New Delhi: The country’s lockdown has meant that premier investigative agencies have had to put the brakes on probes into several major cases, but the Covid-19 pandemic is still keeping them busy — with bail applications.
Since India went into lockdown 20 days ago, both the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have been swamped with applications from accused in judicial custody, who are seeking bail citing the highly infectious Covid-19 disease.
“Covid-19 is just being used as an excuse,” said a source in ED who added that the agency has been opposing the pleas as in most cases the accused is lodged in a separate cell. “Jails are taking all precautions in these times,” the source added.
The CBI, too, has received over a dozen such applications in the last three weeks.
“While most of our staff is working from home, we have been receiving these bail pleas and we have been opposing the same in courts,” said a source in the agency.
Virus not a get-out-of-jail card
Among the accused in high-profile cases who have sought bail are Christian Michel, Shivinder Mohan Singh and Vimal Barot.
Michel, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland scam, moved court seeking release from Tihar jail. In his plea, Michel cited his age, 59 years, to claim he had low immunity and was thus vulnerable to the infection.
Singh, the former promoter of Ranbaxy, filed his plea on similar grounds, and also alleged that social distancing was impossible in jail since it was overcrowded. He further stated that given his experience in the health sector, he could provide helpful community service.
Vimal Barot, an accused in the Rs 245-crore Dena Bank scam, in his plea stated there was a high risk of contracting the infection in jail.
In all cases, the pleas were eventually rejected after the ED and CBI countered them in court.
In Michel’s case, the Delhi High Court found his apprehensions “unfounded” since none of the two inmates residing with him were infected. The judge also noted that he was a flight risk.
Michel has been in judicial custody in Tihar jail for 16 months, since January 2019. He was extradited by the CBI from Dubai in December 2018.
The Delhi High Court rejected Singh’s application seeking bail for eight weeks, stating that he did not “qualify to be released pursuant to directions of the High-Powered Committee”. The court also noted that Singh is accused of more than one offence, which are punishable with more than seven years in jail.
To cut down on crowds in jails, the Supreme Court had last month said parole could be awarded to prisoners charged with or convicted of offences with jail terms of up to seven years.
According to the CBI source, Barot’s bail plea was rejected after the agency’s perusal.
“Hilal Rather, son of a former Jammu and Kashmir minister involved in the Rs 177-crore bank fraud case, too filed a similar plea, requesting release due to ongoing Covid-19 scare, but that too was denied,” the source added.
Rather had said his “health conditions” made him “more susceptible to contract coronavirus in unhygienic condition in jail”. While rejecting his plea, a special CBI court said Rather was more likely to contract the virus if he moved out.
Preparing for life after lockdown
Apart from battling bail pleas, the ED and CBI are using the lockdown to firm up cases that will be pursued as soon as normalcy returns, ThePrint has learnt.
Investigators working from home are finalising charge sheets and prosecution complaints, a host of which will be filed after the lockdown is lifted.
For instance, on 31 March, CBI had filed a charge sheet against 12 people, including six officials of the Directorate of Higher Education, a private institution and a bank employee, in connection with the Rs 250-crore scholarship scam in Himachal Pradesh.
“Since no raids are being conducted and no summons are being issued, most officers are busy preparing pending chargesheets. Some are being filed in the court as they are completed, (and) some will be filed post the lockdown,” another CBI source said.
In the ED too, officials are busy with the prosecution complaints.
“The officials are using this time to do most of the paperwork. While routine administration work is on via mails, a host of prosecution complaints too are being worked on,” a source in ED said.
Other Covid-19 effects
Another unusual result of the pandemic has been a flurry of applications from individuals explaining that they will be unable to join an investigation even though the agencies have not sent out any summons.
“Even for older summons, we are receiving applications from individuals listing out why they will not be able to join the probe. Some are saying that they have a travel history, while some are citing Covid-19 type symptoms,” an ED source said.
The agencies have not been conducting any raids since the lockdown, but non-field work such as data mining, analysing records and bank accounts, etc., has been ongoing.
“Only active investigation which includes questioning of people is not happening. Rest of the work is on as usual. In many cases of fraud, bank accounts need to be analysed, which has been happening,” a second ED source said.
The process, though, has been taking longer.
“For these investigations, information is not only required from the home country but also abroad. So, because of this ongoing crisis across the world, flow of information has been affected. Also, data required from banks is taking time,” the source added.