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Asia-pacific

Ex-minister faces trial in landmark corruption scandal

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-11-11

India's former telecommunications minister stood trial on Friday over his alleged role in a massive corruption scandal in which second-generation mobile phone licences were sold to selected companies at a net loss of $40 billion.

AFP - A former Indian government minister went on trial amid chaotic scenes on Friday, accused of playing a central role in a massive corruption scandal over the allocation of mobile phone licences.

A. Raja, who was telecom minister from 2007 to 2010, is the key figure in a case that has rocked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration and helped make corruption one of the country's hottest political issues.

The sale of second-generation (2G) licences at far below their commercial rate to selected companies could have cost the treasury up to $40 billion in lost revenue, according to the public auditor.

Raja, wearing a white shirt, appeared alongside the other 13 defendants from the senior ranks of telecom companies and the bureaucracy who face charges including criminal breach of trust, bribery, forgery and cheating.

Proceedings began with lawyers arguing that the tiny courtroom chosen for one of the biggest trials in recent years was unsuitable, as defendants' family members, journalists and an army of lawyers crammed into the small space.

"We can't hear what the witnesses are saying," complained defence lawyer Majeed Memon. "The administrators of the court should do something about providing better ventilation and seating facilities.

"How can you conduct such an important trial in such a shabby manner?" he told the court.

After hearing the complaints, the judge called the first prosecution witness, Anand Subramaniam from Reliance Capital, part of the group owned by billionaire Anil Ambani.

Subramaniam was grilled by the prosecution lawyers for close to four hours before the second witness A.N. Sethuraman, the group president of Reliance, was called for questioning.

Raja appeared cheerful and relaxed throughout, occasionally smiling while chatting with his co-defendants.

The prosecution is likely to focus on accusations that when allocating the licences Raja favoured Swan Telecom, alleged to be a front for Ambani's Reliance group, and another company called Unitech Wireless.

"We will focus on the incorporation (of Swan), and then on the events that unfolded in the department of telecommunication. In the later stages, the trial will focus on beneficiaries of the scam," a prosecution source told AFP.

Raja, a member of the DMK, a key regional party in the Congress party-led coalition, is suspected of rigging rules over the sale of 2G mobile licences in 2008 to favour some firms in return for kickbacks.

Others accused of wrongdoing include Kanimozhi -- an MP known by one name who is the daughter of DMK chief M. Karunanidhi -- plus senior telecom executives and government officials.

Kanimozhi, seated next to her husband in the court room, was seen flipping through the pages of a book titled "Judicial Activism in India".

Raja, 48, a former law student, was denied bail when he was arrested in February and has spent the last nine months in Delhi's Tihar jail along with several other suspects.

The trial, being held at a CBI special court in New Delhi, is expected to be a lengthy affair due to the complexity of the case, the number of accused and India's extremely slow legal system.

The accused all deny any wrongdoing. They face a maximum sentence of life in jail if found guilty.

The case, one of the biggest in independent India's history, has led to intense pressure on Singh and many observers believe the trial could expose leading politicians and businessmen to damaging revelations.

Singh is not directly linked to the scandal but his second term in office has been bogged down by various corruption allegations, and his reputation as a bulwark against graft has been badly tarnished.

Corruption in public life has become a burning issue in Indian politics, with huge anti-graft protests in August triggered by activist Anna Hazare's hunger strike in New Delhi.

Date created : 2011-11-11

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