[Liquor Policy Case] Delhi HC Upholds Order Rejecting Arun Pillai's Plea To Delay Arguments On Charge

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The CBI alleged that substantial kickbacks had been paid in advance to the involved public servants, in exchange for undue financial benefits to the conspirators in the liquor trade

The Delhi High Court, on Friday, upheld the Trial Court's order rejecting Arun Pillai's plea to delay the commencement of arguments on the charge. The court emphasized the need for a prompt trial and fair handling of supplementary chargesheets. 

The bench of Justice Swarana Kanta Sharma held, “There should not be any unnecessary delay in scrutiny of the documents, by the accused persons also, to ensure speedy trial. Many of the accused persons are in judicial custody and therefore, it will be in their interest also that long dates or adjournments are not asked for, for the purpose of scrutiny of documents”. 

Arun Ramchandran Pillai, a businessman from Hyderabad, submitted a petition requesting the annulment of the order issued by the Special Judge of the Trial Court. The Trial Court had rejected Pillai’s plea, which raised objections to the commencement of arguments.

The CBI, represented by Special Public Prosecutor D.P. Singh, alleged that during the formulation of Delhi's Excise Policy for 2021-22, Pillai had engaged in a criminal conspiracy, deliberately creating or leaving exploitable loopholes in the policy.

Additionally, the CBI asserted that the kickbacks were subsequently returned to them from the profit margins of wholesale distributors and through credit notes issued to retail zone licensees connected to the South liquor lobby. The alleged criminal conspiracy also resulted in the formation of a cartel among liquor manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers.

Advocate Nitesh Rana, representing Pillai, argued that the CBI investigation had not been concluded even after more than 15 months since the FIR was registered. Despite the Supreme Court's directions in Manish Sisodia’s plea, which instructed prosecuting agencies to complete the trial within 6-8 months, the trial had neither been completed nor commenced.

Advocate Nitesh Rana further contended that the impugned order was arbitrary, unjust, illegal, unsustainable, and violated Pillai’s fundamental and legal rights.

The court framed the following issue: ‘Whether the learned Trial court should be directed to defer hearing arguments on charge till the investigation qua Smt. K. Kavitha is complete and the chargesheet against her is filled and a copy is provided to the petitioner?’ 

The court observed that the framing of charges is a crucial stage in a criminal trial. A charge framed by the court provides the accused with complete notice and details of the offense for which they have been charged and are being put on trial. “This in turn ensures that the accused is fully aware of the case set up against them, allowing him to prepare his defence accordingly”, the court opined. 

For framing a charge of criminal conspiracy under Section 120B of IPC, read with offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the prosecution will have to present prima facie material showing the accused‟s agreement, either explicit or implied, with other co-accused to engage in activities that constitute these offences”, the court held. This requirement exists because conspiracies are often formed in secrecy, with the roles of the accused being closely interlinked and interdependent, the court added. 

The court reviewed the chargesheet and supplementary chargesheets filed by the CBI and noted that one of the primary allegations against Pillai was that he acted on behalf of K. Kavitha, communicating with other co-accused individuals, including Vijay Nair. He allegedly received 65% of the profits earned by M/s Indo Spirits, purportedly as a recoupment of advance kickbacks paid by the South Group during the formulation of the new Excise Policy on behalf of K. Kavitha.

The court highlighted, “It thus prima facie appears that the allegations against the petitioner herein are part of conspiracy involving co-accused Smt. K. Kavitha. Therefore, though in the present case, the investigation with respect to the role of the petitioner is undoubtedly complete and the chargesheet qua him stands filed, the chargesheet qua co-accused Smt. K. Kavitha is yet to be filed by the CBI, and since both these accused persons were allegedly in close conspiracy with each other, it will be important for the petitioner to peruse the contents, allegations and material collected by prosecution against co-accused Smt. K. Kavitha, before he addresses arguments on charge”. The court clarified that such further investigation by the CBI regarding K. Kavitha could potentially benefit either Pillai or the prosecution at the stage of the charge.

The court opined that considering the principles of natural justice, fair trial, and criminal jurisprudence, the accused was entitled to receive additional documents filed against the co-accused, with whom he was alleged to have conspired. The accused was also allowed to present additional arguments based on such new material directly involving his role in the conspiracy. “Therefore, it was fair to observe that the arguments on charge be addressed as that too may take some time on the basis of material already on record and as and when any fresh incriminating material is filed by the prosecuting agency, on the basis of further investigation and by way of a supplementary chargesheet, the accused after being supplied with those copies will be additionally heard on charge on the same”, the court opined. 

Therefore, the court concluded that no interference was necessary with the impugned order at this stage, as the trial court had already addressed the petitioner's grievance, and the order did not suffer from any infirmity.

Accordingly, the court disposed of the petition. 

Case Title: Arun Ramchandran Pillai v CBI