Kolkata: It has been 14 months since prominent Bengali journalist Suman Chattopadhyay, 64, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a Ponzi scam. A charge sheet was filed within four months of his arrest, but the trial is yet to begin.
Even so, Chattopadhyay remains in jail, with his petitions for bail rejected multiple times at different levels of the judiciary.
His family has cried foul about his continued incarceration, petitioning the Editors’ Guild of India earlier this month to seek its intervention.
They have questioned the basic premise of the CBI’s objection to Chattopadhyay’s requests for bail — that he might influence witnesses and tamper with evidence — by pointing out that he’s jobless.
Even West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has expressed incredulity about his term of imprisonment, suggesting “political vendetta” behind central investigations against high-profile Bengali figures, including politicians and Chattopadhyay.
Lawyers contacted by ThePrint, including Chattopadhyay’s, claimed bail depended on a court’s discretion. The claim was echoed by the CBI, which also clarified that it had been opposing bail for all suspects accused of involvement in Ponzi scams. The accused, a senior CBI officer said, could move higher courts for relief.
Even as the people close to him seek Chattopadhyay’s release, the shadow over him seems to be deepening. While the CBI is already investigating him, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has also allegedly launched more than one case against him.
A powerful man
While out, Chattopadhyay was seen as a powerful man. He has been known to be close to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, as well as some senior Congress leaders and former UPA-II ministers.
The celebrity editor was arrested by the CBI on 20 December 2018 over his alleged role in the money collection schemes run by a company called I-Core. He was the editor of Bengali daily Ei Samay at the time.
“We are witness to how he has been treated for the last one-and-a-half years,” a senior Trinamool Congress leader said about his jail time. “He is ill too. The chief minister already spoke about this. We do not want to say anything as it will go against him. The agency is opposing his bail on the grounds that he is an influential person and can manipulate the course of the investigation,” the leader added.
The investigation against Chattopadhyay stems from a larger chase against multiple companies that were allegedly found to be running Ponzi schemes in eastern India, especially West Bengal, Assam and Odisha, in 2014.
Named after the notorious early 20th-century Italian swindler Charles Ponzi, the schemes involve duping investors by promising them high returns. In 2014, the Supreme Court had ordered the CBI to take over the investigation into all the cases from state police, and several high-profile people, including MPs, were subsequently named as accused.
Investigators believe I-Core, which allegedly raised over Rs 3,000 crore by misleading investors through deposit schemes in Bengal and Odisha, among other eastern states, diverted chunks of the funds through Chattopadhyay’s company.
I-Core, run by businessman Anukul Maity, went bust around 2014. Chattopadhyay, who ran a newspaper called Ekdin, is alleged to have claimed its sale to I-Core in order to disguise the latter’s illegal proceeds. He was summoned for interrogation for the first time in 2014.
According to the CBI, he is part of the “larger conspiracy” that the Supreme Court directed the agencies to probe into.
Chattopadhyay has been charged with cheating, criminal conspiracy and financial misappropriation, with the CBI also invoking various sections of the Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act. While the CBI has submitted its charge sheet, charges are yet to be framed.
“We submitted a charge sheet in 120 days. He had taken several crores from I-Core, saying he would sell his newspaper Ekdin to them. However, the shares of the company were never transferred,” a CBI officer said.
“Moreover, through the newspaper, he promoted a company (I-Core) that was into Ponzi scams. The money he took is part of proceeds of crime. He is also involved in some other cases whose details we cannot reveal,” the official added. “The charge sheet filed against him relates only to I-Core cases. The probe is still on in other cases.”
Chattopadhyay is currently lodged in a Bhubhaneswar jail. He first applied for bail immediately after his arrest, but the plea was rejected. He made another attempt after the charge sheet was filed, but it was rejected at three levels of the judiciary — CBI court, sessions court and the Cuttack High Court — last year.
Now he’s in the middle of a third attempt.
Milan Kanungo, Chattopadhyay’s advocate, said they had moved “a free bail petition”. “The CBI court turned it down again. After the sessions court, we can again move the Cuttack High Court,” he added.
The sessions court heard the case last week on Thursday, but Dev Baul, a relative of Chattopadhyay, told ThePrint Friday evening that the verdict was yet to come.
Asked about the delayed trial, Kanungo said the “trial will not start until the agency completes its investigation and approaches the court for framing of charges”.
“The central agency has filed a preliminary charge sheet, but the charge-framing process is yet to start as the investigation is still on,” he added.
The aforementioned CBI officer said the agency “will move for his trial soon”.
“As far as his bail is concerned, the CBI has been opposing all such bail petitions by the accused persons in the case. But they can move higher courts. It is judicial discretion to grant bail to an accused, not in our hands,” the officer added.
Meanwhile, the Enforcement Directorate, which looks into complaints of money laundering, has also been probing the money trail in the I-Core case and a senior officer said Chattopadhyay was on its radar. The ED, the officer said, had more than one case against him.
“We have attached some of his accounts and assets. It will run into a few crores. We are still investigating it,” the senior officer added.
‘He is cooperating’
Chattopadhyay’s relative Dev Baul wrote to the Editors Guild of India on 1 March to seek help.
“I post this to highlight a situation wherein a journalist is being held without bail for more than a year. The case has not come up for trial and no interrogation has been carried out for last one year. Suman has cooperated with the investigating team and all documents/depositions asked for have been provided,” he wrote.
“I write to plead for his right to bail as an under-trial. He has spent more than 400 days in custody as opposed to the normal 90-120 days as in other cases,” he added.
Baul said the CBI’s argument that Chattopadhyay was “influential and may tamper with evidence” didn’t stand.
“It may be noted that he is currently not employed and does not hold any position in government or otherwise and thus the premise of influence does not apply,” he added.
The Kolkata Press Club, which seeks to represent journalists, is also likely to take up the issue soon.
“We all are concerned about his. Nobody is talking about the merit of the case as it is a matter of the investigators, but bail is everyone’s right,” a senior office-bearer of the club said.