Court on Monday acquitted AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa in the 19-year-old disproportionate assets case against her.
Setting aside the trial court order, which had on September 27 last year convicted Jayalalithaa and three of her associates and sentenced them to four years imprisonment, high court judge C R Kumaraswamy today ruled that the wealth accumulated by them was only Rs 2.82 crore, and not Rs 53.60 crore as alleged.
Stating that the disproportionate assets added up to only 8.12 per cent, as compared to known sources of income, the court said: “It is relatively small. In the instant case, the disproportionate assets is less than 10 per cent and it is within permissible limit.”
The acquittal paves the path for the return of the AIADMK leader as the Chief Minister in the run-up to the Tamil Nadu polls slated to be held next year. Jayalalithaa was forced to quit as Chief Minister after she was found guilty by the trial court last September.
Top party sources said Chief Minister O Panneerselvam was likely to resign, and Jayalalithaa may take over as Chief Minister on April 17. The date, however, is yet to be confirmed.
In her first reaction, Jayalalithaa said in a statement today. “The verdict has shown that I have not committed any wrong, it has helped me emerge as gold further refined by fire… Justice and dharma have triumphed. Conspiracies may win temporarily but the final victory is always for truth.”
Warning opposition parties, she said: “(It is) time for them to stop all efforts or even thoughts of decimating my political life. This is a party founded by late MGR. I recall with sorrow the demise of 233 party cadres who lost their lives after the special court delivered its verdict on my sentence.”
The HC in its verdict today said loans amounting to nearly Rs 24 crore obtained by a set of 32 companies linked to Jayalalithaa’s associates were wrongfully considered as income, assessments of expenditure on home refurbishments were over-estimated by nearly Rs 22 crore, and income from a company, Jaya Publication, was over-estimated.
The trial court had said Jayalalithaa and her associates had acquired over 3,000 acres of land through a network of 32 benami companies. The HC ruled that “the trial court has failed to appreciate the evidence in a proper perspective”. It said, “immovable properties were acquired by borrowing huge loan from nationalised banks. It is difficult to infer that the properties were acquired by means of ill-gotten money.”
The HC also said a conspiracy charge cannot be brought against Jayalalithaa on the basis of the dealings of associates who lived with her. “Accused Nos. 2 to 4 living with Accused No 1 does not itself contemplate offence of conspiracy,’’ the court said.
The HC overruled Special Public Prosecutor B V Acharya’s arguments that the appeals filed by Jayalalithaa and others were invalid as they had not made the Karnataka government a party in the case. It questioned the Karnataka government’s silence in this matter over the past four months when the appeal was being heard by the court.
The case has seen many political twists and turns since a complaint of accumulation of illegal wealth was first lodged against Jayalalitha by then Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy in June 1996, and the DVAC registered an FIR on September 18, 1996.
The progress of the investigations and the prosecution of the case has been linked to the political dispensation in Tamil Nadu. Much of the investigations were carried out shortly after Jayalalithaa lost power at the end of her first term as Chief Minister in 1996.
The AIADMK’s main rival, the DMK, has doggedly pursued the case. It was on DMK leader K Anbazhagan’s plea that the Supreme Court transferred the case to Karnataka for trial in 2003 when Jayalalithaa returned to power in Tamil Nadu for her second term.