Former Indian finance minister P Chidambaram arrested late on Wednesday for an alleged money laundering case will remain in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for questioning till Aug 26, the Special CBI Court in Delhi ruled on Thursday.
The court allowed his family to meet him at the CBI headquarters, where he has been detained, for 30 minutes every day till Aug 26.
The ruling followed persuasive arguments between Solicitor General Tushar Mehta representing the CBI and two Congress lawyers representing Chidambaram in the small but packed courtroom 502.
Mehta sought five days’ custody of Chidambaram but Special Judge Ajay Kumar Kuhar granted only four days.
The CBI can, however, seek an extension of the custody not exceeding 14 days if it wants to take the suspect to places to confront him with key witnesses or recover documents in the INX Media case which also involves his son Karti.
‘A serious case’
Opening the arguments, Mehta said the CBI needs the custodial interrogation of Chidambaram as INX is a serious case that needs to be probed deeper to establish the money trail.
However, Chidambaram is not cooperating with CBI officials and he evades their questions related to the case.
While the suspect has the right to remain silent, he cannot use that right to block an important investigation, Mehta said.
Documents with the CBI show Karti is allegedly linked to some shell companies in UK and Spain and his father is silent on them. If Chidambaram does not give straight answers, the CBI may seek more time for his custodial interrogation, Mehta said.
The investigators need answers from Chidambaram on alleged violations in the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) approval request and the bribe INX Media paid to Karti for helping in regularising the over-invested amount as foreign direct investment
‘FIPB officials never questioned’
Kapil Sibal, representing Chidambaram, asked the court why bail is being denied to his client while it is granted to his son Karti, the prime accused.
Chidambaram never skipped summons. How he can then be described as a flight risk, Sibal asked.
He also wanted to know why five secretaries of the FIPB who may have played a role in approving foreign funds to INX media were never questioned by the CBI.
The case against Chidambaram and Karti hinges on the disclosure by INX Media’s former executive Indrani Mukerjea who lacks credibility since she is a murder accused, Sibal argued.
In a recorded confessional statement, Mukerjea had told CBI that Karti allegedly asked her for a bribe of $1 million for helping her firm by using his father’s influence when they met at Hyatt hotel in Delhi in 2007.
Sibal wanted to know details of the bank accounts into which the $1 million was transferred.
He said CBI officials did not allow his client to sleep on Tuesday night as they kept questioning him. Although the formal interrogation of Chidambaram was to begin at 9.30am on Thursday, it was delayed for hours despite repeated reminders by him through the jail guard.
When the exercise was finally over, Chidambaram was shocked to find that he had previously answered six of the 12 questions put to him.
It is not a legal case, but something else against Chidambaram, Sibal said.
He was implying that Chidambaram is being harassed because he happened to be on the other side of the political spectrum.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, another lawyer representing Chidambaram, also argued that Mukerjea lacks credibility and her disclosure against Karti and Chidambaram cannot be taken as evidence.
CBI did not call Chidambaram for the past 11 to 12 months. Why did they call him now and hurriedly arrest him, Singhvi asked.
On Mehta’s argument that Chidambaram has not been cooperating with CBI, he wanted to know whether ‘cooperation’ for CBI means making a statement to please the investigators.
While levelling such wild allegations, CBI should substantiate their claims, he said.
At this point, Chidambaram tried to intervene but Mehta objected. Singhvi cited a previous case where such intervention had been approved by a judge.
The judge then allowed the suspect to speak.
Chidambaram said that while questioning him in the afternoon, CBI officials wanted to know whether he has a bank account abroad. He told them ‘no’, adding that his son has an account in a foreign bank with the central bank’s permit.
The ruling, which was to be pronounced at 5.3o pm, was delayed by nearly 50 minutes. Although it went against him, Chidambaram put up a brave smile and gave a thumbs-up to the media.
In their arguments, Sibal and Singhvi questioned the credibility of Mukerjea to show those assembled in the court that the case against their leader was extremely weak.
But Mukerjea turned approver after confessing that she conspired with Karti to get FIPB’s clearances. Anyone accused can confess and that includes even Karti.
Mukerjea’s role in the murder case has nothing to do with her disclosure in the INX scam. Her disclosure of the alleged meeting with Karti in Hyatt hotel will be examined by a judge when the trial starts.
While Mehta harped on Chidambaram’s alleged lack of cooperation with CBI, Singhvi dismissed it by saying his client never skipped the agency’s summons.
But by attending CBI summons regularly without answering their strait questions, Chidambaram will only be dragging the case.
Sibal and Chidambaram cited the questions asked by CBI during Thursday’s interrogation to send a message that it is a frivolous exercise.
Mukul Wasnik, senior Congress leader who was present in the courtroom, said their leader should not be harassed this way, adding that truth will prevail.
Other opposition parties did not rally behind Congress maybe because the grand old party never supported them when their leaders were caught in similar situation in the past.
For Congress party, the arrest of Chidambaram comes ahead of assembly election in some states. They fear the governing Bharatiya Janata Party may sweep the polls by highlighting their ongoing anti-corruption drive in campaigns