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Introduction: In a significant legal development, the Jharkhand High Court has recently granted bail to Hemant Soren, the former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, in connection with a high-profile money laundering case. This decision comes after a detailed examination of the case by a Single Judge Bench, emphasizing the court’s evaluation of evidence and circumstances.

While ruling in a very high profile case, we see that the Jharkhand High Court in a most learned, landmark, laudable, and latest judgment titled Hemant Soren vs Directorate of Enforcement in B.A. No. 4892 of 2024 that was pronounced as recently as on 28.06.2024 has granted bail to the former Chief Minister of Jharkhand – Mr Hemant Soren in the money laundering case that had been filed against him in connection with an alleged land scam. It must be noted that the Single Judge Bench comprising of Hon’ble Mr Justice Rongon Mukhopadhyay allowed his regular bail application after perusing the facts of the case and so also considering all the material and evidence that were placed before the Bench. It may be recalled here that Mr Soren had earlier stepped down on January 31 as the Chief Minister of Jharkhand following his arrest by the Enforcement Directorate in a money laundering case that pertained to the “illegal change of ownership of land by the mafia” in the State.

While very rightly granting bail to Mr Hemant Soren, the Jharkhand High Court opined that there is reason to believe that Soren is not guilty of the alleged offence and that he is unlikely to commit such an offence while out on bail. It may be recalled that a plea challenging Mr Soren’s arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) was dismissed by a Division Bench of the Jharkhand High Court on May 3 after the Apex Court had refused to directly entertain Mr Soren’s plea on this aspect and had directed him to approach the Jharkhand High Court first. It must be noted here that senior and eminent Supreme Court lawyer and Supreme Court Bar Association President – Mr Kapil Sibal led the legal team of lawyers who defended Mr Hemant Soren in Jharkhand High Court and got him bail by arguing his case most precisely, powerfully and pragmatically! No denying it!

