The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted regular bail to former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who is facing money laundering charges levelled against him by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the INX Media case, thus paving the way for his release from jail after a period of 106 days.
The court’s bail conditions include the furnishing of bail bonds of ₹2 lakh with two sureties subject to satisfaction of the special judge hearing the case. Mr. Chidambaram’s passport would remain confiscated and he would not be able to leave the country without permission. He would make himself available for interrogation. He would not give any press interviews or make public statements on the case. Further, he would not intimidate any case witnesses.
The court agreed with the ED that economic offences affect entire societies. It has always held that such offences are of grave nature, being a class apart, and arise out of deep-rooted conspiracies.
The effect of such offences on society has to be indeed kept in view while granting bail. However, on the other hand, there cannot be a blanket ban against granting bail to accused in such cases.
“Even if the allegation is one of grave economic offence, it is not a rule that bail should be denied in every case since there is no such bar created in the relevant enactment passed by the legislature nor does the bail jurisprudence provide so,” Justice Bopanna held.
Each case for bail has to be weighed according to its individual circumstances, the court said. Courts cannot blindly follow any uniform precedent while dealing with bail applications in economic offence cases.
Justice Bopanna pointed out that Mr. Chidambaram was in custody of the ED for over 45 days and he was available for questioning. The ED had objected to the bail, arguing that they still wanted him for extensive questioning in connection with money laundering.
The court rejected the ED claim that Mr. Chidamabram would tamper with evidence and intimidate witnesses. The judgment reasoned that Mr. Chidambaram neither enjoys political power nor holds any government post. It said Mr. Chidambaram cannot be blamed if a witness had refused to cooperate as there was no evidence of coercion.
“The appellant (Chidambaram) is aged about 74 years… has suffered two bouts of illness during incarceration and was put on antibiotics… In that circumstance, the availability of the appellant for further investigation, interrogation and facing trial is not jeopardised. He is already held to be not a ‘flight risk’ and there is no possibility of tampering the evidence or influencing\intimidating the witnesses. 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,” the Supreme Court ordered.
The apex court came down heavily on how the prosecution side presents documents in sealed covers to courts and judges base their entire findings on bail on the material in these documents, thus denying the accused a chance for fair trial. Both the CBI and ED had passed on sealed covers in the Delhi High Court.
Mr. Chidambaram’s lawyers and senior advocates Kapil Sibal and A.M. Singhvi had highlighted how the high court had simply reproduced entire portions of the ED affidavit and made it out to look as its own judicial findings.
The Supreme Court further observed that it was not initially inclined to peruse the sealed covers handed over to it by Mr. Mehta, but was compelled to since the Delhi HC judge had already done so.
The apex court disapproved several observations made by the Delhi High Court in its November 15 judgment denying Mr. Chidambaram bail. Justice Bopanna emphasised that merits of a case is usually gone into during trial and not while deciding a bail application.
After the judgment was read out, Mr. Mehta requested the Bench to add a line that this bail order would have no effect on future action against other accused. Mr. Mehta indicated in court that there may be action against other accused, including arrest.
The Bench directed the Supreme Court Registry to return the sealed covers containing the case evidence.
The court allowed Mr. Sibal’s request for dasti (certified copy of the order) in order to produce before the Special Judge trying the INX Media case in the next few hours.
The INX Media case concerns the grant of FIPB approval in 2007-08 during Mr. Chidambaram’s tenure as union finance minister. The FIR was registered in the case after almost a decade.