NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The 2G spectrum corruption trial descended into bickering over the quality of poorly photocopied witness testimonies and noisy ceiling fans on Friday as five senior business executives fought to win bail in a packed and stuffy court.
Judge O.P. Saini deferred until Wednesday a decision on bail applications of officials from the Indian joint ventures of Norway’s Telenor, the United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat and from Reliance ADA group, owned by tycoon Anil Ambani, named in the case.
Sacked telecoms minister Andimuthu Raja and the executives are charged with manipulating the granting of telecoms licences in the world’s fastest-growing telecoms market, causing a potential loss to the government of $39 billion.
In a country where top business executives and politicians have been largely seen as untouchable, the case has gripped the public amid a growing backlash from an urban middle class angry about corruption in one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
But on Friday, more mundane matters ruled, highlighting the archaic court system that is often criticised for taking years to deliver justice.
“The lines are missing in several statements. The documents are haphazard,” a lawyer brandishing a copy of a handwritten witness deposition told Saini. The judge acknowledged even he could not read it.
“Several pages are missing,” the lawyer said.
Duffle bags filled with documents were scattered around the court while a security official with a gun slung over his shoulder stood guard in sweltering heat.
One executive had to fight his way through a crowd of journalists, relatives and officials in the court while lawyers pleaded with the throng to let them pass.
As the court became gradually hotter, an argument broke out over whether a noisy fan should be left on.
Sweat glistened on the brows of several lawyers and someone complained of feeling faint, prompting the judge to order a window to be opened in the hope of cooling the white-panelled room.
The case is the latest chapter in a series of corruption scandals that have embarrassed the Congress party-led government, which faces a test of strength in major state elections that could redraw the political landscape.
Most analysts expect the DMK, Raja’s party and a key Congress ally, to lose power in Tamil Nadu because of the backlash from the scandal.
Raja was arrested last year and his subsequent request for bail was turned down. On Friday, he sat with his sleeves rolled up in the heat, smiling and chatting with his aides as lawyers argued.
The scams, exposed in recent months, point to a pervasive culture of corruption in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration, prompting a man once seen as the country’s most honest politician to defend his leadership and scramble to keep the ruling coalition intact.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) opposed the bail applications for three officials from Reliance and for the managing director of Telenor’s Indian partner, saying they could abscond or try to influence the witnesses.
“Going by their high positions, going by their complicity ... it is imperative that they be remanded to judicial custody,” said prosecutor U.U. Lalit.
All of the accused have denied wrongdoing.
“This is nothing, my lord, but a witch hunt,” said K.T.S. Tulsi, who appeared for Sanjay Chandra, the managing director of Telenor’s India partner, Unitech.
The new telecoms minister, Kapil Sibal, could cancel several of the contentious licences issued under Raja, although that would likely feed investor uncertainty about the stability of government contracts and regulations in India.
The scandal has weighed on the Mumbai stock market, which ended the March quarter as the world’s worst performer.
Norway’s prime minister raised concern that Telenor may be wrongly penalised in the scandal, and wrote a letter to Manmohan Singh to ensure the firm receives “fair treatment”.
Under fire from a resurgent opposition, the case has sapped the government’s strength to push an agenda of economic reforms such as simplifying the tax code or opening the supermarket sector to foreign players.
Wall-to-wall media coverage of what has been dubbed the “season of scams” intensified last week when a social activist went on a fast to press the government to tackle corruption.
Two parliamentary panels are investigating the scandal and one of them summoned Ambani, as well as Ratan Tata, the head of the $70 billion Tata conglomerate, for questioning.
Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Robert Birsel