In a setback to Senthilbalaji, Madras High Court rules in favour of Enforcement Directorate

In a setback to Mr. Senthilbalaji, who was arrested by the ED on June 14, 2023 in a money laundering case, Justice C.V. Karthikeyan ruled that a habeas corpus petition filed by the Minister’s wife on the ED not having followed due procedure, was not maintainable.

Updated - July 26, 2023 12:16 pm IST

Published - July 14, 2023 05:19 pm IST - CHENNAI

V. Senthilbalaji. File

V. Senthilbalaji. File | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Arrested Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji suffered a major setback at the Madras High Court on Friday, with Justice C.V. Karthikeyan, the third judge named by Chief Justice S.V. Gangapurwala following a split verdict by a Division Bench on July 4, ruling that a habeas corpus petition (HCP) filed by his wife Megala, is not maintainable.

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Justice C.V. Karthikeyan also held that the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) can subject to custodial interrogation any person accused in a case booked under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002, and the Minister can be taken into custody even after the expiry of 15 days from his arrest on June 14.

After answering all three questions framed by him, on the points of differences between the two judges of the Division Bench, the third judge directed the High Court Registry to list the matter again before the same Bench, with the consent of the Chief Justice, for a formal closure of the case by taking the majority view into consideration.

Though Additional Solicitor-General AR.L. Sundaresan, representing the ED, said there might not be any necessity to send the case back to the Division Bench, Justice Karthikeyan stressed that it would have to go not only for a formal closure but also for deciding the day from which the ED would be entitled to take the Minister into custody.

He said that though Justice J. Nisha Banu had allowed the petition and declared the Minister’s detention illegal, Justice D. Bharatha Chakravarthy had ruled otherwise and ordered that the Minister remain in a private hospital only for a maximum of 10 days from July 4 and he be taken for interrogation after being shifted to the prison hospital.

Now, after aligning with the decision of Justice Chakravarthy on the questions of maintainability of the petition, the power of the ED to subject the accused to custodial interrogation as well as its right to interrogate even beyond 15 days of arrest, Justice Karthikeyan said the day from which such interrogation could begin would have to be decided only by the Division Bench.

“I would align with the views of Justice Bharatha Chakravarthy, but leave it to the wisdom of the Division Bench to determine the first date of such custody... That is the competent Bench,” the judge said, dictating orders in open court. The dictation began at 1.10 p.m. immediately after completion of arguments and ended at 4.10 p.m., with the judge not taking lunch break.

Giving reasons for his conclusions, the judge said a habeas corpus petition challenging detention would be maintainable only in exceptional circumstances. “But this case does not attract any exceptional circumstance and consequently, since an order of remand had been passed by a court of competent jurisdiction, the relief sought in the habeas corpus petition cannot be granted.”

On the petitioner’s claim that her husband was kept in the dark even with respect to the grounds of his arrest at 1.39 a.m. on June 14, the judge said the ED’s proceedings were not something that happened out of the blue, but were the result of a money laundering case registered way back in 2021 on the basis of a 2014-15 cash-for-jobs scam case registered by the local police.

He also pointed out that the arrest had been carried out on June 14 after an entire day of search and seizure proceedings conducted at the Minister’s official residence in Chennai on June 13 and therefore, it would be too far fetched for the petitioner to contend that her husband was completely unaware of the reasons for which he was arrested.

Justice Karthikeyan also observed that the Supreme Court had termed ED officials to be not police officers for the only reason that the statements given to the latter in any criminal case would not be admissible in evidence before the trial court under the Code of Criminal Procedure, whereas statements given to the former were admissible in evidence under the PMLA.

Therefore, the observation regarding ED officials not being police officers could not be stretched to the extent of denying them an opportunity to investigate the offence of money laundering effectively and subjecting the accused to custodial interrogation for unearthing crucial facts related to the alleged crime, the judge added.

He added the ED could not be left without remedy when it had not been able to subject the Minister to custodial interrogation ever since he was arrested because he was admitted to a government hospital at the first instance and then shifted to a private hospital on the basis of interim orders passed by the Division Bench on June 15.

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