At the very outset, this brief, brilliant and balanced judgment authored by the Single Judge Bench comprising of Hon’ble Mr Justice Rongon Mukhopadhyay of Jharkhand High Court sets the ball in motion by first and foremost putting forth aptly in para 2 that, “The petitioner seeks bail in this application as he is in custody in connection with ECIR Case No. 06/2023, arising out of ECIR/RNZO/25/2023 dated 26.06.2023, registered u/s 3 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (herein after referred to as PMLA, 2002) punishable u/s 4 of PMLA, 2002 pending before the Court of Sri Rajiv Ranjan, learned Additional Judicial Commissioner-I-cum-Special Judge, PMLA, Ranchi.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 3 that, “A prosecution complaint under the PMLA, 2002 was instituted being ECIR Case No. 06/2023 against the present petitioner (Hemant Soren), Bhanu Pratap Prasad, Raj Kumar Pahan, Hilariyas Kachhap and Binod Singh and the background for sharing information u/s 66(2) of the PMLA, 2002 reveals that during investigation in another case being ECIR No. RNZO/18/2022 into the matter of fraudulent acquisition of land which was in possession of Ministry of Defence, Government of India, having area 4.45 acres at Morabadi, Ranchi it came to light that a group of private persons in connivance with government officials including the Ex-Deputy Commissioner, Ranchi, Chhavi Ranjan and Bhanu Pratap Prasad (Revenue Sub-Inspector, Circle Office, Baragain, Ranchi) were part of a land grabbing syndicate and was involved in corrupt practices which included acquiring properties on the basis of false deeds, falsification of Government records, tampering with original revenue documents etc. to facilitate private persons to acquire landed properties in a fraudulent manner. During investigation a survey was initially conducted at Circle Office, Baragain, Ranchi on 09.02.2023, in which, few original records kept in custody of Bhanu Pratap Prasad were verified and falsification and tampering in the registers were identified. It has been alleged that Bhanu Pratap Prasad was involved in corrupt practices and had been a party with several persons involved in acquisition of properties and on a raid conducted at several premises including the rented premises of Bhanu Pratap Prasad eleven trunks of voluminous property documents along with seventeen original registers (Register-II) were seized from his possession. Since the matter was related to forgery with the revenue records by a government official the information was shared with the Chief Secretary, Jharkhand and accordingly Sadar P.S. Case No. 272/2023 was registered on a written complaint of Manoj Kumar, Circle Officer, Baragain Anchal. It has been alleged that the registers contain reference to several properties which have been acquired in an illegal manner including the reference of properties measuring 8.86 acres at Shanti Nagar, Baragain, Bariatu Road (near Lalu Khatal) illegally acquired and possessed by the petitioner. The prosecution complaint under the PMLA, 2002 further reveals that the seventeen registers seized from Bhanu Pratap Prasad were examined and explanation u/s 50 PLMA, 2002 was sought from Bhanu Pratap Prasad which further led to the identification of tampering in the said original records aimed at extending illegal benefits to other persons and during searches on 13.04.2023 in ECIR/RNZO/18/2022, handwritten diaries were also seized from the possession of other persons namely, Md. Saddam Hussain, Imtiaz Ahmad and others who were his associates. In the diaries cash payment to Bhanu Pratap Prasad was mentioned by his associates and in the cash transaction details in respect of property measuring 4.83 acres situated at Plot Nos. 31, 32, 33, 35, 36, 38, 72 and 73, Khata No. 53, Mouza Gari, Baragain Anchal, Ranchi two false deeds, one of the year 1940 and the other of the year 1974 were prepared by the associates of Bhanu Pratap Prasad. It has been stated that the land measuring 4.83 acres is a portion of 37.10 acres of land which was purchased from Catholic Credit Cooperative Society by Mangal Mahto and Kaila Mahto in the year 1939 executed at the office of the District Sub-Registrar, Ranchi. It was revealed during investigation that the said properties are entered in Register-II at Page No. 53 of Volume-I of Gari Mouza. The land belongs to the Mahtos which cannot be sold or transferred to the persons belonging to the General Category. However, Bhanu Pratap Prasad in connivance with his accomplices entered the property measuring 4.83 acres in the name of Samrendra Chandra Ghoshal at Page no. 139 of Register-II, Volume-I. This page was earlier opened in the name of a raiyat, namely, Jitya Bhokta, Son of Tetar Bhokta. The name of Jitya Bhokta as well as Tetar Bhokta were encircled in red ink and the name of one Samrendra Chandra Ghoshal and Jitendra Chandra Ghoshal were written in place of Jitya Bhokta and Tetar Bhokta respectively thereby making this property as a general property which became saleable. On being confronted with the said facts Bhanu Pratap Prasad had admitted about his involvement in his statement recorded u/s 50 PMLA, 2002. The Circle Officer, Baragain was requested to provide a fresh certified copy of the concerned page but he, vide letter dated 19.03.2024, informed that the said page was torn and destroyed by someone, hence, the same is not available. It was therefore, implied that the records and evidence associated with the forgery committed by Bhanu Pratap Prasad and others are being destroyed and there are other persons involved who is/are acting on behalf of Bhanu Pratap Prasad and others. It has been alleged that Bhanu Pratap Prasad was a member of a syndicate which was involved in acquiring lands by fraudulent means which included tampering with original government registers, falsification of government records and manufacturing false documents. The accused Bhanu Pratap Prasad was directly involved in hatching conspiracies with other persons to acquire and dispose properties in illegal manner and was an accomplice to several persons including Hemant Soren which is corroborated from the seizure of an image recovered from his mobile phone which contains the details of a cluster of landed properties situated adjacently on twelve plots at Baragain Anchal, the total area of which is around 8.86 acres. The property was acquired in an illegal and unauthorized manner by the accused Hemant Soren and he had been in continuous possession of the property since 2010-11. In course of investigation, searches were conducted u/s 17 PMLA, 2002 and during search on 29.01.2024 cash amounting to Rs. 36,34,500/-, one BMW Car along with certain documents/records were seized from the premises under the use and occupation of the accused Hemant Soren. It has been alleged that in the first survey conducted on 20.04.2023 u/s 16 of the PMLA, 2002 in respect of 8.86 acres of land which was done in presence of the Circle Officer, Circle Inspector, Circle Aamin, Baijnath Munda, Shyam Lal Pahan, Bhanu Pratap Prasad and the officials of the Directorate of Enforcement, Ranchi Zonal Office, it was seen that there was a big chunk of land bounded by stone walls with a temporary settlement in which a family consisting of five persons were residing and on inquiry about the ownership of the land one lady (name withheld) residing and available there stated that the owner of the said 8.86 acres of the land is the accused Hemant Soren. In course of inquiry one Santosh Munda had stated that the land belongs to Mantri Ji i.e. the accused herein. On further inquiry Santosh Munda had stated that the land is in custody of Hemant Soren, the then Chief Minister of Jharkhand which was noted by all persons present during the survey proceedings by putting their signatures on the paper drawn for that purpose. In the second survey conducted on 10.02.2024, the land measuring 8.86 acres was confirmed by the officials of the Circle Office present there that the said land is situated in the locality of Lalu Khatal. An image of a plan of a Banquet Hall was retrieved from the mobile phone of Binod Singh, a close accomplice of Hemant Soren, in which, the locality of the proposed construction of a Banquet Hall was mentioned as “Lalu Khatal, Bariatu Road, Ranchi”. It was also checked during the survey that no other big parcel of land was vacant in the vicinity where the proposed Banquet Hall could be constructed. Some people were seen living in a settlement inside the boundary wall who identified themselves as family members of Santosh Munda but they could not identify accused Raj Kumar Pahan who claimed possession and occupation over the said land occupied by Hemant Soren. They had stated that they have been living in the said land for several years but they have never come across anyone called Raj Kumar Pahan. During survey, an “Indotech” made Electric Meter connection was seen in the room situated inside the boundary wall and in the Meter the name of “Hilariyas Kachhap, Diwakar Nagar, Bariatu Sadar” was written. The name of the accused Hilariyas Kachhap also surfaced during investigation where the witnesses have stated under Section 50 PMLA, 2002 that he used to be personally involved in the verification work done by Bhanu Pratap Prasad. Further he was also instructed in construction of boundary wall over the 8.86 acres of land by the accused Hemant Soren. It has also come in course of investigation that after the first summons were issued to the accused Hemant Soren an application was immediately filed by Raj Kumar Pahan, an accomplice of Hemant Soren before the Deputy Commissioner, Ranchi which was registered as SAR Case No. 81/2023-24 and vide order dated 29.01.2024 the SAR Court had cancelled the jamabandis of the earlier occupants thereby enabling the accused Raj Kumar Pahan to acquire the property on paper in order to distance Hemant Soren from the illegal occupation and possession of the subject property. The entire exercise by the SAR Court proves that the accused Hemant Soren misused his position and created parallel false evidence in order to camouflage his possession on the property and to project the said property i.e. the “proceeds of crime” as untainted property.”

