P. Chidambram is entitled to bail, says Supreme Court of India

Consideration of documents in sealed cover:

While the learned Judge was empowered to look at the materials produced in a sealed cover to satisfy his judicial conscience, the learned Judge ought not to have recorded finding based on the materials produced in a sealed cover. Further while deciding the same case of the appellant in Crl. Appeal No.1340 of 2019, after holding so, this Court had consciously refrained from opening the sealed cover and perusing the documents lest some observations are made thereon after perusal of the same, which would prejudice the accused pre-trial. In that circumstance though it is held that it would be open for the Court to peruse the documents, it would be against the concept of fair trial if in every case the prosecution presents documents in sealed cover and the findings on the same are recorded as if the offence is committed and the same is treated as having a bearing for denial or grant of bail.

Having said so, in present circumstance we were not very much inclined to open the sealed cover although the materials in sealed cover was received from the respondent. However, since the learned Single Judge of the High Court had perused the documents in sealed cover and arrived at certain conclusion and since that order is under challenge, it had become imperative for us to also open the sealed cover and peruse the contents so as to satisfy ourselves to that extent. On perusal we have taken note that the statements of persons concerned have been recorded and the details collected have been collated. The recording of statements and the collation of material is in the nature of allegation against one of the co-accused Karti Chidambaram- son of appellant of opening shell companies and also purchasing benami properties in the name of relatives at various places in different countries. Except for recording the same, we do not wish to advert to the documents any further since ultimately, these are allegations which would have to be established in the trial wherein the accused/co-accused would have the opportunity of putting forth their case, if any, and an ultimate conclusion would be reached. Hence in our opinion, the finding recorded by the learned Judge of the High Court based on the material in sealed cover is not justified.

Grant of Bail:

Therefore, at this stage while considering the bail application of the appellant herein what is to be taken note is that, at a stage when the appellant was before this Court in an application seeking for interim protection/anticipatory bail, this Court while considering the matter in Criminal Appeal No.1340/2019 had in that regard held that in a matter of present nature wherein grave economic offence is alleged, custodial interrogation as contended would be necessary and in that circumstance the anticipatory bail was rejected.Subsequently the appellant has been taken into custody and has been interrogated and for the said purpose the appellant was available in custody in this case from16.10.2019 onwards. It is, however, contended on behalf of the respondent that the witnesses will have to be confronted and as such custody is required for that purpose. As noted, the appellant has not been named as one of the accused in the ECIR but the allegation while being made against the co-accused it is indicated the appellant who was the Finance Minister at that point, has aided the illegal transactions since one of the co-accused
is the son of the appellant. In this context even if the statements on record and materials gathered are taken note, the complicity of the appellant will have to be established in the trial and if convicted, the appellant will undergo sentence. For the present, as taken note the anticipatory bail had been declined earlier and the appellant was available for custodial interrogation for more than 45 days. In addition to the custodial interrogation if further investigation is to be made, the appellant would be bound to participate in such investigation as is required by the respondent. Further it is noticed that one of the co-accused has been granted bail by the High Court while the other co-accused is enjoying interim protection from arrest. The appellant is aged about 74 years and as noted by the High Court itself in its order, the appellant has already suffered two bouts of illness during incarceration and was put on antibiotics and has been advised to take steroids of maximum strength. In that circumstance, the availability of the appellant for further investigation, interrogation and facing trial is not jeopardized and 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. It is made clear that the observations contained touching upon the merits either in the order of the High Court or in this order shall not be construed as an opinion expressed on merits and all contentions are left open to be considered during the course of trial.26. For the reasons stated above, we pass the following order:

i)The instant appeal is allowed and the judgment dated 15.11.2019 passed by the High Court of Delhi inBail Application No.2718 of 2019 impugned herein is setaside;

ii)The appellant is ordered to be released on bail if he is not required in any other case, subject to executing bail bonds for a sum of Rs.2 lakhs with two sureties of the like sum produced to the satisfaction of the learned Special Judge;

iii)The passport ordered to be deposited by this Court in the CBI case shall remain in deposit and the appellant shall not leave the country without specific orders to be passed by the learned Special Judge.

iv)The appellant shall make himself available for interrogation in the course of further investigation as and when required by the respondent.

v)The appellant shall not tamper with the evidence or attempt to intimidate or influence the witnesses;

vi) The appellant shall not give any press interviews nor make any public comment in connection with this case qua him or other co-accused.

vii)There shall be no order as to costs

[Source: P. Chidambram vs. State decided by SC on 4 December 2019]

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