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Since 1st March, 1999
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Pranab sticks to Phukan plane facts

New Delhi, May 4: George Fernandes extended favours to Justice S.N. Phukan who was investigating defence deals the former defence minister had approved.

Amid shouts from supporters of the UPA government in Parliament today that there was a clear case of 'conflict of interests', defence minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement in the two Houses that his predecessor had granted permission in December 2003 for the use of Indian Air Force VIP aircraft for a tour by Justice Phukan and his aides.

'Normally for a visit of a commission (of inquiry), IAF aircraft are not provided,' Mukherjee said in a statement in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

In the Lok Sabha, the Speaker did not allow questions and arguments despite repeated pleas by the MPs of the Congress and the Left. Justice Phukan heads the commission of inquiry that is probing deals during Fernandes's tenure as defence minister in the wake of the Tehelka expose.

'It does appear to be improper that some expenses of the commission which is probing defence deals are met by the defence ministry,' Mukherjee said in the Rajya Sabha.

But the defence minister was not willing to strike and took the line that the facts of the case ' of impropriety ' should speak for themselves. He neither castigated Fernandes nor did he say specifically if the favour extended to the Phukan commission was right or wrong.

This attitude upset the Congress and Left MPs who wanted action to be taken against Fernandes.

In a suo motu statement, Mukherjee said permission for Phukan and his entourage to use defence facilities on a visit from Delhi to Pune, Mumbai and Ahmednagar was granted by the minister of defence on December 11, 2003.

The Phukan commission is inquiring into 14 defence deals such as acquisition of Russian T-90 tanks, Sukhoi 30 fighter aircraft, Hawk advanced jet trainers and Barak anti-missile systems. The report of the commission is likely to be tabled before the end of the current session of Parliament on May 13.

Asked for his reaction to the statement, Fernandes, who was not in the House because the NDA had boycotted the proceedings, said: 'I do not know who are entitled or who are not entitled. When the matter is brought before me, I will look into it.'

In his statement, Mukherjee did not comment but laid out the facts of the case. It detailed the entitlements for the use of VIP aircraft of the IAF. The President and the Prime Minister are entitled to the service aircraft. So are the defence minister, the home minister, the chiefs of services and the defence secretary provided that the aircraft are available and with permission from the defence minister.

Mukherjee said Justice Phukan was accompanied by his wife and eight officials. The tourists also visited the shrine of a godman at Shirdi even though the ostensible reason for the tour was the examination of weapon systems whose agreements were being probed.

Mukherjee made it clear that VIP aircraft are available only for official duty. During the visit that was purported to be official, Justice Phukan and his entourage also visited the Ajanta and Ellora caves.

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