The Bofors trail

THE TRIAL IN the Bofors deal, involving alleged illegal payoffs (to the tune of Rs. 64 crores) by the Swedish gun manufacturer to different arms dealers (and middlemen who had nothing to do with the arms trade), has been delayed once again. True, the Supreme Court Bench had only applied the law and provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code when it stayed the proceedings in the CBI Special Court and held that the trial of the Hinduja brothers shall not be initiated until the question as to whether the CBI was right in prosecuting them without having obtained clearance from the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) was resolved. The requirement to obtain clearance from the CVC before initiating prosecution is indeed a provision in law to ensure that the investigating agency is not abused for partisan political gains.

It is another matter that the Hinduja brothers have managed to drag the investigation and the trial for so long since 1993 — ever since it emerged that the documents concerning the payments made by the Swedish gun manufacturer into coded Swiss bank accounts also consisted of papers pertaining to three coded accounts (Tulip, Lotus and Mont Blanc) that belonged to them — by mounting legal challenges one after another. The stay granted by the Supreme Court now (over-ruling the July 12 judgment by the same court allowing the trial to continue) would mean that the trial, slated to begin on December 4, 2002, will now be put off by several months until the apex court delivers its verdict on the CBI's plea to go ahead without the sanction from the CVC. Now that the Supreme Court has directed listing of the case (involving the procedural disputes) to March 11, 2003, the Hinduja brothers — Srichand, Gopichand and Prakash — have a reprieve.

The developments in the Malaysian courts too (strikingly at the same time) involving yet another alleged recipient in the Bofors payoffs case — Ottavio Quattrocchi — might fall in the same bracket. Mr. Quattrocchi too, it may be recalled, was among the appellants in the Swiss Federal Courts against transmitting documents pertaining to his coded accounts in the Swiss banks to the CBI. However, when the ruling turned out to be against his appeal and the CBI came to possess documents on the basis of which the former representative of the Italian firm, Snam Progetti, was prosecuted, Mr. Quattrocchi had managed to fly out of India and has managed to frustrate the investigation. The trial in his case too is yet to begin and with the Malaysian court rejecting the extradition plea by the CBI, the Quattrocchi trail too seems to have petered out, at least for the moment. This setback could have been avoided if only the law-enforcing agencies had shown some more seriousness during the week between July 22, 1993, (when the Swiss Courts had conveyed the names of the seven appellants in which Mr. Quattrocchi's name too figured) and July 29, 1993, (the day Mr. Quattrocchi flew off to Malaysia from New Delhi). The CBI had filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court before that claiming to be in possession of evidence of Mr. Quattrocchi (on behalf of his AE Services) receiving illegal payments amounting to $ 7 million from the Swedish arms manufacturer in return for his help in clinching the 155 mm howitzer deal.

While these developments — particularly the stay imposed against initiating the trial against the Hindujas — are only temporary in nature and can in no way be seen as discharge or acquittal of the NRI brothers, the fact is that such long periods of delay in the legal process will contribute immensely to the building of a public perception, right or wrong, that the system is incapable of bringing the guilty to book and particularly so when those charged with corruption and other such acts are among the high and the mighty. Such a development in the Bofors case, in many ways the most important corruption case in India, is certainly not in the public interest and hence there is a need to deal with it expeditiously at least in the days to come. The ball is now before the apex court where the CBI's appeal against the High Court order quashing the chargesheets is pending disposal.

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