New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted bail to Congress leader P Chidambaram in the INX Media money laundering case more than three months after he was taken into custody.
The SC also 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 Union 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 2 lakh 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".
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.
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 the arguments, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had claimed in the apex court that the former finance minister continues to wield "substantial influence" on crucial witnesses in the case even from the custody, while he said that the agency cannot "destroy" his career and reputation by making baseless allegations.
Opposing his bail plea, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the ED, maintained that 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.
Senior advocates Kapil Sibal and A M Singhvi, representing the former union finance minister, had countered Mehta's submissions and said there was neither any evidence linking Chidambaram directly or indirectly with the alleged offence nor there was any material to show that he had influenced witnesses or tampered with any evidence.
Chidambaram was first arrested by the CBI on August 21 in the INX Media corruption case and was granted bail by the top court on October 22.
Following the CBI arrest and bail, the ED had arrested him on October 16 in the money laundering case.
The CBI registered its case on May 15, 2017, alleging irregularities in a FIPB clearance granted to the INX Media group for receiving overseas funds of Rs 305 crore in 2007, during Chidambaram's tenure as finance minister. Thereafter, the ED had lodged a money-laundering case against him.
Karti heaves sigh of relief, Congress welcomes decision
The Congress on Wednesday welcomed the Supreme Court's decision to grant bail to senior party leader P Chidambaram in the INX-Media money laundering case, saying truth finally prevails.
Truth finally prevails #SatyamevaJayate," tweeted the party from its official handle.
Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, however, said "justice delayed is justice denied", adding, "this should have been granted much earlier".
"Phew. At last after 106 days," tweeted Karti Chidambaram on the release of his father.
(With inputs from PTI.)