A Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising of Justice K.M. Joseph and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat held that an allegation of the existence of signatures of the respondent's employee, as a witness to the sale deed cannot amount to his aiding or abetting accused no. 1 to acquire disproportionate assets.

Mr. Vikramjit Banerjee, ASG appeared on behalf of the CBI while Mr. R. Basant, Senior Advocate advanced submissions on behalf of the respondent.

There was a delay of 447 days in filing the SLP which was objected to by the respondent. At the outset, the Court found that though the delay is considerable, the explanation furnished had to be taken note of. The delay was, accordingly, condoned. Special leave was granted, and the appeal was heard finally.

Factual Matrix: -

The CBI had instituted an appeal against the judgement of the Madras High Court, via which, the High Court, exercising jurisdiction under Section 397 and 301 of the CrPC had quashed the charge sheet against the respondent. The Trial Court had rejected the application under Section 239 CrPC seeking respondent's discharge.

Prosecution had alleged that the accused had committed offences punishable under Section 120B and Section 109 IPC read with Section 13(2) and Section 13(1)(e) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.

The allegation against the respondent in the present case was that he was a close associate and financer of A-1 and family. The respondent had rendered his active assistance to A-1 to acquire assets in his name as well as in the name of his wife A-2 and in the name of the company.

The prosecution urged that the respondent's role as the holder of the title documents of the property clearly pointed to a conspiracy between him and A-1, who was a public servant; the respondent being a facilitator for purchase of benami property.

The High Court, after considering statements of witnesses under Section 161 CrPC, had concluded that mere possession of registered sale deed (which was witnessed by respondent's employee) could not incriminate him. The Apex Court summarized the findings of the High Court as follows:

"It could not amount to satisfying the prescribed standard, i.e., of reasonable suspicion of commission of the crime, of being attributable to him, i.e., of abetment and conspiracy with a public servant to enable the latter to amass wealth which was disproportionate to his known sources of income. The High Court also noticed that the approver's evidence, i.e., the statements under Section 161 CrPC, in no manner tended to implicate Uttamchand. Those statements merely pointed to the acquisition of property by the Company i.e., M/s.Raviteja Trading Co. Pvt. Ltd., Hyderabad."

Analysis of the Court: -

The Court relied upon the decision in Central Bureau of Investigation v. K. Narayana Rao, (2012) 9 SCC 512, wherein, the Court had considered the previous decisions on the question of applicable standard relating to discharge of accused in a criminal case.

The Court observed, on facts, that respondent was not a public officer or servant and therefore cannot be charged with committing an offence under Section 13(1)(e) read with Section 13(2) of the PCA. The Court noted that there was no allegation against the respondent that he received any monetary benefit, or he held property in his name for benefit of A-1. The Court, on this issue, observed as follows:

"… This assumes significance, because the property which the Company purchased, was in its name. There is no evidence against the respondent linking him to the transaction relating to the execution of the sale deed, or alleging that he had an agreement with A-1 and others to commit an illegal act. Further, there is no allegation of a legal act being done in an illegal manner. Therefore, the alleged offence under Section 120-B IPC against the respondent is also not made out from the charge-sheet."

The Court noted that the charge sheet did not contain any allegation that could amount to an offence under Section 109 IPC. The Court held that witnessing a sale deed was a formal requirement and the mere fact that sale deed was in respondent's residence cannot satisfy the ingredient of any of the offences alleged against him.

Likewise, the Court noted that statements of the approvers do not reveal any involvement by respondent in commission of alleged offences. The Court noted that no incriminating material concerning respondent was found in the depositions of 74 witnesses.

The Court noted that investigation was complete, and depositions of prosecution witnesses were also recorded. The Court noted that allegations against respondent in another case (relied upon by the prosecution) do not relate to disproportionate assets. The Court relied upon State of J&K vs. Sudershan Chakker, (1995) 4 SCC 181 to hold that the law required Court to consider only the charge sheet and materials adduced with it.

On the allegations relating to conspiracy along with offences under PCA, the Court relied upon Central Bureau of Investigation v. K. Narayana Rao, (2012) 9 SCC 512, wherein, the following was observed:-

"The ingredients of the offence of criminal conspiracy are that there should be an agreement between the persons who are alleged to conspire and the said agreement should be for doing of an illegal act or for doing, by illegal means, an act which by itself may not be illegal. In other words, the essence of criminal conspiracy is an agreement to do an illegal act and such an agreement can be proved either by direct evidence or by circumstantial evidence or by both and in a matter of common experience that direct evidence to prove conspiracy is rarely available. Accordingly, the circumstances proved before and after the occurrence have to be considered to decide about the complicity of the accused. Even if some acts are proved to have been committed, it must be clear that they were so committed in pursuance of an agreement made between the accused persons who were parties to the alleged conspiracy. Inferences from such proved circumstances regarding the guilt may be drawn only when such circumstances are incapable of any other reasonable explanation. In other words, an offence of conspiracy cannot be deemed to have been established on mere suspicion and surmises or inference which are not supported by cogent and acceptable evidence."

The Court noted that material to implicate someone must be on firm ground and the sale deed being found in custody which was witnessed by the respondent's employee are wholly insufficient to raise a reasonable suspicion or make out a prima facie case.

The Court relied upon P. Nallammal v. State, (1999) 6 SCC 559 to hold that initial burden of showing that a conspiracy existed cannot be alleged against the respondent given the material on record. The Court noted that suspicion is not sufficient to enable framing of a charge.

The Court noted that the material on record did not support an inference that the respondent was a conspirator or had abetted the commission of the offences alleged against A-1. The appeal was accordingly dismissed as being devoid of any merit.

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