On 27 September 2014, J. Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison and fined Rs 100 crore by a Special Judge in Karnataka, John Michael Cunha, through a landmark verdict. After an 18-year trial, many rejoiced to see justice served and that too to a powerful politician. As a further effect of the judgement CM Jayalalithaa had to resign from office as she lost her elected seat due to her conviction as per the changed Representation of Peoples Act. Today, in less than 8 months, it is time for Jayalalithaa, her co-accused and supporters to celebrate as they stand cleared of all charges by the Karnataka High Court that was hearing their appeal.
"[A] clear case of corruption and possession of disproportionate income of Rs.66.65 crores was made out in the special courts judgement. All of this painstaking work has simply come to nought."
The 18 years of judicial work that finally resulted in the conviction of Jayalalithaa were not easy. The trial process that started in 1997 examined 258 witnesses and marked and examined 2366 documents from both the prosecution and defence; 1603 material objects were also taken into consideration. In 2003, the case was transferred from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka to ensure a fair trial away from the pressures of the AIADMK-led government. Following this, tons of material had to be translated from Tamil to English for which 20 lecturers and professors, apart from Tamil-knowing lawyers, were appointed by the court. When Jayalalithaa was examined in the course of the trial, 1337 questions were put to her. Towards the end, the court also heard 80 hours of arguments from the defence side. There were innumerable occasions when the defence stalled proceedings through interlocutory petitions to the High Court and Supreme Court, many of them simply means to delay matters.
The judgement of the trial court itself ran to a whopping 1123 pages. The various charges against the accused were meticulously examined against the evidence in hand. Be it the expenditure for the wedding of Jayalalithaa's foster son, or the money spent in the renovation of her Poes Garden residence in Chennai -- experts were examined along with lay witnesses and documents to arrive at precise figures. Detailed evidence was collected on the 32 firms registered in the name of the accused that acquired 173 properties by means fair and foul in and around Chennai. Similarly, earnings reported by the accused were also examined in detail in the verdict and it was clearly found that many of the reported incomes were inflated or non-existent. Thus, a clear case of corruption and possession of disproportionate income of Rs.66.65 crores was made out in the special courts judgement. All of this painstaking work has simply come to nought.
"After trials against all odds, no sooner than convictions were secured, relief arguably came to the accused from the higher judiciary merely by virtue of their superior reach and financial power."
Generally investigation and prosecution of white collar crimes such as corruption is extremely complicated because of the sheer work involved. Evidence needs to be extracted from documents, reports and witnesses. Accountants, lawyers and experts have to be questioned and balance sheets, audit statement, accounts, income tax returns and computer hard disks examined. The process becomes all the more difficult when a powerful politician is the accused. At every stage, the investigation and prosecution face challenges and harassment and sometimes even threats to their lives. Under such circumstances it is laudatory that the prosecution was successful in building a strong case that ended in the conviction of a powerful politician such as Jayalalithaa.
Nonetheless, it seems that the legal eagles who argued the Jayalalithaa appeal in the High Court were able to poke holes in the prosecution theory. They were successful in convincing Justice Kumaraswamy that the trial court conviction was bad in law and that the lower court had gone overboard, resulting in injustice to the accused. They are sure to have pressed the political nature of the case. Thus, in a matter of days, the lawyers were able to demolish years of work and toil and with it expectations of the people that justice would be done in the end.
"Another aspect that can be seen from the cases of the rich and powerful is their ability to manipulate the judicial process at will."
The last few days that included the verdict in the Salman Khan case - would have been highly demoralising to the lower judiciary, prosecution and the police in India. After trials against all odds, no sooner than convictions were secured, relief arguably came to the accused from the higher judiciary merely by virtue of their superior reach and financial power. Sadly, within a short period of appreciation and applause for the justice done, appellate actions have brought back the scorn and suspicion with which the people look at the system.
Close on heels of the bail given to Salman Khan where the celebrity did not have to spend even a minute in jail after his conviction in a 13-year-old trial, here is another case where an influential person walks away clean after conviction. All that Jayalalithaa got as punishment is 21 days in prison after which the Supreme Court graciously granted her bail due to ill health and in order to allow her to prepare her appeal. Another aspect that can be seen from the cases of the rich and powerful is their ability to manipulate the judicial process at will. Highly delayed trials, followed by quick bail and, in the current case, a super-fast appeal hearing by High Court, courtesy the Supreme Court. Can an ordinary man in the country even think of any such relief?