HYDERABAD: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy suffered a setback as a CBI special court turned down his petition seeking exemption from his personal appearance in court in a clutch of cases. As a result, Jagan should continue to appear personally before the court every Friday as he has been doing for over five years. The CBI court delivered its judgement on Friday afternoon.

The CBI’s stand against Jagan that he might influence witnesses in the case was accepted by the trial court, which heard his petition for exemption. The court agreed that though Jagan had become the Chief Minister, there was no change in the status or gravity of the charges against him; hence there could not be different criteria to exempt him from personal appearance before the court.

The verdict of the CBI trial court assumes significance as it is indirectly linked to Jagan’s political standing as Chief Minister and gave handle to his political opponents who welcomed the same. Now, Jagan will have to explore legal options to knock the doors of higher courts challenging the special court judgement which was reserved on 18 October. His counsels said a decision on this would be taken soon.

Jagan has been facing as many as 13 criminal cases as the accused number one in a clutch of disproportionate assets cases since May 2012 when he went to jail. After spending about 17 months, he came out on bail. He carried on with the election campaign on bail before the 2014 elections, but couldn’t come to power. However, he won 151 out of 175 MLAs in May 2019 and became Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister.

Jagan’s legal counsel had put up solid arguments in his favour, saying that as a Chief Minister, he should not be asked to appear in court every Friday as it amounted to a waste of at least two days’ of his time every week and would cost the exchequer around Rs 60 lakh on security and other protocol arrangements. Moreover, his behaviour in the last five plus years had showed that he never influenced any witnesses so far.

However, the CBI court, which is conducting the trial into the charge-sheets in 13 cases against him, had differed with the arguments and concurred with the contention of the public prosecutor, who insisted there could not be different criteria for persons holding high offices when it comes to granting exemption from their personal appearance.

This development is certainly an embarrassing situation for the ruling YSR Congress, apart from the physical discomfiture to the Chief Minister who had to schedule his appointments so as not to clash with his visits to the CBI court every week in Hyderabad. Even his meetings with the Prime Minister and other Union Ministers, too, are planned in a way so as not to clash with the court appearances.

What surprised the Chief Minister’s camp is the strident stand taken by the CBI counsel that a person holding a Constitutional position like the Chief Minister cannot be treated differently. The court accepted this view while dismissing his petition. Jagan’s plea that his Friday court visits were obstructing his discharge of duties as Chief Minister in serving the public didn’t yield any results.

What weighed against Jagan in this verdict was the fact that he had already filed two such petitions—seeking exemption from personal appearance—in the last few months and both were dismissed by the CBI court. Once, the matter even went up to the High Court which, too, concurred with the CBI court’s stand on the petition.

At the time of the verdict, senior YSR Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Vijaysai Reddy and another accused in these cases, including IAS officer Sri Lakshmi, were present in the court. Now that the CBI court ruled out exemption for the Chief Minister, it is doubtful whether the other accused, too, will get the same relief from the court.

Sources in the legal team of the Chief Minister told this newspaper that Jagan still enjoyed the benefit of filing separate petitions seeking exemption from his personal presence in the court every Friday, but the court would consider them case by case. “There is a provision in the CrPC to seek permission to skip presence, citing specific reasons,” a senior counsel of the CM said.

While ruling YSR Congress leaders maintained a silence on the CBI court verdict, opposition TDP leaders expectedly welcomed it and termed the verdict as a “slap on the face of the government”. Three former TDP ministers—Yanamala Ramakrishnudu, Somireddy Chandramohan Reddy and Kalva Srinivasulu—demanded that Jagan should own up moral responsibility for the trial court judgement and quit.

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