NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to interrogate TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee and his wife Rujira Banerjee in Kolkata, instead of Delhi, in connection with the money laundering probe linked to an alleged coal scam by giving at least 24 hours prior notice.
The apex court, however, took into record apprehensions by Additional Solicitor General S V Raju against possible obstruction to the ED officers.
“We will not tolerate if any kind of infraction, interference, obstruction or hooliganism takes place," the bench, also comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Sudhanshu Dhulia, said while passing the interim order.
The West Bengal’s counsel assured the court that complete assistance will be rendered by the state machinery so that effective interrogation or examination can be undertaken by the department.
“In case of any obstruction or interference, the Directorate shall be at liberty to approach the vacation bench of this court for appropriate directions,” the top court said.
The court was further assured that “in case any complaint is or is likely to be filed for the official involved in interrogation, no coercive action of any kind will be initiated by police or any state machinery against such officials without taking leave of the court. The state shall also be at liberty to approach the vacation court.”
The court tagged the question of law on whether women could be granted protection from travelling to another state to be questioned in a case along with a pending matter involving Nalini Chidambaram.
The court will hear the case on July 19.
The petition filed by advocate Sunil Fernandes states that the high court had erroneously dismissed the writ petition.
The petition says that the high court order essentially holds that section 50 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and section 160 of the Criminal Procedure Code are in conflict with each other.
“…It further holds that the petitioners herein cannot avail any benefit of Section 160 CrPC and that they shall be governed by Section 50 of the PMLA, which does not provide that a witness must be examined in his/her local area, as Section 160 CrPC does, the impugned order holds that the respondent-ED is justified in law, in summoning the petitioners to their office in New Delhi for investigation rather than conducting the said investigation at their Kolkata office,” the plea had said.
“Thus the substantial question of law, having great public importance that arises for the kind consideration of this Hon’ble Court in the instant petition is whether the respondent-ED can assume a pan-India jurisdiction, to summon any person, without indicating to such person as to whether they are being summoned as an accused/suspect or as a witness, at any place of their choice, under the purported garb of Section 50 of the PMLA, in utter derogation of the fundamental rights of the witness/accused persons, salutary principles of fairplay and expeditious investigation, and the extant provisions of the CrPC and the PMLA,” it added.
The petitioners said the high court has failed to appreciate that they have reason to believe that examination of other women in the concerned ECIR was conducted by the ED under Section 50 PMLA at their respective residences in Kolkata and hence, Rujira Banerjee had a reasonable and legitimate expectation to be treated fairly by the investigating agency.
“The Enforcement Directorate instead of responding to her repeated requests chose to prosecute her and further compel/force the petitioner to appear in New Delhi,” the plea said.
The petition has alleged that the high court order virtually vests unfettered pan-India mandate on the ED and gives it uncanalised power to operate de hors the well-established and long- standing principles of criminal jurisprudence pertaining
to territorial jurisdiction vis-a-vis place of occurrence of offence, cause of action, and residence of accused persons and summoned persons etc.
“The impugned order fails to appreciate that the petitioners are permanent residents of Kolkata. It also fails to appreciate that the entire alleged cause of action and the place of alleged offence is in the state of West Bengal,” it said.
The High Court had dismissed their petition stating that allegations of mala fide intentions have to be proved by them and they should not be based on conjectures and surmises.
“…Further, so far as the allegations of malafides are concerned, the same has no place in criminal investigations. Secondly, it is settled law that allegations of malafides are easier to be made than to actually make out. The allegations of malafides need to be corroborated with concise statements of material facts which inspire confidence. Thirdly, apart from non-applicability of such grounds in a criminal investigation, the PMLA and CrPC provides for enough and sufficient safeguard with checks and balances to obviate any such apprehension,” the high court order had said.
The high court had said that the officers of Directorate of Enforcement cannot be said to be a police station under the meaning of section 2 (s) of the Criminal Procedure Code.
“…it may further be noted that a police station has a specific statutory meaning and when any person is summoned under Section 50 of the PMLA, including a woman, such woman is not summoned to a “police station” as envisaged under Section 160 of the CrPC,” the high court had said.
The High Court had dismissed the plea of Banerjee who had challenged the September 10, 2021 summons issued to them and sought direction to the ED not to summon them for their appearance in Delhi since they are residents of West Bengal. The 34-year-old MP represents the Diamond Harbour seat in Lok Sabha and is the national general secretary of the TMC.
The ED lodged a case under the provisions of the PMLA based on a November 2020 FIR registered by the CBI that alleged a multi-crore coal pilferage scam related to Eastern Coalfields Ltd mines in the state's Kunustoria and Kajora areas in and around Asansol.
Local coal operative Anup Majee is alleged to be the prime suspect in the case. The probe agency had claimed that the TMC MP was a beneficiary of funds obtained from this illegal trade. Banerjee has denied all charges.
(With agency inputs)