Madras High Court takes up suo motu revision of Minister Ponmudy’s acquittal from disproportionate assets case

Justice N. Anand Venkatesh says events leading to the acquittal reveal “a shocking and calculated attempt to manipulate and subvert the criminal justice system”

August 10, 2023 10:49 am | Updated December 21, 2023 03:04 pm IST - CHENNAI

Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy. File

Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy. File | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

In a rare move, the Madras High Court on Thursday, August 10, 2023 took up a suo motu revision against the recent acquittal of Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy, his wife and friend by a trial court from a disproportionate assets case registered in 2002.

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Justice N. Anand Venkatesh took up the revision after observing that events leading to the acquittal order passed by the Vellore principal district court on June 28 revealed “a shocking and calculated attempt to manipulate and subvert the criminal justice system.”

The judge pointed out that the charge against the Minister was that he had amassed wealth during his tenure as Transport Minister between 1996 and 2001. Therefore, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption had booked him, his wife, mother-in-law and two friends.

Also read: T.N. Minister Ponmudy, his wife, sentenced to three years of simple imprisonment in disproportionate assets case  

In 2004, a Chief Judicial Magistrate in Villupuram discharged the accused from the case and the High Court too confirmed the discharge order in 2006. However, on appeal by the State, the Supreme Court reversed the discharge orders and ordered conduct of trial.

The Minister’s mother-in-law and one of the two friends died in the meantime and hence in 2015, the trial court framed charges only against the three surviving accused and examination of witnesses commenced before the Villupuram Principal District Court.

DVAC examined as many as 169 witnesses before the Villupuram Principal District Court, which was designated as the special court for hearing cases against MPs and MLAs in 2019. When things stood thus, the Principal District Judge wrote a letter to the High Court on April 26, 2022.

In the letter, the district judge requested permission for conducting special sittings on four holidays in the month of May 2022 to conduct the trial in the disproportionate assets case since the Supreme Court had insisted upon expeditious disposal.

The request was considered and rejected by the High Court on its administrative side only on June 7, 2022 long after the expiry of the dates when the district judge had planned to conduct the proceedings.

“The official memorandum not only communicates the refusal of permission but also shockingly injuncts the Principal District Judge, Villupuram, from exercising her judicial powers over the case by directing that the case should not be taken up until further orders,” Justice Venkatesh wrote.

Thereafter, on July 6 and July 7, 2022, two High Court judges, holding the portfolio of Villupuram district, had written to the then Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari to transfer the disproportionate assets case from Villupuram to Vellore. The Chief Justice approved the transfer on July 8, 2022.

Pointing out that neither the Chief Justice nor the portfolio judges of the High Court have any authority to pass orders on the administrative side for transferring a case from one district to another, Justice Venkatesh said such transfer was “ex-facie illegal and non est in law.”

He went on to state: “By the first week of June 2023, the celestial stars of the accused appeared to be lining up perfectly, with the blessings of judicial personages, including the Principal District Judge, Vellore, who was set to demit office on June 30, 2023.”

A defence witnesses was quickly examined on June 6, 2023 and the written submisssions on behalf of the accused were submitted on June 23, 2023.

“Within four days thereafter, the Vellore Principal District Judge marshalled the evidence of 172 prosecution witnesses and 381 documents and managed (or rather stage-managed) to deliver a 226-page testament/judgment acquitting all the accused on June 28, 2023. This unique feat of industry on the part of the Principal District Judge, Vellore, can find few parallels, and it may well be said is a feat that even judicial mortals in constitutional courts can only dream of,” Justice Venkatesh wrote.

Two days after delivering the judgement, the Principal District Judge retired from service on June 30, 2023 and “cheerfully rode off into the sunset,” he added.

“The dubious and curious process of transfer followed by the trial and judgment of the Principal District Judge, Vellore, are wholly illegal and are nullities in the eyes of law. These illegalities having come to my notice, I have decided to exercise my powers under under Section 397 & 401 Code of Criminal Procedure and Article 227 of the Constitution suo motu as I find that there is a calculated attempt to undermine and thwart the administration of criminal justice,” the judge said.

He ordered notices, returnable by September 7, to the DVAC as well as the Minister on the suo motu revision petition. “The Registry is directed to place a copy of this order before the Hon’ble Chief Justice for information,” the judge concluded.

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