KOLKATA: In late night hearing, amidst raging coronavirus pandemic, Kolkata High Court on Monday stayed order granting bail to the four accused, TMC’s two ministers, one MLA and former TMC minister, after the CBI moved the higher platform of the state’s judiciary challenging the lower court’s order.
The High Court said it would hear the matter on Wednesday and till then the four accused, Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukharkjee, Madan Mitra and Sovan Chatterjee, will be in judicial custody.
Sources said the four will be taken to Alipore Presidency jail.
Earlier, TMC supporters held demonstrations defying lockdown norms in various places, while Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee offered to court arrest protesting detention of two West Bengal ministers in the Narada case by CBI.
Later, Special CBI court judge Anupam Mukherjee granted bail to senior ministers Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim, Trinamool Congress MLA Madan Mitra and former minister Sovan Chatterjee after hearing their lawyers and the counsel for the agency, lawyer Anindya Raut said.
The high court had ordered a CBI probe into the sting operation on April 16, 2017.
The agency submitted its charge sheet in the special court against the four, besides IPS officer SMH Meerza who is already out on bail.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) accused the BJP-run Centre of using the CBI for political vendetta due to the saffron party's recent loss in the assembly election, after the agency arrested the four leaders, who were allegedly caught on camera while taking bribes in the 2014 sting by a news channel.
The CBI office at Nizam Palace in Kolkata became the latest political battleground in the state as chief minister Mamata Banerjee arrived along with the kin of these politicians and demanded that she also be arrested while angry protestors gathered at the site, defying the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, and hurled stones and bricks at security personnel.
In New Delhi, the CBI spokesman, R C Joshi, said the agency "today arrested four then (former) ministers, the government of West Bengal in a case related to the Narada sting operation. it was alleged that then public servants were caught on camera while receiving illegal gratification from the sting operator".
During a virtual hearing, where the agency submitted its charge sheet, Special CBI judge Anupam Mukherjee granted bail to all four after hearing their lawyers and the counsel for the agency, lawyer Anindya Raut said.
Soon after, the central agency moved a division bench of Acting Chief Justice of Calcutta HC Rajesh Bindal and Justice Arijit Banerjee seeking cancellation of the bail.
The division bench said it deemed it appropriate to stay the special court's order and direct that the "accused person shall be treated to be in judicial custody till further orders".
The CBI was represented in the high court by Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta.
On a day of fast-paced events, Banerjee sat on a dharna from 11 AM to around 5 PM demanding the release of the TMC leaders, reminiscent of her protest against the CBI's move to question the then Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in 2019 in the multi-crore Saradha chit fund scam case.
The CBI officials said Banerjee's actions are akin to interference in the probe handed over to the agency by the Calcutta High Court.
As the news spread, hundreds of TMC supporters gathered defying the ongoing lockdown, raised slogans against the BJP-led NDA government and clashed with security personnel.
The agitators also burnt tyres and blocked roads in several other parts of the state, including Hooghly, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas districts.
Taking note of the widespread protests across the state, state governor Jagdeep Dhankhar urged the chief minister to contain the "explosive situation" and asked her to weigh the "repercussions of such lawlessness and failure of constitutional mechanism".
The CBI had approached the West Bengal Governor seeking sanction to prosecute Hakim, Mukherjee, Mitra and Chatterjee, the officials said, adding the sanction was received on May 7, following which the CBI finalised its charge sheet and moved to arrest them.
The case pertains to a purported sting operation conducted by Mathew Samuel of Narada TV news channel in 2014 in which TMC ministers, MPs and MLAs were purportedly seen receiving "illegal gratification" from representatives of a fictitious company for favours, the CBI has alleged.
The agency has alleged that Hakim was seen to have agreed to accept a bribe of Rs 5 lakh from the sting operator while Mitra and Mukherjee were caught on camera receiving Rs 5 lakh each.
Chatterjee was seen receiving Rs 4 lakh from the sting operator, it added.
The tapes became public just before the 2016 assembly elections in West Bengal but had no impact on the poll results and Banerjee returned as the chief minister of the state.
The CBI had named 13 persons in the FIR registered on April 16, 2017, which included four TMC leaders-Hakim, Mukherjee, Mitra and Chatterjee, who held the position of ministers in the Mamata Banerjee government in 2014.
Hakim, Mukherjee and Mitra were re-elected as MLAs in the recently concluded West Bengal assembly polls, while Chatterjee, who left the TMC to join the BJP, has severed links with both parties.
The sanction to prosecute the remaining eight FIR accused, all the then Members of Parliament, has not been accorded yet, officials said.
The sanction for prosecution by the governor was questioned by the West Bengal Assembly Speaker Biman Banerjee who contended that the arrests were illegal.
"I have not received any letter from the CBI nor has anybody sought any permission from me as per the protocol," he said.
"I do not know for what unknown reason they went to the governor and sought his sanction. This sanction is absolutely illegal and arresting anyone on the basis of this sanction is also illegal," Banerjee claimed.
Reacting to the arrests, TMC spokesman Kunal Ghosh claimed that the CBI action was a vengeful act and a fallout of the BJP's loss in the West Bengal assembly elections.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh condemned the protests by TMC workers and said the agitation, amid the COVID-19 lockdown, only shows that they have no respect for the law of the land.
Left Front Chairman Biman Bose in a statement also said the central investigating agency did not take any effective step in all these years and questioned why other politicians tainted in same Narada scam and currently in BJP were let off.
"The Narada issue could have been addressed much earlier, but that was not done. Instead at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented devastation, the CBI action is nothing but a cover up of colossal failure" of the ruling party at Centre, the CPIM-led front said.
Stating that tackling the Covid-19 pandemic remained the most important task before the country, before the state at present, Bose said "TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee should keep in mind she definitely got the anti-BJP mandate of the people of the state she should remember people did not support the corruption and autocratic practices of her party leaders."
"Left front believes to prevent a dangerous force like BJP coming to power, TMC should stop giving indulgence to corrupt people. We strongly oppose the conspiracy of BJP when fighting corona pandemic on an urgent basis should be our top priority," the statement said.
Senior Congress leader and former Union minister Ashwani Kumar on Monday said, "The imprint of partisan politics is writ large in the blatant abuse of prosecutorial processes by the CBI against political adversaries of the ruling BJP."
Kumar said detention of the accused militates against recent judgments of the Supreme Court that scoffs at routine incarceration of political activists.
"The insistence by the CBI on detaining the accused who are public men of high standing and not expected to tamper with the course of justice, is clearly an abuse of authority," he asserted.
The former law minister added that depriving the citizens of their fundamental liberties is clearly against the first principles of the country's libertarian constitution.
"Bail and not jail is the fundamental tenet of our criminal and libertarian jurisprudence. The CBI's insistence on custody of the accused is therefore, wholly unsustainable in law. The manner of exercise of power of law enforcement in a democracy is accountable to constitutional imperatives. And it is important that justice is not only done but is also seen to be done," he said.
(With PTI and ENS inputs)