The politically-sensitive Rs 64 crore Bofors pay-off case was back in the limelight today with the Supreme Court agreeing to hear BJP leader Ajay Kumar Agarwal’s appeal challenging a 2005 Delhi High Court order quashing charges against Europe-based industrialists Hinduja brothers in the matter. Justice R S Sodhi of the Delhi High Court, since retired, had on May 31, 2005 quashed all charges against the three 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.
Taking note of the interim plea seeking an early hearing of 12-year-old appeal, a bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said it would list the appeal for hearing in the week commencing from October 30 this year. The apex court had on October 18, 2005 admitted his petition which was filed after the CBI failed to approach the top court with the appeal within the 90-day deadline following the High Court verdict. The court’s direction allowing early hearing of the appeal assumes 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 suggested alleged bribery at the top level.
Agarwal, who had contested the Rai Bareli Lok Sabha elections in 2014 against Congress President Sonia Gandhi, had said he would also draw the attention of the apex court that he had written a letter to the Enforcement Directorate seeking investigation into the trail of the kickback money under the 1999 Foreign Exchange Management Act and the 2002 Prevention of Money Laundering Act. In the July 28 letter to the ED, he has claimed that the alleged crimes were committed continuously till 2006 when two London accounts held by Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrochi, who was accused as being one of the middlemen in the deal, were de-freezed. The BJP leader had said he was writing a letter to the CBI asking it to file an affidavit about the facts and course of investigation in 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.
Agarwal said he will 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.” Before the 2005 verdict of Justice Sodhi, 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 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 Agarwal 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 the 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 offences of criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery under the Indian Penal Code and other sections of 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.
The first charge sheet in the case was filed on October 22, 1999 against Chadda, Quattrocchi, then Defence Secretary SK Bhatnagar, Ardbo and the Bofors company. A supplementary charge sheet was filed against Hinduja brothers 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 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.