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A CBI plea challenging 2005 Delhi High Court order discharging Hinduja brothers in Rs 64 crore Bofors kickbacks case was dismissed by the Supreme Court today (Friday, November 2).

The CBI in its petition had blamed the UPA government for its silence all these 13 years. Interestingly, it chose to take it up when the Narendra Modi government faces elections in a few months and is under attack over Rafale deal.

The SC bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said the special leave petition (SLP) by the CBI had been “filed after an inordinate delay” and that it was not convinced with the grounds given by the CBI filing the appeal against the Delhi High Court verdict after so many years.

“We are not convinced… we do not like to entertain,” Chief Justice Gogoi told Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the CBI.

However, the court said that the CBI, which is a party in an identical appeal filed by a private person, advocate and BJP worker Ajay Agarwal, against the High Court order discharging the billionaire Hinduja brothers – Srichand, Gopichand and Prakash. That appeal is still pending in the Supreme Court and the court suggested that CBI court argue its grounds in that appeal.

The Bofors arms deal, worth Rs 1,437-crore, was made between India and Swedish arms manufacturer AB Bofors for the supply of 400 units of 155-mm Howitzer guns for the Indian Army on March 24, 1986, when the late Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister of India.

Revelations by the Swedish Radio, on April 16, 1987, that AB Bofors had allegedly paid bribes to top Indian politicians and defence personnel to secure the deal, had kicked up a political storm against the Rajiv Gandhi government in India and the ensuing tirade by Opposition leaders of the time, and Rajiv’s estranged ministerial colleague, VP Singh, is still believed to be the biggest trigger for the Congress’ defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha polls.

The CBI had registered an FIR in 1990 against Martin Ardbo, the then chief of AB Bofors for alleged offences of criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery under the Indian Penal Code and other sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act. FIR was registered against alleged middleman Win Chadda and the Hinduja brothers also. The first charge sheet in the matter was filed on October 22, 1999 against Chadda, Ottavio Quattrocchi, the then defence secretary SK Bhatnagar, Ardbo and the Bofors company. A supplementary charge sheet in the case was filed against the Hinduja brothers on October 9, 2000.

A special CBI court, on March 4, 2011, discharged Quattrocchi from the case, saying the country could not afford to spend hard-earned money on his extradition which had already cost Rs 250 crore. Later, on May 31, 2005, the Delhi High Court had also discharged the Hinduja brothers from the case.

Challenging the order, the CBI accused the UPA-I government for the delay in filing this appeal against a scam which “jeopardised national and public interest”, said a report in The Hindu.

In a separate application seeking to explain the delay of a dozen years, the CBI said it wanted to challenge the “legally unsustainable” order of the High Court, but the UPA-I government of the time denied it permission to come to the Supreme Court.

“While the petitioner-CBI was of the view that the impugned order is legally unsustainable and should be challenged before this Hon’ble Court, ultimately a decision was taken not to challenge the impugned order on the basis of the views expressed by the Government of India and the law officers who dealt with the matter at that stage, as the Government denied permission to the CBI to approach this Hon’ble Court,” the application said.

Further, the agency cited a development in 2017 which “fundamentally alters the landscape” in the Bofors scam case and said it was the primary reason for it to approach the Supreme Court.

This “most significant development” is an interview given by Michael Hershman to an Indian TV channel. “In the said interview, Mr. Hershman has stated that he is in possession of material which would show the payment of bribes in the Bofors deal, and that the involvement of powerful persons may be the reason for the checkered history of this case. The statements made by Mr. Hershman go to the very root of the matter,” the CBI told the apex court, while placing on record the transcript of the interview.

The CBI said it has already moved the trial court concerned under Section 173 (8) of the Criminal Procedure Code for further investigation in the case. But the 2005 High Court order stands as a roadblock and the SC has to remove it, hence the appeal.

It said the High Court quashed the proceedings in an arbitrary manner saying that the documentary evidence obtained by the CBI from authorities in Sweden were “neither available in original nor as duly authenticated copies”.

The High Court had said it would be “cruel joke on the accused to expose them to a long and arduous trial and waste public time and money” on the basis of such evidence.

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