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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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New turn to Bofors case?

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JULY 30. In a new twist to the Bofors kickbacks scandal, a British newspaper today sensationally claimed that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had ``admitted'' that it did not have sufficient evidence to sustain criminal charges against the Hinduja brothers. They are accused of taking bribes in the Bofors gun deal and the next hearing in an Indian court is due next week.

But The Independent said it had obtained documents suggesting that the ``CBI's toil of 13 years will come to nothing'', and the case against the Hindujas was unlikely to come to trial. Its front-page story was based on what it described as the Swiss authorities' response to a letter from the CBI requesting more information relating to the Hinduja bank accounts.

The Federal Office for Justice (FOJ) in Switzerland, it said, had told the CBI that there was ``no direct evidence linking illegal payments made by the Swedish arms company Bofors to the Swiss bank accounts belonging to the Hindujas''. The Swiss had also turned down a CBI request to interview officials in connection with the Hinduja bank accounts, the newspaper said, quoting the Federal Office of Justice as saying that the events in question took place too long ago for the interviews to ``prove a valuable means of evidence''.

It said:``According to the Swiss documents, the CBI has now admitted that without more evidence it cannot `sustain a chargesheet' against the Hinduja brothers.'' An unnamed ``former top investigator'' in Delhi was quoted as saying that on the basis of new documents, ``it's going to be very, very, very difficult for the prosecution to sustain the case against them.''

The newspaper's New Delhi correspondent, Mr. Peter Popham, in a long backgrounder on an inside page, cited ``experts'' that in the absence of explicit links between the brothers and the gun purchase, the CBI's case against them had ``only the slimmest chance of success''. About the Hinduja brothers' admission that they did receive money from Bofors but not for the gun deal, he said ``commercial sensitivity'' forbade them from disclosing what they got the money for.

A spokesman for the Hindujas here in London greeted the news with a ``we-told-you-so'' swagger. He said the ``conclusion that there is no evidence to link the Hindujas with the Bofors gun deal is not one that surprises us. We have been saying this for years.'' However, he declined to speculate on its implications.

The Independent's campaign-style report, echoing whispers from the Hinduja camp here in recent days, prompted speculation about its source and observers wondered whether the newspaper had been too glib and hasty with its interpretation. Meanwhile, the report did not square up with official claims in New Delhi about the investigations.

Misleading report: CBI

By Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, JULY 30. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) today debunked the claim in a British newspaper that the agency did not have ``sufficient evidence'' to sustain charges of corruption, conspiracy and cheating against the three Hinduja brothers in the Bofors payoffs case.

When contacted by The Hindu, the CBI Director, Mr. P.C. Sharma, said this evening that the write- up in the British newspaper had ``no relevance'' to the correspondence between the CBI and the Swiss authorities who had been ``very cooperative'' towards the CBI. He described the report as ``misleading.''

Mr. Sharma said the CBI chargesheet against the three Hinduja brothers - Mr. Gopichand, Mr. Srichand and Mr. Prakash - was based on documentary evidence. ``If there was no case against them, do you think they would have come to India. The Special Court took cognizance of the chargesheet and the Hinduja brothers remained in India for nearly six months. Two of them were allowed to leave the country and that too on certain strict conditions.

Arguments on charges were to begin before the Special Court on July 27, but a writ petition by the former Defence Secretary, Mr. S.K.Bhatnagar, also an accused in the Bofors kickbacks case, before the Delhi High Court has challenged splitting of the trial, seeking that the trial of all the accused persons be held together.

PTI reports:

Case transferred

The Bofors case will have yet another new judge - fourth in as many months - as the trial has been entrusted to Special Judge, Mr. M. L. Sahni.

Not only Bofors, but 127 other CBI cases have also been assigned to Mr. Sahni from the Court of Special Judge, Mr. S. L. Khanna who heard the Bofors case for the first and last time on July 27.

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