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Bhushan Steel turns into a case bigger than anything Indian courts have ever seen

Just look at the mammoth size of the Bhushan Steel case: 600 accused in all, and a 70,000-page chargesheet!

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 11, 2019, 09.43 AM IST
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SFIO’s decision to file a chargesheet against a large number of accused is based on the Supreme Court’s guideline.
MUMBAI: India’s court system is no stranger to strange facts. But this is stranger than most: A court that takes 4 hours 45 minutes just to mark the attendance of all accused (assuming a minute for each), a courtroom that has to accommodate nearly 600 accused and their counsel (assuming one lawyer per accused, though sometimes one lawyer represents more than one accused but a senior counsel is usually accompanied by junior lawyers and staff), and a judge who has to master evidence that runs into more than 70,000 pages.

These extraordinary possibilities are thanks to the mammoth chargesheet the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), the investigation arm of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA), has filed against 284 individuals and entities while probing alleged irregularities in Bhushan Steel Ltd (BSL). And, it may be a very long-drawn case, even by the standards of Indian judicial delays, given the vast ambit of the case, legal experts say. In any criminal case, once a chargesheet is filed and taken cognizance of, trial commences with the framing of charges. Before that the court has to dispose of other pending pleas, including bail or discharge applications filed by the accused. In economic offence cases, there’s the additional factor of deciding which properties are to be attached.

Senior counsel Vijay Aggarwal, who is representing a few accused in the BSL matter, said the case may not be completed any time soon. “By arraying so many accused, the agency has ensured that the trial may not finish in the lifetime of the present lawyers and the accused persons,” he said. “As they have over 200 accused, the trial cannot be held in the courtroom, they should have an alternative venue. Also, the agency has to print over two crore pages if a hard copy of the chargesheet is to be supplied to each accused which is mandated as per section 207 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC),” he adds.

SFIO’s decision to file a chargesheet against a large number of accused is based on the Supreme Court’s guidelines that mandate that all those involved in alleged offences be charged. However, it’s up to the court to decide who will stand trial.

Legal-battle


Senior counsel Hiten Venagaonkar, who is representing SFIO in the IL&FS matter, said the number of witnesses, not the number of accused, is key to the length of a trial in criminal cases. “The Supreme Court has made it clear that if there is a case against a person, chargesheet has to be filed against him. The prosecution cannot decide who to drop and who to include,” he said. “If the witnesses are a few in number then the trial doesn’t take long.” Senior counsel Sanjay Shourie, who is representing MCA, is confident that the number of accused wouldn't be a problem in court proceedings against BSL. “The case is being heard by a special court. It’s a strong case where the role of individuals is well-defined.”

Last time a case saw a very large number of accused was the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case in which a chargesheet of more than 10,000 pages was filed. The first leg of the trial concluded in 2006 with the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) court convicting 100 accused. In 2017, the trial court convicted six persons and acquitted one in the second leg of the trial.

Some experts say the nature of economic offence investigations partly determines the length of the chargesheet as well as the longer time taken to decide these matters. Prosecutions in these cases rely primarily on documentary evidence.

Just as the SFIO chargesheet in the BSL case runs into 70,000 pages, the agency's first chargesheet in the IL&FS case on its subsidiary IFIN ran to 32,000 pages. “Economic offences are based on documents. If one document goes missing or is misplaced it could delay the trial. Therefore a 70,000- page document will have a bearing on the duration of the trial,” Venagaonkar adds.

“Criminal trials in economic offence take longer than other criminal cases not only because the burden of proof is stricter but also because a large number of witnesses and documents have to be examined,” said Sachin Midha, counsel for former IFIN director Ramesh Bawa.
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