The Supreme Court asked the government on Tuesday whether it can keep Christian Michel James, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland chopper scam, in custody because he is a foreign national.
The court asked whether the fact that he was a foreign national brought to India by the arduous route of an extradition would justify the “complete deprivation of his liberty”.
A Bench led by Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud said had he been an Indian national, the court would have been inclined to grant bail.
“We must share with you this concern, so you can reply. How long will you keep this man only because he is a foreign national? Ordinarily, if he was an Indian national who had already spent four-and-a-half years in jail and this was the state of the prosecution, we would have been inclined to grant bail… Yes, he is a foreign national and brought him through extradition… But will that justify the complete deprivation of liberty?” Chief Justice Chandrachud asked Additional Solicitor General S. V. Raju, appearing for the CBI and Enforcement Directorate.
Michel was arrested and extradited on December 4, 2018.
The Bench referred to the “complexity of the trial” which involves 250 witnesses and 1280 documents of evidence. The CBI has not been able to get even a single sanction for prosecuting accused government officials.
The FIR itself dates back to 2013 and the investigation has continued for nine years. The incidents of the alleged scam relates to 2004.
Michel’s lawyers, advocates Aljo Joseph, Sriram Parakkat and MS Vishnu Shankar, argued that their client should be granted bail under Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure on the ground that he had already completed, as an undertrial, over 50% of the required prison sentence, had he been found guilty.
Mr. Joseph argued that Michel’s case came under Section 8 of the Prevention of Corruption Act. The maximum sentence was five years’ prior to an amendment in the Act in 2014.
He contended that his client should not be tried for any other offence other than those for which he had been extradited. Mr. Joseph submitted that the offences for which Michel surrendered and was extradited included criminal conspiracy, cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property.
Mr. Raju said Michel was chargesheeted under Section 467 of the Indian Penal Code for forgery of valuable security, punishable for up to life imprisonment.
The court asked the parties to file notes on this point and posted the case for the second week of January next year.
The ₹3,600-crore alleged scam relates to the purchase of 12 VVIP helicopters from AgustaWestland.
Mr. Michel was said to be a resident of the United Kingdom and was extradited from Dubai.
The CBI, in its charge sheet, has alleged an estimated loss of 398.21 million euros (about ₹2,666 crore) to the exchequer due to the deal that was signed on February 8, 2010, for the supply of VVIP choppers worth 556.262 million euros.
The ED, in its charge sheet filed against Mr. Michel in June 2016, had alleged that he had received 30 million euros (about ₹225 crore) from AgustaWestland.
He is among the three alleged middlemen being probed in the case. The other two are Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa.