Bengaluru: Jayalalithaa was today acquitted by the Karnataka High Court in the disproportionate assets case that came as a huge relief to the AIADMK chief that will enable her stage a political comeback and return to the Chief Minister's post.
Pronouncing the verdict in a jam-packed court, Justice C R Kumaraswamy also acquitted AIADMK's chief close aide Sasikala Natarajan and her relatives J Elavarasi and V N Sudhakaran, disowned foster son of Jayalalithaa.
The meeting of AIADMK legislature party has been called tomorrow. The current Chief Minister O Paneerselvam is expected to submit his resignation before the legislature party meet.
According to sources, Jayalalithaa may take oath as the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on May 17.
As the court proceedings got underway sharp at 11 AM, the judge straightway read out the operative part of the verdict on the appeals filed by Jayalalithaa and three others challenging their conviction by the trial court. Victory celebrations broke out immediately outside her Poes Garden residence in Chennai where party workers celebrated with bursting of crackers and dancing while flashing victory sign.
Celebrations also broke out across Tamil Nadu with bursting of crackers and breaking of coconuts on Jayalalithaa's acquittal.
The Karnataka High Court judgement came on an appeal against the judgement of the Special Court Judge John Michael D'Cunha who had on September 27 last year held the AIADMK supremo and three others guilty of corruption and awarded four years jail term, due to which she attracted disqualification as an MLA.
The judge had also slapped a fine of Rs 100 crore on her and Rs 10 crore each on three other convicts. The lower court judgement automatically disqualified Jayalalithaa as an MLA and unseated her from the chief minister's post. Now with the High Court's clean chit, she is expected to assume reins of office in Fort St George.
The judgment comes as a major boost to Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK exactly one year ahead of Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.
The delivery of judgement was brief as a battery of lawyers of Jayalalithaa and small group of AIADMK supporters erupted in joy after the verdict came out in the 19-year old case.
Tight security was in place in the court and outside with prohibitory orders clamped from 6 AM to 6 PM in the one km radius.
“The prosecution case made by the then DMK government now stands dismissed,” a beaming B Kumar, senior counsel for Jayalalithaa told reporters outside the court hall. The verdict came just a day ahead of the three-month deadline set by the Supreme Court to complete the hearing on appeals by her and three others.
The 67-year old Jayalalithaa was not present in the court when the single judge bench of Justice Kumaraswamy delivered the judgement. According to the Criminal Procedure Code, the accused are required to be present only in the trial court.
After the Special Court had convicted her, Jayalalithaa had moved the Karnataka High Court challenging her conviction and sought bail.
The High Court had denied her bail following which Jayalalithaa moves the Supreme Court seeking bail. October 17, 2014, the Supreme Court had granted her bail. After 21 days in prison, Jayalalithaa was released from prison on bail on October 18.
The Supreme Court had on December 18 last year extended Jayalalithaa's bail by four months. A bench headed by CJI HL Dattu had orders that her appeal challenging conviction in Karnataka High Court be conducted on day-to-day basis by a Special Bench.
Justice Kumaraswamy, who heard the appeals, had reserved the order on March 11 after defence counsel filed their replies challenging written submissions made by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, the original complainant in the case. DMK General Secretary K Anbazhagan, on whose petition the assets case was transferred to Bengaluru from Chennai, had moved the Supreme Court challenging the appointment of G Bhavani Singh as Special Public Prosecutor by Tamil Nadu government for the appeals.
The Supreme Court had on April 27 cleared the decks for pronouncement of the judgement in the case. It had held as “bad in law” the appointment of Singh but ruled out fresh hearing in the appeal against her conviction.
After the apex court order, senior advocate B V Acharya was appointed Special Public Prosecutor by Karnataka government and he had on April 29 filed a written submission in the high court praying for dismissal of appeals filed by Jayalalithaa and others.
With the trial verdict failing to pass the higher court's scrutiny, it is a political bonanza for Jayalalithaa who had to step down as Chief Minister after her disqualification following the conviction.
The Special Court verdict had rendered her disqualified under the Representation of the People Act from contesting elections for a period of 10 years- four years from the date of conviction and six years thereafter. The legal triumph for Jayalalithaa is also expected to alter the political course in the neighbouring state, which will go to Assembly polls in about a year.
During the hearing of the appeal, Jayalalithaa had contended that the then DMK government-led investigation had deliberately over-valued her assets and that she had acquired the property, including jewellery, through legal means. Jayalalithaa had lost the Chief Minister's post twice following conviction in graft cases—in 2001 and 2014.
She had been charged with accumulating Rs 66.65 crore wealth disproportionate to known sources of her income from 1991-96 in her first term as Chief Minister in the case that has seen many political and legal twists and turns.
During the long legal battle, the country saw five Lok Sabha elections and Tamil Nadu three Assembly polls. The case was transferred to the Bangalore Special Court by the Supreme Court in 2003 on a plea by DMK, which claimed a fair trial cannot be held in Chennai as the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government was in power.
Anticipating arrival of thousands of AIADMK supporters from Tamil Nadu today, police had tightened security not only around the High Court but also near Hosur on Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, where policemen were deployed in strength. But unlike when the trial court delivered the judgement which saw presence of huge contingent of Tamil Nadu Ministers and hundreds of AIADMK supporters', this time around, it seemed that AIADMK had apparently maintained a low profile.