HC says CBI's reason to arrest Venugopal Dhoot 'quite casual' and 'sans substance'
The Bombay High Court on Friday granted interim bail to Videocon Group founder Venugopal Dhoot nearly a month after he was arrested in the Videocon-ICICI Bank loan fraud case, noting that the reason mentioned by the CBI for his arrest was "quite casual and without any substance".
Stating that an investigating officer cannot arrest any accused as per his "whims and fancies", the high court also rapped the special court saying it did not make any "serious efforts" to scrutinise the remand application as well as the case diary.
A division bench of Justices Revati Mohite Dere and P K Chavan further noted that there has been a calculated move by the CBI to "concoct non-attendance and non-cooperation" in the probe by Dhoot, but in face the material placed before the court demonstrated Dhoot's diligence and bona-fide.
Dhoot was arrested on December 26, 2022 and is presently in judicial custody. His lawyers Sandeep Ladha and Viral Babar said they would now initiate Dhoot's release formalities.
This is the second time the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has received flak from the court in this case. The same bench had of January 9 while granting bail to the co-accused in the case - Chanda Kochhar, former MD and CEO of ICICI bank and her husband Deepak Kochhar - had come down heavily on the CBI for making the arrest of the couple in a casual and mechanical manner and without application of mind.
The bench on Friday granted interim bail to Dhoot on a surety of Rs one lakh. The court permitted him to furnish cash bail and deposit the surety amount two weeks thereafter.
The order was passed in a petition filed by Dhoot seeking interim bail and to quash the CBI FIR.
The court would hear the petition on February 6 on the main issue of quashing the FIR.
The bench, in its 48-page judgment, said arrest is not mandatory in each and every case, and added that in the present case the ground of arrest mentioned by the CBI was "quite casual and without any substance".
"The investigating officer cannot arrest the accused at his whims and fancies. Non-compliance of section 41 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) is apparent," the court said.
Section 41 of the CrPC mandates a police officer to first issue a notice to an accused for questioning and to make arrest only when the custody of the accused is necessary. The order said that a police officer is not only expected to record reasons for arrest in writing but even in cases where he chooses not to arrest, he has to assign reasons.
The court noted that in the present case, the CBI had issued summons to Dhoot and in two such instances, the summons were sent to someone else or pasted on the wall of Dhoot's former office building.
"Prima facie, this seems to be nothing but a calculated move by the CBI to concoct non-attendance and non-cooperation by the petitioner," the HC said.
It added that despite all this, Dhoot wrote emails to the CBI in response to the summons issued.
"The diligence and bona-fide of the petitioner can be demonstrated from the email. From the language of the email, it appears that the petitioner (Dhoot) had already handed over all the documents and co-operated with the investigating agency by appearing in its office on several occasions despite his deteriorating health," the HC said.
The court also refused to accept the CBI's arguments that Dhoot intentionally did not appear to avoid confrontation with the co-accused in the case - Chanda Kochhar and Deepak Kochhar - and said this argument is to be "accepted with a pinch of salt." "There is no satisfactory answer from the investigating agency as to why for a period of three years, the investigating agency has neither confronted all the accused before one another or demonstrated the progress of the investigation," the HC said.
The court noted that the grounds of arrest mentioned by the CBI in the arrest memo is without any particulars as to how Dhoot's statements were inconsistent and how he had not co-operated with the investigating agency.
The high court further held that even the special court while remanding the accused (in the CBI custody) has not adhered to the provisions of law.
"Merely mentioning in the arrest memo that the petitioner (Dhoot) has been inconsistent in his statements and has kept on changing his versions and has not co-operated with the investigation in disclosing full and true facts, is not sufficient and the same cannot be a ground of arrest as it is unacceptable," it said in its judgment.
It added that merely because an accused does not confess does not "ipso facto" mean that the accused is not co-operating with the investigation.
"Article 20(3) of the Constitution enjoys an exalted status and serves as an essential safeguard against torture and coercive measures used by the investigating agency. The courts have time and again reiterated the role of courts in protecting personal liberty and ensuring that investigation is not used as a tool of harassment," the HC said.
It added that the special court has not made any "serious efforts" to scrutinise the remand application as well as the case diary.
The court also dismissed an application filed by an advocate seeking to intervene in the matter and for the bench to recall its earlier order granting bail to two other accused in the case - Chanda Kochhar former Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the ICICI bank and her husband Deepak Kochhar.
The bench imposed a cost of Rs 25,000 on the advocate.
The CBI has alleged that private sector lender ICICI Bank had sanctioned credit facilities to the tune of Rs 3,250 crore to the companies of Videocon Group promoted by Dhoot in violation of the Banking Regulation Act, Reserve Bank of India's guidelines, and credit policy of the bank.
The CBI had named Chanda Kochhar, Deepak Kochhar as well as Dhoot along with Nupower Renewables (NRL) managed by Deepak Kochhar, Supreme Energy, Videocon International Electronics Ltd and Videocon Industries Ltd as accused in the FIR registered in 2019 under Indian Penal Code sections related to criminal conspiracy and provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The central agency has alleged that the ICICI Bank sanctioned credit facilities to the tune of Rs 3,250 crore to these companies in violation of norms.
It further alleged that as a part of quid pro quo, Dhoot made an investment of Rs 64 crore in Nupower Renewables through Supreme Energy Pvt Ltd (SEPL), and transferred SEPL to Pinnacle Energy Trust managed by Deepak Kochhar through a circuitous route between 2010 and 2012.