By Ashraf Padanna/Thiruvananthapuram
The Kerala High Court has again deferred hearing in a two-decade-old corruption scam involving an estimated loss of Rs2.66bn to the exchequer in which a lower court acquitted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in 2013 without trial.
The court, which also dismissed an appeal by a journalist calling for speedy disposal of the case, will now start hearing arguments on a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on March 9. The court had castigated the journalist for unnecessary interference.
The CBI accuses Vijayan of flouting norms in awarding a hydroelectric project renovation contract to Canadian engineering major SNC-Lavalin when he was the state’s power minister two decades ago. The lower court had dismissed the premier investigation agency’s charges without a trial stating it had failed to prove Vijayan had “pecuniary benefit.”
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala alleged a conspiracy between Vijayan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) behind the repeated absence of the additional solicitor general from court. The CBI has engaged the additional solicitor general to fight the case. The opposition claims the additional solicitor general’s absence from court is intended to delay proceedings.
“They are playing hide-and-seek. Either the counsel for the defendant or the prosecution stays away from court whenever the case comes up for hearing,” Chennithala told reporters in Kottayam. “Vijayan is on a time-buying game,” he alleged.
The Kerala high court had last January found “substance in CBI’s points” but said it required “in-depth examination” as “premature termination of a prosecution involving huge losses to the public exchequer must be a matter of public concern.”
Federal investigators claim Vijayan, who was electricity minister from May 1996 to October 1998, hatched a criminal conspiracy to award the contract for the renovation and modernisation of the Pallivasal, Sengulam, and Panniar hydroelectric projects.
The Canadians walked away with the project at an exorbitant fixed price. There was no competitive bidding, and although a public sector company made a better offer it was ignored.
“We are meeting on Wednesday, and will take stock,” said P M Suresh Babu, a lawyer and general secretary of the opposition Congress party. “There’s something fishy about it. We don’t know if they have a valid reason for the repeated absence. If it is deliberate, it’s serious. In any case, we see some suspicious behaviour.”
The court had earlier dismissed a petition by K M Shajahan, who was the private secretary of former chief minister V S Achuthanandan, a senior leader of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist).
“It was the fourth time that the case was being mysteriously deferred. The apex court had ruled that any public spirited individual can implead in such cases. I hope someone moves the apex court against the continued deferment,” he said. “The prosecution has a duty to ensure a speedy disposal, and citizens have the right to know the truth in a case related to the plunder of their money, as many believe.”
The CBI, which could not summon the Canadian defendants, says the lower court did not go into the details before letting off the CPI (M) strongman. The case had forced Vijayan to keep away from elections for long. The 71-year-old assumed office in May after winning by a huge margin in the last elections.
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