Senthilbalaji postponed heart surgery from June 18 to 21 to cooperate with ED, counsel tells Madras HC

Appearing before Justice C.V. Karthikeyan, Solicitor- General Tushar Mehta and Additional Solicitor-General AR.L. Sundaresan vehemently objected to such a claim and said there were no materials to prove it 

Updated - July 12, 2023 11:07 pm IST

Published - July 12, 2023 11:06 pm IST - CHENNAI

The arrested Minister, V. Senthilbalaji, was scheduled to undergo a beating heart coronary artery bypass surgery at Kauvery Hospital in Chennai on June 18. However, he requested the doctors to postpone it to June 21 in order to cooperate with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which had obtained permission for his custodial interrogation at the hospital, senior counsel N.R. Elango claimed before the Madras High Court on Wednesday.

This submission was made before Justice C.V. Karthikeyan, the third judge hearing a habeas corpus petition filed by the Minister’s wife Megala following a split verdict by two judges of a Division Bench on July 4. It led to a bustle in the court hall with Solicitor- General Tushar Mehta and Additional Solicitor-General AR.L. Sundaresan vehemently opposing the claim and contending that there was no material to prove such a claim being made now.

The claim regarding postponement of surgery gained significance in the light of the argument advanced by senior counsel Kapil Sibal, representing the habeas corpus petitioner, that the Principal Sessions Court in Chennai had permitted the ED to subject the Minister to custodial interrogation at the private hospital for eight days from June 17 to 24, but the investigating officer failed to take custody and therefore such custody could not be sought again.

Answering the argument, the Solicitor-General told the court that the ED had actually obtained permission for custodial interrogation from the sessions judge on June 16 and wrote to the doctors of the private hospital immediately, wanting to know if they could interrogate the Minister. The doctors replied on June 17 that the interrogation could be carried out only under medical supervision and that it would have to be stopped in case of an emergency.

“If we had taken his custody at the hospital itself and if he had suddenly developed chest pain during interrogation, who will take responsibility Milord,” the SG asked. Further, referring to the Minister having actually complained of chest pain immediately after his arrest at 1.39 a.m. on June 13, leading to his hospitalisation the same night, the SG said, “In all probability, he would have developed chest pain during interrogation too.”

The SG further argued that the ED could not be denied the opportunity of custodial interrogation simply because of the expiry of 15 days from the day of arrest. Fifteen days is the maximum period for which the ED is entitled to subject an accused to custodial interrogation and not the period before which the custody must be taken. Otherwise, every other accused would get admitted to hospital for 15 days and conveniently avoid being interrogated, he said.

At this point of time, the judge, in a lighter vein, quipped, “And they will have to get operated upon also.”

The SG concurred and said, “Sometimes, the stakes are so high in money-laundering cases that getting operated upon is found better than getting interrogated. Even presuming that the Minister was genuinely unwell, for me, it was an impossibility to interrogate him at the hospital in accordance with the conditions imposed by the sessions judge.”

Other arguments

Replying to the other arguments advanced by Mr. Sibal on behalf of the petitioner, Mr. Mehta said the ED officials only arrive at a prima facie satisfaction of guilt, on the basis of material collected by them, before exercising their powers under Section 19 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002, to arrest an accused and therefore, it could not be argued that the officials had no powers to investigate or interrogate after having invoked the legal provision.

The SG said the Supreme Court had stated that the ED officials were not police officers only because money laundering was a non-bailable offence and not for the purpose of holding that they could not investigate the offence or interrogate the accused. He said the ED actually had a duty, not just powers, to unearth the trail behind money-laundering offences and therefore, it had to subject the accused to custodial interrogation.

“I never use the expression, ‘power to investigate.’ I always use the expression, ‘duty to investigate.’ Denial of custodial interrogation denies me my duty to investigate. The words ‘investigation’ and ‘inquiry’ have been used interchangeably in the Act [PMLA] and they have to be understood according to their context. Investigation runs through the fabric of the PMLA. Their argument of my not having the power to interrogate was never raised in the history of the PMLA for good reasons,” he said.

After the SG concluded his arguments, the judge wanted Mr. Sibal to respond on Thursday itself. However, since it was represented that the senior counsel was unwell and required medical attention, the judge directed the High Court Registry to list the case for Friday and reminded all senior counsel that the Supreme Court had insisted upon an early disposal of the case.

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