No bail for Senthilbalaji, Madras High Court dismisses his plea

The Court ordered the trial to be completed within three months, with proceedings on a day-to-day basis as far as possible; the former T.N. Minister is facing money laundering charges in a case booked by the Enforcement Directorate

February 28, 2024 11:06 am | Updated 05:39 pm IST - CHENNAI

Former T.N. Minister for Electricity, Prohibition and Excise V. Senthilbalaji. File B. Jothi Ramalingam

Former T.N. Minister for Electricity, Prohibition and Excise V. Senthilbalaji. File B. Jothi Ramalingam | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The Madras High Court on Wednesday, February 28, 2024, refused to grant bail to former Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji in a money laundering case, in which he was arrested by the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) on June 14 last year, after observing that he continues to wield a lot of influence on the State government.

Justice N. Anand Venkatesh dismissed the bail petition but directed the Principal Sessions Court in Chennai to complete the trial within three months by conducting the proceedings on a day-to-day basis, since the petitioner has been in jail for more than 250 days.

The judge agreed with Additional Solicitor-General AR.L. Sundaresan, assisted by Special Public Prosecutor N. Ramesh for ED cases, that the petitioner had resigned from the Cabinet just a day before the hearing of the present bail petition early this month and not before that.

“The fact that he continued to hold the position as a Minister for nearly eight months and, that too, without a portfolio, when he was in the jail, shows the tremendous influence of the petitioner and the importance that is given to him by the State government,” the judge wrote.

Even after resigning from the Cabinet, “he continues to be an MLA belonging to the same party which is running the government in the State of Tamil Nadu and therefore, without any hesitation, this court holds that the petitioner continues to wield a lot of influence on the government,” Justice Venkatesh added.

Since the money laundering case had been booked on the basis of a cash-for-jobs scam involving State transport corporation officials who had been arrayed as witnesses by the ED, the judge said there was every possibility of those witnesses being influenced and the evidence being tampered with if the petitioner was let out on bail.

“This court is also taking into consideration the larger interest of the State since the petitioner was involved in a scam by misusing his position as a Transport Minister and thereby genuine aspirants for the jobs were deprived of a level playing field and in their place persons who paid money were accommodated. If the petitioner is let out on bail in a case of this nature, it will send a wrong signal and it will be against larger public interest,” the judge said.

The ED had accused the petitioner of having received a fixed amount of bribe, such as ₹1.5 lakh, for appointment to the post of driver, ₹2 lakh for conductor, ₹4 lakh for Junior Tradesman, ₹5 lakh for Junior Assistant, ₹7 lakh for Junior Engineer and ₹8 lakh for Assistant Engineer when he served as the Transport Minister in Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet between 2011 and 2016.

The Chennai Central Crime Branch (CCB) had investigated the scam by registering multiple FIRs. Subsequently, the petitioner switched political loyalty, joined the DMK and assumed charge as Minister for Electricity and Prohibition in May 2021.

The ED registered a Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR) against him under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002, on July 29, 2021, after finding the total proceeds of the crime involved in the scam to be ₹67.74 crore.

Though he had sought bail on the ground that there was hardly any concrete evidence against him and that the electronic evidence relied upon by the ED had also been tampered with, the judge perused the documents on record and found the factual situation to be otherwise.

“This court is not convinced that the respondent [the ED] has indulged in tampering with the electronic records or that such tampering had even taken place or that such tampering had been done by the investigation agency [the CCB] in the predicate offences... There is no question of doubting their probative value at the stage of dealing with a bail petition,” he stated.

The judge also said the ED had collected sufficient materials which prima facie establish the offence of money laundering against the petitioner and therefore, he would have to prove his innocence only by facing a full-fledged trial. Justice Venkatesh said the general proposition of bail being the rule and jail an exception does not apply to the PMLA under which the inverse proposition of jail being the rule and bail an exception applies.

He pointed out that Section 45(1) of the PMLA requires a court to comply with two conditions before granting bail. It must not only be satisfied that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the petitioner was not guilty but also that the accused was not likely to commit any offence while on bail.

The Supreme Court had upheld the constitutional validity of Section 45(1) of the PMLA in Vijay Madanlal Choudhary vs Union of India (2022) and in Tarun Kumar vs Assistant Director of ED (2023), it had held that the twin conditions specified in the Section were mandatory and they must be complied with.

“In the present case, the petitioner has not made out a case by satisfying this court that there are reasonable grounds for believing that he is not guilty. Hence, the twin conditions that are mandatory under Section 45(1) the PMLA have not been satisfied by the petitioner,” the judge concluded.

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