The Calcutta High Court on Friday denied interim bail for all four Bengal politicians – including two ministers – in jail after being arrested by the CBI earlier this week in connection with the Narada case.
All four will now be placed under house arrest, the court ruled.
The order was passed shortly after a difference of opinion split the two-member bench – acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal ordered house arrest but Justice Arijit Banerjee ordered interim bail.
The initial order stipulated house arrest while the bail plea was heard by a larger (potentially three-member) bench. The final order makes the same provision but gives no timeframe for the new hearing.
Trinamool MP Kalyan Banerjee – also named by the CBI in the case – asked for the higher bench to be set up by 2 pm, but said there was no order that this will be done.
The court also rejected a CBI request to stay its house arrest order – which will mean the four can now leave jail. The agency had argued the four were influential leaders and could threaten witnesses.
Sources, however, said the CBI can challenge the order in the Supreme Court.
The court also said the two ministers – Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee – will be allowed to access files and hold meetings (via video conference) while under house arrest.
Physical meetings have, however, been banned.
Lawyers for the CBI and the four politicians both opposed the house arrest orders.
Appearing for the central agency Solicitor General Tushar Mehta asked the court to stay its order and keep the four leaders in custody; he said they could threaten witnesses and the system.
The agency wants all proceedings to be transferred out of state and to itself – a special CBI court.
Senior advocates Abhishek Singhvi and Sidharth Luthra pressed for interim bail for their clients and asked the larger bench be constituted as soon as possible, preferably today. They argued house arrest, which they said was ordered mid-way through the hearing, meant their plea was rejected.
“House arrest is no less than arrest. They should be released,” Mr Singhvi said, asking that the leaders be released on interim bail till the matter is heard by the larger bench.
“Interim situation should be freedom. These are ministers, MLAs… There is no possibility of flight risk. There has been no slightest allegation of them not cooperating with investigation,” he added.
The four politicians – Mr Hakim, Mr Mukherjee, MLA Madan Mitra and former Trinamool member Sovan Chatterjee – were arrested Monday morning from their residences in the city.
The arrests sparked massive protests and a furious Mamata Banerjee, who has been made party to the case raced to the CBI’s Kolkata office, daring investigators to arrest her too.
The Trinamool has questioned the timing of these arrests, which come days after Ms Banerjee’s victory in April-May elections that devolved into a battle with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The party has also questioned the decision to not prosecute Suvendu Adhikari – a ex-Trinamool member who is now a BJP MLA – and Mukul Roy – another ex-party leader now with the BJP.
The Narada case involves a 2014 sting op by a journalist who posed as a businessman planning to invest in Bengal. He gave wads of cash to seven Trinamool MPs, four ministers, one MLA and a police officer as bribe and taped the entire exchange.
The tapes were released just before the 2016 assembly elections in the state.