The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has been in hot pursuit of absconding Pankaj Bhujbal, son of senior NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal, in the Maharashtra Sadan scam case and other money-laundering cases since the interim protection from arrest granted to him lapsed on June 10.
Pankaj Bhujbal had been granted interim protection from arrest till June 10. File pic
The Bombay High Court had on June 7 refused to quash the non-bailable warrant (NBW) issued against Pankaj and seven accomplices by a special PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act) court on April 27 after the Supreme Court turned down the request on May 18. The court had, however, extended till June 10 the interim protection from arrest granted to Pankaj by a vacation bench last month to enable him to approach an appropriate forum for relief.
Soon after Pankaj’s protection lapsed last Friday, ED officers launched a search for him, Hiten Venegeonkar, counsel for the ED, told mid-day. Special teams have made the rounds of Nashik, Chhagan’s hometown and political stronghold and his home in Mazgaon. Officers have been deployed outside another residence of Bhujbal — La Petit Fleur — in Santacruz.
“We have a small team of just 20 officers in Mumbai. So, it becomes difficult to track down an accused. Still, we visited Nandgaon (in Nashik), from where Pankaj was elected as an MLA. We also visited Yeola several times, from where Chhagan was elected as an MLA,” said an ED officer.
The ED is scoping out all of the Bhujbal properties in its search for Pankaj. “We also are looking for the seven accomplices whose protection, too, lapsed the same day,” said the officer.
Tough day for counsels
Meanwhile, Pankaj’s counsels tried to get another extension of protection from the HC yesterday. In its June 7 order, a single bench of Justice SS Jadhav had directed petitioners Pankaj, Satyen Kesarkar, Rajesh Dharap, Nimish Bendre, Tanvir Shaikh, Sanjay Joshi, Nilesh Shah and Deepak Shinde, against whom NBWs were issued, to also approach a division bench in the HC for further relief. But the division bench, headed by Justice Abhay Oka and Justice AA Sayed, directed the counsels to follow set procedure and approach the appropriate bench of Justice Naresh Patil and Justice Prakash Naik first to get a recusal order from it.
Since Justice Naik had represented Bhujbal in some matters earlier, he would have to recuse himself from this case. He had recused himself from Bhujbal-related matters in the vacation bench.
Since Chief Justice DH Waghela was not available yesterday, Pankaj’s counsels directly approached Justice Oka’s bench, thinking that Justice Naik’s bench would anyway recuse itself from the matter. But Justice Oka asked them to get the recusal on record and also approach the Chief Justice. They then approached the judicial registrar, who asked them to approach the bench of Justices Patil and Naik, which refused to hear the matter. Senior counsel Vikram Chowdhary, who is representing Pankaj, said the team of counsels will approach Justice Oka’s bench with the recusal order today. Pankaj can’t approach the SC as it had directed him to the HC. Besides, the SC is still on vacation.
ED officials have to update the PMLA court on the execution of warrants. The PMLA court had issued 34 NBWs and 17 company processes against all who allegedly helped Bhujbal launder money. Bhujbal was arrested on March 14 in connection with his alleged involvement in various scams, worth Rs 840 crore.