Most significantly, the Bench points out in para 62 that, “The overall conspectus of the case based on broad probabilities does not specifically or indirectly assign the petitioner to be involved in the acquisition and possession as well as concealment of 8.86 acres of land at Shanti Nagar, Baragain, Ranchi connected to the “proceeds of crime”. None of the registers/revenue records bare imprint of the direct involvement of the petitioner in the acquisition and possession of the said land. As it has been noticed above, the statement of some of the persons u/s 50 PMLA, 2002 designated the petitioner in the acquisition and possession of the property in question in the year 2010 without any material worth consideration and for all this while none of the ousted persons had approached the competent authority by registering any complaint which has conveniently been discounted by the Enforcement Directorate that the approaches though made to the Police proved futile. There was no reason for the purported oustees from the land in question not to have approached the authorities for redressal of their grievance if at all the petitioner had acquired and possessed the said land when the petitioner was not in power. The claim of the Enforcement Directorate that its timely action had prevented the illegal acquisition of the land by forging and manipulating the records seems to be an ambiguous statement when considered in the backdrop of the allegation that the land was already acquired and possessed by the petitioner as per some of the statements recorded u/s 50 PMLA, 2002 and that too from the year 2010 onwards.”

It is worth noting that the Bench notes in para 63 that, “The consequence of the findings recorded by this Court satisfies the condition as at Section 45 PMLA, 2002 to the effect that there is “reason to believe” that the petitioner is not guilty of the offence as alleged. So far as the condition that he is not likely to commit any offence while on bail reference is once again made to the case of “Ranjitsing Brahmajeetsing Sharma versus State of Maharashtra & Another” (supra) which has interpreted such provision as under:

“38. …. The satisfaction of the court as regards his likelihood of not committing an offence while on bail must be construed to mean an offence under the Act and not any offence whatsoever be it a minor or major offence. If such an expansive meaning is given, even likelihood of commission of an offence under Section 279 of the Penal Code, 1860 may debar the court from releasing the accused on bail. A statute, it is trite, should not be interpreted in such a manner as would lead to absurdity…”.”

Finally and far most significantly, the Bench then concludes by very rightly holding in para 64 that, “Though the conduct of the petitioner has been sought to be highlighted by the Enforcement Directorate on account of the First Information Report instituted by the petitioner against the officials of the Enforcement Directorate but on an overall conspectus of the case there is no likelihood of the petitioner committing a similar nature of offence. The twin conditions as prescribed u/s 45 PMLA, 2002 having been fulfilled, I am inclined to allow this application. Accordingly, the petitioner is directed to be released on bail on furnishing bail bond of Rs. 50,000/- (Rupees Fifty Thousand only) with two sureties of the like amount each, to the satisfaction of learned Additional Judicial Commissioner-I-cum-Special Judge, PMLA, Ranchi in connection with ECIR Case No. 06/2023, arising out of ECIR/RNZO/25/2023 dated 26.06.2023.”

Conclusion: In conclusion, the Jharkhand High Court’s decision to grant bail to Hemant Soren underscores the judicial principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The court’s meticulous scrutiny of the prosecution’s claims and the defense’s arguments resulted in a significant legal outcome, marking a crucial milestone in Soren’s legal battle. This development not only impacts Soren’s personal legal trajectory but also sets a precedent in interpreting and applying laws related to financial crimes and political figures in India.


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July 2024