T.N. Senthilbalaji arrest | Minister is feigning illness, want him back in custody on discharge from hospital: ED to SC

SC to hear the case on June 21; ED challenges habeas corpus petition filed by Minister’s wife at High Court and a Sessions Court order imposing various conditions on ED

Updated - June 19, 2023 09:08 pm IST

Published - June 19, 2023 12:24 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Senthilbalaji reacts in pain while being taken to a government hospital after his arrest in connection with a money laundering case, in Chennai, on June 13, 2023.

Senthilbalaji reacts in pain while being taken to a government hospital after his arrest in connection with a money laundering case, in Chennai, on June 13, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) on Monday moved the Supreme Court accusing Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji, arrested in a money-laundering case related to a cash-for-jobs scam, of “feigning illness immediately upon arrest” and getting himself admitted in a private hospital during remand in a bid to render the investigation “otiose and meaningless”.

The apex court listed the case for hearing on June 21.

The ED filed two petitions, one against the habeas corpus petition filed by Mr. Senthilbalaji’s wife in the Madras High Court; and another against the conditions laid for the ED by the Principal Sessions Court while undertaking custodial interrogation of the accused.

Appearing before a Vacation Bench led by Justice Surya Kant on Monday, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the ED, said it wanted the Minister back in its custody as soon as he was discharged from the private hospital. In the meanwhile, the ED said the time he spends in the private hospital should not be deemed as “effective custody”.

Under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, an accused is kept in police custody for 15 days, effectively for interrogation, from the date of arrest. Following this period, the accused is remanded in judicial custody. Mr. Senthilbalaji was arrested in the early hours of June 14.

The ED accused the Minister of shifting to a private hospital to avoid the 15-day police custody and questioning.

“It was only after the arrest that he complained of illness and chose to be hospitalised. There is a reasonable apprehension that he is feigning illness only to render meaningless the effective interrogation and investigation of the ED… No accused can be allowed to play with the investigation or court process,” the petition contended.

The ED has also challenged the Principal Sessions Court order of June 16, which had prohibited the ED from moving the Minister out of the private hospital. It had directed the agency to interrogate the Minister only after taking his doctor’s advice and without causing any “hindrance to his health”.

Mr. Mehta said the Madras High Court is scheduled to hear the habeas corpus petition on June 22. On that day, the High Court is also expected to consider the question whether the time he spent in the private hospital should be excluded from the period of custody. The ED questioned the very maintainability of the habeas corpus plea.

“He is an influential man, a senior Minister. How can a habeas corpus petition in the first place be entertained following a legal arrest and remand of an accused? The petition was not maintainable. The High Court should not have entertained it,” Mr. Mehta argued.

He stressed that the ED investigation would suffer “irreparable loss” by the time the case comes up before the High Court on June 22. The agency, Mr. Mehta said, was “running out of time”.

The Solicitor General argued that Mr. Senthilbalaji was arrested on June 14. The ED could, under the law, keep him in police remand for questioning for only 15 days from the date of his detention. After this, the Minister would have to be transferred into judicial custody without a chance to revert to police remand.

The law officer referred to the Supreme Court’s 1982 judgment in CBI versus Anup J. Kulkarni, which had held that “after the expiry of the first period of 15 days the further remand during the period of investigation can only be in judicial custody. There cannot be any detention in the police custody after the expiry of the first 15 days even in a case where some more offences either serious or otherwise committed by him in the same transaction come to light at a later stage.”

He noted that the apex court in Gian Singh v. State (Delhi Administration) had held that “once the accused is remanded to judicial custody he cannot be sent back again to police custody in connection with or in continuation of the same investigation even though the first period of 15 days has not exhausted”.

On May 16, the apex court had paved the way for the investigation to continue against Mr. Senthilbalaji, who is accused of taking bribes in exchange for jobs in the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), when he was Transport Minister (2011-15) in the Jayalalithaa Cabinet.

The top court had set aside a Madras High Court order of October 31 last year, directing de novo or fresh investigation against the Minister. The apex court had directed the investigation to be wrapped up in two months.

The judgment, authored by Justice V. Ramasubramanian (since retired), had also given the green signal for initiation of proceedings by the ED in related money laundering charges against the Minister. The judgment in May had eventually led to the eventual arrest of the Minister.

A Division Bench of the Madras High Court had earlier stayed the ED probe against the Minister under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) case.

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