The Madras High Court on Friday ruled that the Enforcement Directorate is entitled to seek the custody of Tamil Nadu minister V Senthil Balaji in a money-laundering case, reported Live Law.

The ruling was delivered by Justice CV Karthikeyan, who was the third judge to whom the matter was referred to following a split verdict by the division bench of Justices Nisha Banu and Bharatha Chakravarthy on a plea challenging Balaji’s arrest.

The plea filed by Balaji’s wife had alleged that he had been illegally detained by the Enforcement Directorate.

The central agency had arrested Balaji on June 14 on the allegations of conspiring with transport corporation officials to appoint candidates recommended by his aides. The Enforcement Directorate claimed that crores of rupees were taken as bribes from candidates in exchange for jobs.

After his arrest, Balaji complained of heart ailment and is currently admitted to the Kauvery Hospital in Chennai. He underwent a bypass surgery on June 21.

On Friday, Justice Karthikeyan ruled against Balaji’s release.

“The fact that respondents [Enforcement Directorate] can take custody for further investigation cannot be denied,’ he said. “The respondent, in this case, had a right to get custody. I would align my opinion with the reason given by Justice Bharatha Chakravarthy in this aspect”.

Justice Karthikeyan accepted the argument made by Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal on behalf of the petitioner that Enforcement Directorate officials are not police officers. But the judge noted that the session court had remanded Balaji to judicial custody following which the nomenclature of “detenu” changes to “accused”.

The judge also noted that Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure allows the remand of the accused to “such custody as such magistrate thinks fit” during the first 15 days and does not specify whether it has to be “police custody” or “judicial custody”.

He said that if an investigation requires custody, then custody has to been as a matter of right, reported Bar and Bench.

“But no accused has a right to frustrate inquiry,” the judge added. “Even prior to his ill health, the accused refused to accept grounds of arrest and then claimed he was not provided grounds of arrest. This cannot be considered by this court. It must be declared a falsity... when arrest is possible, then seeking custody is also permissible.”

Justice Karthikeyan then asked the Registry to place the matter before the chief justice’s bench so that a final order can be passed after taking into consideration his opinion.

In the split verdict, Justice Banu had held that Enforcement Directorate does not have powers under the Prevention Of Money Laundering Act to seek police custody. She said that the Enforcement Directorate officers empowered to arrest under the money-laundering act are required to produce the accused person to the competent court within 24 hours of arrest and can only seek judicial remand.

Justice Chakravarthy differed with the view taken by the senior judge and said that the petition did not make out a case to prove that Balaji’s detention was illegal. The judge also allowed the Enforcement Directorate to exclude the period of treatment from the duration for which he is kept in custody.

Case against Senthil Balaji

The alleged irregularities in the case took place between 2014 and 2015, when Balaji was the state transport minister. He was then a leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He joined the DMK in December 2018.

After his arrest, the Madras High Court had dismissed an interim bail petition but allowed Balaji to get treatment.

Two more public interest litigations had been filed before the Madras High Court in June challenging the DMK leader’s continuation in the Cabinet despite him being in judicial custody. On June 26, the court had asked the petitioners if there was any legal provision that allowed the governor to dismiss a state minister.

Days later, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi passed an order to dismiss Balaji from the state Cabinet citing “serious criminal proceedings” against him. Ravi passed the order without any consultation or recommendation from Chief Minister MK Stalin, as is the convention. However, the Tamil Nadu government has said it will disregard Ravi’s orders.