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Lalu off hook, Delhi breathes easy

Patna, Dec. 18: A special CBI court today acquitted railway minister Lalu Prasad and wife Rabri Devi in the disproportionate assets case, handing a huge relief to the Manmohan Singh government.

It took special judge Munilal Paswan just a few minutes to pronounce the verdict before the couple inside a packed courtroom. “Lalu Prasad aur Rabri Devi ko nirdosh paakar riha kiya jaata hai (Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi have been found not guilty and are being acquitted),” he said.

Prosecution counsel L.R. Ansari said the verdict would be challenged in a higher court, but a CBI source said the matter was a “political decision to be taken at the highest level”. An appeal can be moved within 90 days.

Outside the courtroom, surrounded by supporters and reporters, Lalu Prasad said: “Justice has been done. As always, we have full faith in the judiciary.”

“We are very happy. We respect the judiciary,” Rabri Devi added. The couple had been out on bail.

The verdict is a breather for the UPA government, which has been under fire from the Opposition over the recent murder conviction of Shibu Soren, who was coal minister. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader, who had to quit the ministry, is serving a life term.

The assets case, registered by the CBI in 1998, relates to the period 1990-1997 when Lalu Prasad was chief minister of undivided Bihar.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal chief was accused of amassing property worth Rs 46 lakh beyond his known sources of income, and Rabri Devi of abetting the offence. The charges were pressed under several sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Legal experts suggested the case may have tilted Lalu Prasad’s way partly because of the relief he had received from an income-tax tribunal two years ago.

The CBI had filed the chargesheet in the year 2000 following the income-tax department’s assessment of the couple’s property. But the tax tribunal ruled the assessment “incorrect”.

By then, the United Progressive Alliance government had come to power at the Centre. “The government did not appeal against the tribunal’s order to favour Lalu Prasad,” alleged Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP.

Modi and Janata Dal (United) Bihar unit chief Lallan Singh, both political adversaries of Lalu Prasad, had approached the Supreme Court for a direction to the Centre to challenge the tribunal’s ruling. But their plea was set aside. “Thus the tribunal’s order weakened the otherwise strong assets case,” a CBI official said.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad’s arch-rival, avoided comment, saying: “It is a matter between a Union minister and a central agency. The state government is not a party in the case. So there is nothing for me to say.”

But Modi suggestively said: “This case has seen a change of judges several times.” Paswan was the fifth judge to hear the case.The assets case was an offshoot of the fodder scam, in which Lalu Prasad faces six corruption cases.

The first information report in the assets case was registered in 1998 by the then CBI superintendent of police (Bihar), V.S.K. Kaumudi. As many as 226 witnesses deposed before the special court.

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