| (From left) Gopichand, Prakashchand and Srichand Hinduja
New Delhi, July 7: The Supreme Court today ordered that the Hinduja brothers — Srichand, Prakashchand and Gopichand — be tried as accused in the Bofors case.
The apex court directed the designated special judge to proceed with the trial and asked the special trial judge to “carefully scrutinise the materials on record and other circumstances of the case in accordance with law” while framing charges against the accused.
A division bench of Justices S. Rajendra Babu and G.P. Mathur, which gave a 42-page judgment today, set aside a May 2002 ruling of Delhi High Court which had quashed the chargesheet filed against them by the CBI.
The high court had quashed the chargesheet on grounds that the CBI did not take the approval of the Central Vigilance Commission before filing the chargesheet. But when the CBI appealed to the apex court, it said Delhi High Court had erred in its ruling.
In the Jain hawala case, fought as a public interest litigation by journalist Vineet Narain, the Supreme Court had directed that the vigilance commission would be an overall superintending body of investigating agencies in the country.
But this did not mean that the CBI could not go ahead with prosecution. The order in the hawala case was only aimed at ensuring the independence of agencies like the CBI, the apex court clarified.
The CBI did not need any “concurrence or prior approval” from the commission before filing chargesheets, the judges said.
Justice Mathur who wrote the judgment for the bench, described the high court verdict which had quashed the chargesheets against the Hindujas as “quite confusing and self-contradictory”.
With today’s ruling, the trial in the 13-year case, which was stayed in December last year and was sought to be stalled at various levels in the judicial process, is all set to begin in the special court in Delhi.
The Hinduja brothers are currently out on conditional bail. One of the bail conditions was that two of the brothers could go abroad while the other remained in India. Now that the trial is set to begin, the bail conditions may change and the brothers might be required to apply for bail afresh.
All three brothers are abroad at present, having obtained special permission from the Supreme Court to travel together. They will now have to return to India to face trial.
The Supreme Court said the high court had committed a “serious error” by quashing the chargesheet. It said the high court did not give due consideration to the CBI contention that no prior approval or permission was required from the commission to file chargesheets in a criminal case.
But counsel for the Hindujas Ujjwal Rana sought to downplay the impact of the ruling. He said the judgment “pertained only to a technical point of law”, which was whether the CBI needed the commission’s prior permission.
The CBI registered an FIR in the Bofors case in 1990. It had filed a supplementary chargesheet in 2000, accusing the Hindujas of receiving “kickbacks” in the Rs 1,437-crore deal for 155mm Howitzer field guns.