The Supreme Court Tuesday granted bail to former finance minister P Chidambaram in the INX Media corruption case lodged by the CBI saying he is neither a "flight risk" nor is there a possibility of "his abscondence from the trial".
Brushing aside the CBI contentions that 74-year-old senior Congress leader tried to influence two material witnesses in the case, the apex court said that no details are available as to "when, where and how those witnesses were approached".
There is however no chance of Chidambaram walking free on bail as of now because the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has already taken him into its custody in the money laundering case related to INX Media scam.
He was arrested by the CBI on August 21 in the corruption case which was registered on May 15, 2017 alleging irregularities in a Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearance granted to the INX Media group for receiving overseas funds of Rs 305 crore in 2007, during Chidambaram's tenure as finance minister.
A bench headed by Justice R Banumathi said that statement made by the CBI that Chidambaram has influenced witnesses and there was likelihood of his further influencing them cannot be the ground to deny bail to him when there was "no such whisper" in six remand applications filed by the agency before the trial court.
The bench, also comprising justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, set aside the Delhi High Court's September 30 verdict denying him bail.
"The appellant is ordered to be released on bail if not required in any other case, subject to the condition of his executing bail bonds for a sum of Rs 1 lakh with two sureties of like sum to the satisfaction of the special judge (PC Act), CBI-06, Patiala House Courts, New Delhi," the bench said while allowing Chidambaram's appeal against the high court verdict.
"The passport if already not deposited, shall be deposited with the special court and the appellant shall not leave the country without leave of the special court and subject to the order that may be passed by the special judge from time to time," it said.
The top court made it clear that Chidambaram will have to make himself available for interrogation as and when required by the probe agency.
"It is made clear that the findings in this judgment be construed as expression of opinion only for the limited purpose of considering the regular bail in CBI case and shall not have any bearing in any other proceedings," the bench said in its 27-page verdict.
The apex court also dismissed the CBI plea challenging the findings of the high court which had said that Chidambaram was not a "flight risk" and there was no possibility of him tampering with the evidence.
The bench said that since the high court has expressed its views on the merits of the matter in its September 30 verdict, they will not have any bearing either in the trial or in any other proceedings.
The top court noted in its judgement that the CBI has filed a charge sheet against Chidambaram and others in the case and other co-accused have already been granted bail.
"The appellant is not a 'flight risk' and in view of the conditions imposed, there is no possibility of his abscondence from the trial," the bench said.
The bench did not accept the contentions of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who had appeared for the CBI and had raked up the issue of persons accused in economic offences fleeing the country.
"At this stage itself, it is necessary for us to indicate that we are unable to accept the contention of the Solicitor General that 'flight risk' of economic offenders should be looked at as a national phenomenon and be dealt with in that manner merely because certain other offenders have flown out of the country," it said.
"The same cannot, in our view, be put in a straight-jacket formula so as to deny bail to the one who is before the court, due to the conduct of other offenders, if the person under consideration is otherwise entitled to bail on the merits of his own case," it said.
The bench further said, "Hence, in our view, such consideration including as to 'flight risk' is to be made on individual basis being uninfluenced by the unconnected cases, more so, when the personal liberty is involved."
The bench said that the high court had rightly held that by issuing certain directions like surrender of passport and issuance of look out notice, the issue related to 'flight risk' can be secured.
"So far as 'tampering with evidence' is concerned, the High Court rightly held that the documents relating to the case are in the custody of the prosecuting agency, Government of India and the Court and there is no chance of the appellant tampering with evidence," the bench noted
Regarding the CBI's claim that Chidambaram had influenced witnesses in the case, the bench said, "There are no details as to the form of approach of those two witnesses either SMS, e-mail, letter or telephonic calls and the persons who have approached the material witnesses."