New Delhi, Jan. 16: The Bofors scandal is living up to its history of mystery with the CBI today disclosing that the process which led to lifting the freeze on Ottavio Quattrocchi’s London accounts was started by it.
So far it had been thought that the law ministry was responsible.
“The decision to send additional solicitor-general B. Dutta to London was taken by the CBI in November last year and neither the law ministry nor the personnel department has anything to do with it,” A.K. Majumdar, the agency’s joint director, said.
In Guwahati, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a similar statement. “Actions relating to both freezing and unfreezing of these accounts have been taken at the level of the CBI in consultation with law officials according to established procedures.”
Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) removed the freeze in place since 2003 on two Quattrocchi accounts in the Swiss bank, BSI AG, holding over Rs 20 crore.
“Neither the freezing nor the unfreezing was done under government orders,” Singh said.
His government has never interfered with the CBI’s functioning, added the Prime Minister, whose office is in charge of the department of personnel that, in turn, is the administrative authority for the CBI.
The CBI’s admission was a volte-face of sorts as an impression had been created through reports quoting unnamed agency sources as saying it was not involved in any way in communicating to the British authorities that there was no evidence linking Quattrocchi’s accounts to alleged kickbacks in the Rs 64-crore Bofors gun deal.
Coming after five days of speculation over who sent Dutta to London, the statement lifts the cloud over law minister H.R. Bhardwaj, who had nearly gone through a trial outside the courtroom.
Possibly emboldened by the CBI’s admission to the CPS that there was no evidence of the accounts containing slush money, Quattrocchi spoke up today.
In a statement faxed from Milan, the Italian businessman, said to be close to the late Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister and during whose tenure the Bofors deal was concluded, demanded that the case against him be closed now.
“I believe it would be in (the) interest of justice and India’s reputation if this case against me is brought to an end,” he said.
Quattrocchi offered to be questioned by the CBI in Italy, citing the instances of the Hindujas and the late Win Chaddha, fellow accused in the Bofors case.
While it is not yet known if Quattrocchi has already withdrawn money from the London accounts, the Supreme Court has sought steps to prevent him from doing so.
“Till further order we direct the Centre and (the) CBI to take necessary steps for maintenance of status quo on (the) accounts in question so that the defreezing of accounts does not take place.
“If the defreezing of accounts has already taken place, it should not be allowed to be withdrawn,” the court said.
The CPS has said it ordered lifting of the freeze on January 11 and there is little reason to believe Quattrocchi has not already accessed the accounts.
Even if he has not, how the government or the CBI will persuade the CPS to reverse its order is not known, though Majumdar said London had been informed of the Supreme Court order.
The CBI chief explained that the CPS had been communicating with the agency alone, and not the government. It had sought to know the consequences for the frozen Quattrocchi accounts of the Delhi High Court judgment quashing charges in the Bofors case, leading to the trip by Dutta.
The CBI chief was asked if the agency had briefed Dutta to tell the CPS to unfreeze the accounts. “We only told him that so far there is no proof to link the money in Quattrocchi’s London accounts with the Bofors payoffs,” Majumdar replied.
He would not say if Dutta had exceeded his brief.