Money laundering is an “independent” offence, the Jharkhand High Court has held while rejecting the bail plea of a man arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in the Jharkhand illegal stone mining case, which it said, came across like a “crime thriller”.
A bench of Justice Gautam Kumar Choudhary in its order passed on January 10 denied relief to the accused Prem Prakash, who had petitioned the court saying he had no links to the case, in which Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren has been questioned by the federal agency and his political aide Pankaj Mishra apart from some others have been arrested.
The case dates back to July, 2022 after the ED raided Mishra and his alleged associates covering 19 locations in Sahibganj, Barhait, Rajmahal, Mirza Chauki and Barharwa in Jharkhand.
Prakash was arrested by the ED in August last year and he is currently lodged in jail under judicial custody. The ED has called him to be an associate of Mishra and the two are alleged to be handling huge cash funds generated through illegal stone mining in the state.
“After having considered the rival submissions advanced on behalf of both the sides, this court is of the view that the argument advanced on behalf of the ED is persuasive enough to reject the petition for bail.
“Contrary to the submission by the learned counsel on behalf of the petitioner, the offence of money laundering is an independent offence and it is not necessary that the accused charged with the offence of money laundering are the same who are made accused in predicate offence…,” the order said.
The court said that the story of the prosecution (ED) “reminds one of a crime thriller, where the state withers and the crime cartels with political connection, clash for natural resources of the state”.
“At the centre of this human rapacity is Rajmahal Hills which runs through the districts of Sahibganj, Pakur and extending up to Dumka, and is famed for the black stone chips used as construction material,” it said.
The court said Prakash’s role in this case has been recorded in the statement of a person called Ravi Kumar Kejriwal, a former treasurer of Soren’s party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), and an employee of Prakash, Anil Jha. The petitioner failed to “satisfactorily” answer the questions posed to him by the ED on huge amounts of cash received in bank accounts linked to him, it said.
“Huge cash transactions have been shown in the account of the company in the name of this petitioner, regarding which no plausible explanation has been offered,” the court said.
The court took on record ED’s submission that Mishra “enjoyed political clout, being the representative of the present Chief Minister, Jharkhand, who was also MLA from Barhait, Sahibganj”.
“The investigation into the bank accounts of Pankaj Mishra revealed acquisition of proceeds of crime running into crores of rupees. The proceeds of crime out of the illegal mining was generated in cash and was also being transferred to Prem Prakash who was hand in glove with Pankaj Mishra and others who were involved in illegal mining and its transportation activities as well as in the activities related to money laundering,” the ED said while informing the court about his role. The ED said it recorded the statement of Kejriwal under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) who said that “one day he was present in the office of the chief minister, when CM directed Pankaj Mishra to directly hand over the funds coming from Santhal Parganas stone mining to this petitioner (Prem Prakash)”.
“It was also observed that the petitioner would hand over funds to Amit Agarwal and that he was very close to CM, Hemant Soren and Amit Agarwal (another person involved in the case),” the agency said.
Prakash’s counsel told the court that money laundering was not a “standalone” offence as ruled by the Supreme Court last year and that his client had no “no business connection or had in any manner” dealt with Mishra. The defence counsel added that Kejriwal was “expelled” from JMM in 2020 and that he was not a member of the political party when he is stated to have made the statement about the discussions taking place in CM Soren’s office.
The court, however, rejected the claims made on behalf of Prakash’s and said that “the law enforcement agencies are now confronted with a new species of crime in the form of money laundering, which necessitated the special Act (PMLA).” “The law is evolving with different amendments and judicial pronouncements,” it said.
The court order said as the case is “still at its nascent stage and it will be not be in the interest of justice to enlarge petitioner (Prakash) on bail. The petition for bail stands rejected.” It also said that it was “quite interesting that even two AK 47 rifles were seized from his (Prakash) house which are said to be of the security guards not posted in his place.”