New Delhi: A court here on Thursday issued summons to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and party vice president Rahul Gandhi on charges of misappropriating funds of a company that used to publish the now-defunct National Herald newspaper.
Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. File pic
In response to a private complaint filed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy, Metropolitan Magistrate Gomati Manocha said: "I have found prima facie evidence against all the accused."
The court directed them to appear before it Aug 7.
The Congress called it "a motivated complaint". "The allegations are baseless," said party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
A party statement added: "All the people named in the National Herald matter will seek legal advice and do the needful."
Apart from the Gandhis, the court also summoned Congress leaders Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes, Sam Pitroda, who was an advisor to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, and former journalist Suman Dubey, who is close to the Gandhi family.
The complaint alleged that the Gandhis formed a company, Young India, in 2010 with 38 percent share each to take control of Rs.2,000 crore worth of assets of Associated Journals Ltd (AJL), which published the National Herald.
The National Herald was started in 1938 by Jawaharlal Nehru. Over the decades, it lost circulation and ran into major financial losses, leading to its closure in 2008.
"Since all the accused persons have allegedly acted in consortium with each other to achieve the said nefarious purpose/design, there are sufficient grounds for proceedings against all of them," the court said.
However, the judge added in a 20-page order that "it goes without saying that guilt of an accused is determined after trial when the burden of proof is discharged beyond reasonable doubt.
"This is only the stage of summoning of the accused. When the accused appear before the court they shall be at liberty to refute the allegations of (Swamy), cross examine the witnesses."
The judge, however, added that the complainant had established a prime facie case of dishonest misappropriation of property, criminal breach of trust, cheating and criminal conspiracy.
The summons were also served on Young India.
"The chain of circumstance appears to give rise to a conclusive or irresistible inference of an agreement between the accused to commit the offences as alleged in a pre-planned manner," the court observed.
It noted that "though the language in the documents is shrouded in ambiguity, it is not difficult to understand that the control over public money/assets appear to have been cleverly transferred to the hands of the few by creating a company (Young India) for this purpose".
Speaking to reporters, Swamy said: "This is a fraud, criminal breach of trust as they have managed to misappropriate the fund of Rs.2,000 crore.
"It is important for the court to take away the passports of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi so that they do not run away from the country."
Rebutting the charges, Singhvi accused Swamy of running a "motivated campaign" against the Congress.
"This is a stale complaint made some time in 2013. About a year later, we heard in the press that a summons is being issued. We have not even received it yet. You can rest assured that a fitting response will be given after we receive the papers," Singhvi said.
"Dr. Swamy is known for his motivated campaign against the Congress," he added.
"Allegations made over a year ago lead to only a process. Issuance of process on a stale complain over a year ago is not something we are excited about. Let us receive the paper which we have not received and seek comprehensive legal advice and you will see how all allegations in this respect are going to be legally demolished."
He said the offence was made possible because of the Gandhis' "crony control over the Congress party and AJL".
He alleged that they closed AJL in 2008 due to financial crisis and stopped printing the National Herald and sister publications Navjivan (Hindi) and Qaumi Awaz (Urdu), which were saddled with huge debts.
To resolve the financial crisis, AJL transferred the share equity to Young India by payment of a mere Rs.50 lakh without taking any reference from the shareholders.
Young India thus acquired the complete ownership of AJL real estate assets of at least Rs.2,000 crore, including a multi-storeyed building in a prime location in Delhi.
The court observed that the office bearers of Congress by advancing interest-free loan to the AJL, a public limited company involved in commercial activities, appeared to have defrauded a large number of persons who contributed to the political party by way of donation.
The court observed that the revenue generated by the properties belonging to AJL is being dishonestly misappropriated by the directors of Young India.