Kolkata: The Calcutta High Court on Friday said all four West Bengal politicians arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) this week, including two MLA’s – in connection with the Narada bribery case will be under house arrest. The court said the two ministers – Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee – will be allowed to deal with files and hold meetings (via video conference) while under house arrest.
The order was passed shortly after a difference of opinion split the two-member bench – acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal ordered house arrest but Justice Arijit Banerjee ordered interim bail.
The matter will still go before a different bench but no timeframe has been given for this.
The court also rejected a CBI request to stay the house arrest order – which will mean the four can now leave jail. Sources, however, said the CBI can challenge the order in the Supreme Court.
Shortly before the final order was passed Justice Banerjee had revealed a split in opinions.
“One of the members thought it fit to grant interim bail. The other did not agree. So this has to be considered by larger bench. In the meantime, considering pandemic, house arrest given,” he said.
The CBI and the ruling Trinamool both opposed the house arrest order.
Appearing for the central agency Solicitor General Tushar Mehta asked the court to stay its order and keep the four leaders in custody; he said they could threaten witnesses and the system.
The agency wants all proceedings to be transferred out of state and to itself – a special CBI court.
Senior advocates Abhishek Singhvi and Sidharth Luthra pressed for interim bail for their clients and asked the larger bench be constituted as soon as possible, preferably today. They argued house arrest, which they said was ordered mid-way through the hearing, meant their plea was rejected.
“House arrest is no less than arrest. They should be released,” Mr Singhvi said, asking that the leaders be released on interim bail till the matter is heard by the larger bench.
“Interim situation should be freedom. These are ministers, MLAs… There is no possibility of flight risk. There has been no slightest allegation of them not cooperating with investigation,” he added.
In the event of the four remaining in house arrest, their lawyers also called for arrangements to allow them to continue their work. “They must be given access to their files,” Mr Singhvi said.
The four politicians – ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, MLA Madan Mitra and former Trinamool member Sovan Chatterjee – were arrested Monday morning from their residences in connection with the Narada bribery case being investigated by the CBI on the High Court’s order.
The arrests sparked massive protests and a furious Mamata Banerjee, who has been made party to the the case camped out at the CBI’s Kolkata office, daring investigators to arrest her too.
The Trinamool has questioned the timing of these arrests, which come days after Ms Banerjee’s victory in April-May elections that devolved into a battle with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The party has also questioned the decision to not prosecute Suvendu Adhikari – a former Trinamool member who is now the BJP MLA from Nandigram – and Mukul Roy – another ex-Trinamool leader now with the BJP.
Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar on May 7 sanctioned the prosecution of Mr Hakim, Mr Mukherjee, Mr Mitra and Mr Chatterjee after the CBI said they were holding positions of ministers in the state at the time of the alleged commission of the crime.
The Narada case involves a 2014 sting op by a journalist who posed as a businessman planning to invest in Bengal. He gave wads of cash to seven Trinamool MPs, four ministers, one MLA and a police officer as bribe and taped the entire exchange.
The tapes were released just before the 2016 assembly elections in the state.