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Senthilbalaji case | Supreme Court refuses instant relief to ED, says Madras HC ‘understands the law’

Supreme Court said it would, meanwhile, keep the ED’s petitions pending, and posted the Senthilbalaji case for further hearing on July 4.

June 21, 2023 12:07 pm | Updated June 25, 2023 02:05 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Tamil Nadu Electricity Minister V. 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.

Tamil Nadu Electricity Minister V. 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 Supreme Court on June 21 refused immediate relief to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and left it entirely to the Madras High Court to decide, on June 22, whether Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji’s move to a private hospital has thwarted the Central agency’s “right to remand” and interrogate him on money-laundering charges connected to a cash-for-jobs scam.

The case raises legal questions as to whether an accused can delay police remand on medical grounds and if the time he spends in private care can be counted as “effective custody”.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has criticised the Madras High Court for entertaining a habeas corpus petition filed by Mr. Balaji’s wife the very next day after he was arrested and remanded to police custody on June 14. The Central agency said the High Court had allowed Mr. Balaji to be shifted to a private hospital, denying the ED its right to custodial interrogation.

“The High Court order on June 15 sets a wrong precedent. Now, any accused can approach a High Court in a habeas corpus petition after a legal arrest and evade police remand and interrogation… I am happy that all citizens of India will have the remedy of habeas corpus when they are remanded into custody, though I believe all people are equal, it appears some people are more equal… and I am not being sarcastic here,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the ED, submitted.

The Bench said nobody was denying the ED its right to interrogate Mr. Balaji.

“In law, you are entitled to take remand of an accused whose bail has been denied. Nobody can take that right away from you… The only question here is whether you should be granted police remand when the person is hospitalised or should you get such remand when the doctors declare him fit for joining the investigation… Should the remand be deferred till he is found medically fit?” Justice Kant explained.

Senior advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul, for Mr. Balaji, said it was quite a flight of imagination on the part of the ED to claim that his client “got himself admitted to a private hospital”.

“I cannot have feigned my illness. I cannot have fabricated four blockages in my arteries,” Mr. Kaul said. Advocate Amit Anand Tiwari was present in the case.

The Bench explained that mere entertaining of the habeas corpus petition by the High Court does not mean that it has found the plea “maintainable”.

“You have a right in law to urge before the High Court tomorrow [June 22] that the habeas corpus petition is not maintainable,” Justice Kant addressed Mr. Mehta.

The court noted that the High Court has also agreed to examine the ED’s plea to exempt the period spent by Mr. Balaji in medical treatment at the private hospital from the period of custodial interrogation.

The Bench noted that the High Court had already suggested that the ED could form its own specialist board of doctors to examine Mr. Balaji at the private hospital and see if he is fit for interrogation.

“Maybe he will be fit for interrogation from the day your board of doctors clears him… Then the period of custodial interrogation could start from the day he is medically fit by your board,” Justice Kant observed orally.

“Then kindly say so in your order,” Mr. Mehta urged the Bench.

“We will say so at an appropriate stage… We do not want to pass any pre-emptive order when the High Court has already scheduled the case for hearing on June 22… If the High Court passes an incorrect order, we will review it. If it passes the correct order as per the settled principles of law, we will uphold it… Let us first give the High Court an opportunity to give its point of view. We have absolutely no doubt about the High Court’s ability to understand and appreciate the correct position of law,” Justice Kant said.

The Bench said it would, meanwhile, keep the ED’s petitions pending, and posted the case for hearing on July 4.

The Supreme Court recorded that the pendency of the ED petitions before it would not make a ground to adjourn the case in the High Court. The Vacation Bench said any observations made by the High Court in its June 15 order or oral comments made by the apex court on June 21 would have no bearing on the merits of the case.

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