The two-decade old Bofors pay-off case may finally be buried with the Centre on Tuesday, telling the Supreme Court that it has decided to withdraw case against Italian businessmen Ottavio Quattrocchi.
Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium told a bench, headed by Chief Justice K G Balakrishanan, that all efforts to
extradite Quattrocchi, an accused in the case relating to payment of Rs 64 crore as commission in the Howitzer deal, have failed.
He said the CBI has taken the decision to close the case by also taking into account Delhi High Court judgement of 2004 which had held that no case of corruption was made out in the Bofors deal.
Subramanium said the government came to the decision after taking into account all the facts of the case. The Solicitor General's statement in the court came under immediate attack from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the lawyer who is pursuing the Bofors case in the Supreme Court while the Congress Party said that after all the case has to come to a closure.
Advocate Ajay Agrawal, who had moved the apex court in January, 2006, against the defreezing of Quattrocchi's bank account in London, opposed the stand of the Centre and theCBI. "Quattrcocchi has been treated by this government as the son-in-law of this country," he said about the businessman, who is now the sole accused in the case after the Delhi High Court on May 31, 2005 quashed charges against other accused. "The CBI and the entire government is trying to close the case," the advocate, who has challenged the High Court's 2005 verdict after CBI decided not to go for an appeal against the decision, said.
The Solicitor General, who once objected to the description of Quattrocchi as "son-in-law", said the CBI had tried to get him extradited following the Red Corner Notice issued against him but failed in its efforts. He said a call had to be taken for the closure of the case and the CBI and the Centre took into consideration the February 4, 2004 verdict of the High Court which held that there was not a rubble of evidence under the Prevention of Corruption Act and as such no appeal was filed against thedecision. Subramanium said nothing survived in the appeal filed by Agrawal against the May 2005 verdict of the High Court. "The Central Government has consented for withdrawal of the prosecution of Quattrocchi," the Solicitor General said adding that "we have to take a call on the matter and government has taken a call after considering all aspects".
The Bench, also comprising Justices P Sathasivam and B S Chauhan observed that "if the matter is not alive in trial court what can we do. Then there is no necessity to keep the matters pending in this court. It appears that they (CBI) want to withdraw the case." However, Agrawal said that the petition and his applications have to be heard by the apex court which during the previous hearings have considerd the case as "serious". "The entire government is trying to protect Quattrocchi. Somebody has to protect the rule of law. My petition and applications have to be heard by this court," he said assailing the two verdicts of the High Court.
Agarwal alleged that CBI was not serious in its effort to extradite the Italian businessman against whom the Red Corner Notice was withdrawn a year ago. Agrawal submitted that the May 31, 2005 verdict of the High Court was illegal and the then Attorney General offered an advice not to challenge the decision in the High Court. The verdict was challenged by Agrawal after the CBI failed file an appeal within the mandatory 90 days. 69-year old Quattrocchi has never appeared in an Indian court. The apex court was informed that Quattrocchi's case was coming up for hearing before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate on October 3.
Reacting to the government's stand, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad said what happened today had to happen because the government "is out to bail out" Quattrochhi.
He alleged that the government did not allow the CBI to appeal against an order of the Argentinian court on Quattrochhi's extradition and also when the Delhi High Court quashed the charges against all the other accused in the case.
"There is a pattern in the government's action. The UPA I decided that we will not prosecute Quattrochhi. And that continues in UPA II," Prasad said.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari said that the CBI has conveyed a view to the court that has to be respected.
"After all, there needs to be a closure of the case. Since 1989 it has been going on. People have been trying to milk it for propaganda," he said, adding, "Essentially there has to be a closure."
The Supreme Court will hear the case on December 11.
Agrawal has also challenged in the apex court the decision by CBI to take off the name of Quattrocchi from the list of most wanted persons.
He has alleged CBI had at different stages "showered" favours on Quattrocchi who has been declared a proclaimed offender by a special court in Bofors case and the apex court should stay the operation of any withdrawal of Red Corner notice against him.
The Interpol has taken Quattrocchi's name off the Red Corner notice following a communication from CBI on the basis of the opinion of the then Attorney General Milon K Banerji who was approached by the agency last year for his opinion if it was necessary to continue with the alert notice.
He had cited the inability of CBI to seek Quattrocchi's extradition on two occasions -- first from Malaysia in 2003 and then from Argentina in 2007 --and opined that the judgements in both the cases indicated that there was no good ground for his extradition.
"....The warrant cannot remain in force forever. Therefore, the warrant of February 1997 would lose its validity, particularly in view CBI's successive failed attempts to get the accused extradited from Malaysia and Argentina," Banerji had said.
Agrawal today repeated his earlier submissions and referred to various opinions "procured by CBI" from the top law officers since 2004 when the UPA government assumed power.