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Minister arrest shield

New Delhi, Oct. 20: The Centre’s prior approval is necessary for a Union minister to be arrested by any state authority under the anti-terror legislation, according to the Union home and law ministries.

The opinion of the ministries was expressed in the wake of Jayalalithaa’s letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, asking him to drop Union minister for non-conventional energy M. Kannappan as Tamil Nadu police are set to arrest him under the anti-terror act for his alleged speech in support of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Tamil Nadu chief minister’s public declaration that she would arrest Kannappan under the act had triggered a heated debate in New Delhi’s power circles. Several allies of the BJP from her state, like the DMK, the MDMK (Kannappan’s party) and the PMK, have been lobbying for “watering down” the provisions of the anti-terror law.

Under Section 21 of the act, a speech in support of a banned terrorist organisation attracts arrest. MDMK leader Vaiko, a Lok Sabha member, has been in jail for more than a year. He, too, has been accused of speaking in the LTTE’s favour at Thirumangalam near Madurai.

Vajpayee is understood to have asked both the law and home ministries for their opinion. The anti-terror act comes under the purview of the home ministry. Home minister L.K. Advani met law minister Arun Jaitley, sources said, adding that this meeting “consolidated” the opinion.

There is a “distinction” between arresting an MP and a Union minister under the act, official sources said. “Since a Union minister enjoys the confidence of the Prime Minister and is appointed and sworn in under the hand and seal of the President, his arrest cannot be effected without the Centre’s nod.”

For arresting an MP, it is enough to inform the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or chairman of the Rajya Sabha, depending on which House he belongs to. Thus, when Vaiko was held, the Speaker was formally informed.

The Centre has not yet communicated its opinion to the Tamil Nadu government, which contends that a Union minister is also an MP and, hence, it would be enough to inform the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or chairman of the Rajya Sabha of his arrest.

The MDMK leader has challenged Section 21 of the act in the Supreme Court, which has finished hearing some other petitions also questioning the act, and a judgment has been reserved.

A string of arrests has triggered charges that the law is being misused to settle scores with political opponents.

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