The CBI has "no direct evidence" against former finance minister P Chidambaram showing he directly or indirectly influenced witnesses, the Supreme Court said Tuesday while granting bail to him in the INX Media corruption case.
"Mere averments" that he had approached witnesses and would further pressurise them, "without any material basis" cannot be the reason to deny him regular bail more so when he has been in custody for nearly two months, the apex court said.
A bench headed by Justice R Banumathi held that in the absence of any "contemporaneous materials", no weight could be attached to the allegation that the senior Congress leader has been influencing witnesses by approaching them.
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 the INX Media scam.
"CBI has no direct evidence against the appellant (Chidambaram) regarding the allegation of appellant directly or indirectly influencing the witnesses," the bench, also comprising justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, said in its 27-page judgement granting bail to him.
"The appellant is said to be aged 74 years and is also said to be suffering from age related health problems. Considering the above factors and the facts and circumstances of the case, we are of the view that the appellant is entitled to be granted bail," the top court said while setting aside the September 30 verdict of the Delhi High Court denying him bail in the case.
The bench noted that at the stage of granting bail, an elaborate examination of evidence and detailed reasons touching upon the merit of the case, which may prejudice the accused, should be avoided.
"There is no hard and fast rule regarding grant or refusal to grant bail. Each case has to be considered on the facts and circumstances of each case and on its own merits. The discretion of the court has to be exercised judiciously and not in an arbitrary manner," it said.
The bench observed that six remand applications were filed by the CBI before the trial court but there was "no such whisper" that Chidambaram had influenced the witnesses in the case.
"It appears that only at the time of opposing the bail and in the counter affidavit filed by the CBI before the High Court, the averments were made that '…the appellant is trying to influence the witnesses and if enlarged on bail, would further pressurise the witnesses…'," it said.
"In these (remand) applications, there were no allegations that the appellant (Chidambaram) was trying to influence the witnesses and that any material witnesses (accused) have been approached not to disclose information about the appellant and his son," the bench said.
The top court said high court's conclusion that it cannot be ruled out that Chidambaram would not influence the witnesses directly or indirectly is "not substantiated by any materials and is only a generalised apprehension and appears to be speculative."
"Mere averments that the appellant approached the witnesses and the assertion that the appellant would further pressurise the witnesses, without any material basis cannot be the reason to deny regular bail to the appellant; more so, when the appellant has been in custody for nearly two months, co-operated with the investigating agency and the charge sheet is also filed," it said.
The bench also dealt with the submissions advanced by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the CBI, who had said that statement of witness 'X', who is said to have been approached not to disclose any information regarding Chidambaram and his son Karti, has been recorded on March 15 last year before a magistrate under section 164 of the CrPC.
"The said witness allegedly approached or the other witnesses in a case of the present nature, cannot be said to be a rustic or vulnerable witness who could be so easily influenced; more so, when the allegations are said to be based on documents," the bench said.
"More particularly, there is no material to show that the appellant or his men have been approaching the said witness so as to influence the witness not to depose against the appellant or his son," it said.
Chidambaram 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.
He is presently in the custody of ED which has registered a separate money laundering case related to INX Media.