Courts cracked the whip on Mallya and Nirav Modi -accused in separate cases of financial crime - who have fled the country, by declaring them fugitive economic offenders under a new law.
The multi-crore PMC Bank scam and a clutch of ongoing high-profile fraud cases kept courts in Mumbai busy in 2019 as beleaguered businessmen Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi faced the heat from judiciary which adjudicated on a number of important matters during the year. Courts cracked the whip on Mallya and Nirav Modi -accused in separate cases of financial crime – who have fled the country, by declaring them fugitive economic offenders under a new law.
Under the Fugitive Economic Offences Act, the court can order attachment of offenders’ properties. Mallya, accused of money laundering and defaulting on loan repayments, left India in March 2016. In January 2019, a special Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) court declared him a fugitive economic offender.
The former liquor baron, currently in the UK, had petitioned the Bombay High Court against the special court order and also sought a stay on further action by way of attachment of his properties by enforcement agencies. However, the court declined his request. In December, the special PMLA court also declared diamond businessman Nirav Modi, a key accused in the multi-crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam, as a fugitive economic offender.
Nirav Modi, lodged in a UK jail, and his businessman uncle Mehul Choksi are accused of defrauding the PNB to the tune of Rs 13,400 crore in collusion with a few employees of the public sector bank. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has filed an application before the special court to declare Choksi, currently based in the Caribbean nation of Antigua, as a fugitive economic offender.
In September 2019, the ED sought that controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik be also declared a fugitive economic offender. Naik, residing in Malaysia, allegedly laundered Rs 193 crore. The 53-year-old televangelist has also been accused by authorities of spreading hate speech and inciting terrorism. Both the pleas (seeking fugitive economic offender tag for Naik and Choksi) are pending before the special court.
Another financial crime was unearthed at the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank (PMC Bank). The scam, pegged at Rs 4,355 crore, affected thousands of depositors, who took to the streets demanding justice and lifting of RBI-mandated curbs on the cooperative lender. Senior PMC Bank officials, including former managing director Joy Thomas, and Housing and Development Infrastructure Ltd (HDIL) Group promoters Rakesh Wadhawan and Sarang Wadhawan have been arrested for allegedly defrauding the bank. They are facing judicial proceedings.
The fraud came to light in September after the RBI discovered that the 35-year-old cooperative bank had allegedly created fictitious accounts to hide over Rs 4,355 crore of loans extended to almost-bankrupt HDIL. According to the RBI, PMC Bank had masked problematic 44 loan accounts, including those of HDIL, by tampering with its core banking system, and their details were accessible only to limited staff members.
Mumbai Police’s Economic Offences Wing (EOW) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) registered offences related to the fraud. On September 23, 2019, the RBI imposed regulatory restrictions on the bank for six months. The withdrawal limit for account holders was initially kept at Rs 1,000 which was gradually increased to Rs 50,000.
In a landmark judgement, the high court in June upheld the constitutional validity of reservation for the Maratha community in government jobs and education. The HC, however, ordered for the quota percentage to be reduced from 16 per cent to 12 per cent in education and 13 per cent in government jobs. The original quantum of quota was 16 per cent.
The high court also upheld the constitutional validity of an amended section of the Indian Penal Code under which repeat offenders in rape cases can be awarded life term or the death penalty. The HC dismissed petitions filed by three convicts who were awarded the death penalty in the 2013 gang-rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai. The convicts were earlier convicted for raping a call centre employee.
Civil liberties activists, booked by the Pune police for alleged Maoist links and their involvement in the Koregaon Bhima violence of January 2018, suffered setbacks after different benches of the HC refused to quash charges against them or release them on bail. In the judgements, the HC noted that there was prima facie material against the accused persons, booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror law, besides the IPC.
The high court also refused to interfere in the formation of a new government in Maharashtra in November and the decision of the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress to join hands to rule the state. Several petitions were filed against the three parties coming together after the October 21 polls to form government. Some of the petitions sought a direction from the court to the BJP and the Sena to form government as per their pre-poll alliance.
The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) filed affidavits before the Nagpur bench of the HC stating it had not found any criminal liability against NCP leader Ajit Pawar in the multi -crore irrigation scam. The ACB said its inquiry found no involvement of the NCP MLA from Baramati in the alleged irregularities in 12 projects undertaken by the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC).
It was alleged that Pawar, then VIDC chairman, and officials of the corporation colluded with contractors while issuing tenders for projects, causing a loss to the exchequer. The alleged scam related to the period when Pawar held the water resources portfolio in the Congress-NCP government. In November, a Nagpur court issued a notice to BJP leader and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, seeking his response to an application seeking criminal proceedings to be initiated against him for alleged non-disclosure of two criminal cases in his election affidavit filed in 2014.
In June, the high court granted bail to four accused, all right-wing activists, in the September 2006 Malegaon blasts case. The serial blasts outside a cemetery near a mosque there had killed 37 people and injured over 100. Initially, nine Muslims were arrested. The National Investigation Agency, which later took over probe in the case, absolved them of the charges and said the blasts were carried out by right-wing extremists.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury appeared before a Mumbai court in a defamation case filed by an RSS worker. The duo pleaded not guilty and will hence face trial. The complaint was filed against them for making statements allegedly linking the RSS to the killing of activist-journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru in September 2017.
The trial in the September 2008 Malegaon blast case against BJP MP Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, Lt Col Prasad Purohit and others continued in 2019 with witnesses being examined. The trial against former media barons Peter Mukerjea and Indrani Mukerjea, and her ex-husband Sanjeev Khanna in the Sheena Bora murder case also moved further.
In a relief to veteran actor Nana Patekar, the Mumbai police informed a local court it had no evidence to prosecute him in a molestation case lodged by actor Tanushree Dutta. Dutta’s complaint against Patekar in 2018 had sparked a nationwide ‘#MeToo’ movement on social media.