The Madras High Court has upheld the Enforcement Directorate’s right to seek custody of DMK Minister Senthil Balaji in the ‘Tamil Nadu Cash-for-Jobs Scam’ case, wherein it was alleged that the DMK Minister and certain government officials accepted bribes in exchange for appointments to the state transport corporation between 2011 and 2015.
The case was referred to a third-judge Justice CV Karthikeyan, after a split decision of the division bench in the DMK Minister’s wife’s Habeas Corpus petition. Justice Karthikeyan said, “The fact that respondents (ED) can take custody for further investigation cannot be denied. The respondent, in this case, had a right to get custody. I would align my opinion with the reason given by Justice Bharatha Chakravarthy in this aspect.”
Balaji’s counsel Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal argued that ED officials are not police officers. Justice Karthikeyan responded, “The respondents are not police officers. They have never been characterized as police officers anywhere in the Act. This assertion of the learned counsel cannot also be denied or disputed by the respondents.”
Sibal further argued that custody cannot be given to ED officials as they are not police officers. However, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta countered Sibal’s submissions referring to Section 19 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act to say that ED can exercise police powers. The Solicitor General further argued if judicial remand can be passed, custodial interrogation order can also be passed.
“It had been held in Vijay Madanlal that ED are not police officials, but nowhere it was said that they cannot take custody. If investigation requires custody, then custody can be sought as a matter of right,” the court ruled.
The court further rejected the arguments contending that the arrest was illegal. “I reject the argument that grounds of arrest were not informed, because money laundering is not a standalone offence that does not have any background. The respondents were at his doors since June 13. He should have known why. He can’t claim innocence,” Justice Karthikeyan said.
On July 4, the Supreme Court requested the Chief Justice of Madras High Court to place the matter concerning the habeas corpus plea filed by the wife of DMK Minister V Senthil Balaji for his release at the earliest, after the High Court’s Division Bench gave a split verdict.
The Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Surya Kant, said that the new bench of the High Court may decide the plea as early as possible. A bench headed by Justice Surya Kant said the new bench may decide the plea as early as possible. The bench also kept the ED’s plea pending and posted it for hearing on July 24. ED has approached the apex court against the High Court order allowing Senthil Balaji to be moved to a private hospital in Chennai and entertaining a habeas corpus petition filed against his arrest.
In its order, the bench stated, “The Solicitor General has at the outset pointed out that the division bench has delivered a split verdict and thus we request the Chief Justice of Madras High Court to place the matter before the larger bench at the earliest and further request to the assigned bench to decide the case as early as possible.” It clarified that the pendency of the appeal before it will have no bearing on proceedings before the High Court.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appearing for ED, told the bench that the division bench heard the matter, and today the High Court has delivered a split verdict. “One (judge) says habeas corpus lies and that 15 day period cannot be excluded and the other judge has decided the other way. This question has to be decided by this court… rather than a larger bench let the issue be decided by this court,” said Solicitor General while urging the apex court to hear the matter.
He said, “Every day there will be tampering of evidence when Balaji is on bail and in hospital… its a question of law… whether habeas corpus will lie after judicial remand… When the person is influential the damage done is irreversible.”
ED approached the apex court contending that the Madras High Court erred in entertaining a habeas corpus petition filed by Balaji’s wife and allowing him to be moved to a private hospital in Chennai from the government hospital following his arrest by the ED.
During the vacation, when the matter came up for hearing, the bench had refused to interfere with the High Court order saying it was yet to render its opinion on the case concerning the habeas petition’s maintainability. Thus it would wait for the High Court’s order.
The Minister for Electricity and Prohibition and Excise, Balaji, was arrested on June 14 and admitted to a government hospital in Chennai after complaining of chest pain. He was allowed by the Madras High Court on June 15 to be shifted to a private hospital of his choice.
He was later taken from the Tamil Nadu government Multi Super Speciality Hospital to Kauvery Hospital at Alwarpet. Doctors attending to him have recommended bypass surgery. The interim order of the High Court was passed on a habeas corpus petition filed by the Minister’s wife, Megala, who accused probe agency officials of not having followed due procedures, such as intimating the grounds of arrest, under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). His wife wanted the arrest to be declared illegal for the ED’s failure to comply with the legal procedures.
The ED had arrested Balaji in connection with an Enforcement Case Information Register (ECIR) filed under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2021. The ECIR was registered based on three FIRs booked against him by the local police in 2018 for his alleged involvement in a Tamil Nadu Cash-for-Jobs scam when he was the Transport Minister in Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet in 2015.
The charges date back to his tenure as transport minister during the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government from 2011 to 2015. He joined the DMK in December 2018 and assumed office as the Electricity Minister after the party came to power in May 2021.