An application has been moved in the Supreme Court seeking early hearing of the politically- sensitive Rs 64 crore Bofors payoff case after a fresh media report suggesting a financial quid pro quo for the Rs 1,437 crore Howitzer gun deal in 1986. The plea by BJP leader and advocate Ajay Agrawal has also alleged apparent collusiveness by CBI with the accused persons in the Bofors scam, saying the agency did not challenge the Delhi High Court’s May 31, 2005 judgment quashing all charges against the Europe-based Hinduja brothers. He has challenged the judgment in the apex court which had on October 18, 2005 admitted his petition that was filed after the CBI failed to approach the top court with the appeal within the 90-day deadline after the High Court verdict. In the application, the lawyer-turned-politician said he had filed the appeal in public interest because the CBI did not come forward and it was reported that the Law Ministry then had not given permission to the agency, despite the fact that the High Court order was illegal. To substantiate the allegation of collusiveness between the CBI and the accused persons, Agrawal in his application has narrated the sequence of events that led to the defreezing of the London bank account of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, alleged middleman in the deal, in 2006, for which the then Additional Solicitor General B Dutta had visited England.
He said such a step was undertaken despite the fact that the then UPA government and the CBI were aware that his appeal has been admitted by the apex court. Agrawal, who had contested the Rai Bareli Lok Sabha elections in 2014 against Congress President Sonia Gandhi, also claimed that the CBI did not bother to inform the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, which was seized of the Quattrocchi matter, to inform about its move to defreeze the accounts. He said that on August 3, he had written a letter to the CBI seeking re-investigation of the entire Bofors scam and the trail of alleged bribe money deposited in Quattrocchi’s London bank account and the subsequent developments after the defreezing of the account on January 16, 2006. Fresh developments assume significance in the wake of a demand in Parliament by ruling BJP MPs for reopening of the probe into the Bofors kickback scandal after the media reports quoting Swedish chief investigator Sten Lindstrom’s suggested payment of alleged bribery at the top level. After the developments in Parliament, Agrawal also wrote a letter to the Enforcement Directorate seeking investigation into the trail of the kickback money under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), 1999 and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.
In the July 28 letter to the ED, he claimed that the alleged crimes were committed continuously till 2006 when two London accounts held by Quattrochi, who has been accused as one of the middlemen in the deal, were de-freezed. The BJP leader said the CBI should file an affidavit about the facts and course of investigation into the case, as during the brief hearing on December 1, 2016, the agency had told the apex court that the authorities had not permitted it to file an appeal against the May 31, 2005 verdict. He said he would try to convince the apex court through his petition that the “High Court had quashed the charges against the accused persons on technical grounds and the order was totally perverse which is liable to be set aside.” Justice R S Sodhi, since retired, of the Delhi High Court had on May 31, 2005 quashed all charges against the Hinduja brothers — Srichand, Gopichand and Prakashchand — and the Bofors company and castigated the CBI for its handling of the case saying it had cost the exchequer about Rs 250 crore. Before the 2005 verdict, another judge of the Delhi High Court, Justice J D Kapoor (since retired) on February 4, 2004, had exonerated late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the case and directed framing of charge of forgery under Section 465 of the IPC against the Bofors company.
The matter was last listed on February 28 this year when it was adjourned. The apex court had on October 18, 2005 allowed Agrawal to file an appeal against the high court verdict in the absence of any appeal by CBI. The December 1, 2016 hearing had taken place after a gap of almost six years since August 12, 2010. The Rs 1,437 crore deal between India and the Swedish arms manufacturer AB Bofors for the supply of 400 155mm Howitzer guns for Indian Army was entered on March 24, 1986.
The Swedish Radio on April 16, 1987 had claimed that the company had paid bribes to top Indian politicians and defence personnel. The CBI on January 22, 1990 had registered the FIR for the alleged offence of criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery under the IPC and other sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act against Martin Ardbo, the then President of AB Bofors, alleged middleman Win Chadda and Hinduja brothers. It had alleged that certain public servants and private persons in India and abroad had entered into a criminal conspiracy between 1982 and 1987 in pursuance of which the offences of bribery, corruption, cheating and forgery were committed to the extent of Rs 64 crore in the contracts for the supply of Bofors guns.
The first charge sheet in the case was filed on October 22, 1999 against Chadda, Quattrocchi, then Defence Secretary S K Bhatnagar, Ardbo and the Bofors company. A supplementary charge sheet against Hinduja brothers was filed on October 9, 2000. A special CBI court in Delhi On March 4, 2011, had discharged Quattrocchi from the case saying the country cannot afford to spend hard-earned money on his extradition which has already cost Rs 250 crore. Quattrocchi, who had fled from here on July 29-30, 1993, has never appeared before any court in India to face prosecution. He passed away on July 13, 2013. The other accused persons who have died are Bhatnagar, Chadda and Ardbo.