(Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images).

INDIA’S top court, Supreme Court on Wednesday (4) granted bail to country’s former finance minister, Congress leader P Chidambaram in a money laundering case related to INX Media and directed that he could not leave the country without its prior permission nor speak to the media.

Chidambaram, who has been in custody for 105 days, should neither try to influence witnesses nor tamper with evidence, the court said while setting aside the Delhi High Court November 15 verdict denying the former finance minister bail.

A three-judge bench, headed by Justice R Banumathi, granted the relief to the 74-year-old Congress leader on a personal bond of Rs 200K with two sureties of the like amount.

The bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, restrained Chidambaram from giving any press interview or making any statements with regard to the case.

The top court, which observed that economic offences are grave in nature, said “grant of bail is rule and refusal is exception”.

Chidambaram has been in custody since August 21 when he was arrested by the country’s federal probe agency- Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the INX Media corruption case.

On October 16, another probe agency- the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested him in the money-laundering case.

Six days later, on October 22, the apex court granted him bail in the case lodged by the CBI.

The bench said its order would not have any bearing on other accused in the case and Chidambaram would have to join further investigations if asked by the probe agency.

Holding that the high court was justified in considering the gravity of offence while denying Chidambaram bail, the apex court disapproved of the manner in which the high court had made observations with regard to merits of the case.

It said the gravity of the offences are to be examined by the court on the basis of facts and circumstances of each and every case.

The bench said it was initially not inclined to open the sealed cover material placed before it by the ED. But since the high court had perused the material, it was imperative for the top court to go through the documents, it said.

After pronouncing the verdict, it directed the apex court registry to return the sealed cover material back to the ED.

The apex court made it clear that its order would not be construed to be the findings on merits of the case.

The court said the alleged complicity of Chidambaram in the case would be examined during the trial.

The apex court passed the judgement on the appeal filed by Chidambaram challenging the November 15 Delhi High Court verdict.

During arguments in the top court, the ED claimed that Chidambaram continued to wield “substantial influence” on crucial witnesses in the case even while in custody. The Congress leader said the agency cannot “destroy” his career and reputation by making baseless allegations.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the ED, said economic offences like money laundering are grave in nature as they not only affect the nation’s economy but also shake people’s faith in the system, especially when it is committed by people in power.

Representing Chidambaram, senior advocates Kapil Sibal and A M Singhvi countered Mehta’s submissions and said there was neither any evidence linking Chidambaram directly or indirectly with the alleged offence nor any material to show that he had influenced witnesses or tampered with any evidence.

The CBI had registered its case on May 15, 2017, alleging irregularities in a Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearance granted to the INX Media group for receiving overseas funds of Rs 3.05 billion in 2007 during Chidambaram’s tenure as finance minister.
The ED lodged a money laundering case after that.