Kerala’s Transport Minister Antony Raju is still stuck in a 32-year-old case involving a shrunken dark-blue underwear.
While the Kerala High Court last week quashed the evidence-tampering case against Raju on technical grounds, it is too early for the minister to heave a sigh of relief. The court has asked the “competent authority” to correct the procedural lapse in the complaint and proceed with case — setting the stage for a fresh trial.
How it all began
The case against Antony Raju and his current predicament stems from an Australian national, Andrew Salvatore Cervelli, bragging to a murder co-accused in Victoria in that country about how he had escaped a jail term in Kerala for smuggling hashish by bribing people.
The co-accused reported the conversation to the Victoria police, who alerted the Australian National Central Bureau (ANCB), which tipped off its Indian counterpart, the CBI. The central agency passed the information on to the Kerala police. This was in 1996.
More than half-a-decade earlier, on 4 April, 1990, Cervelli had been arrested from the Trivandrum International Airport with 61.6 grams of the banned substance concealed in his underwear’s two pockets. He was about to board an Indian Airlines flight to Mumbai.
The Australian was subsequently booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985.
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Trial of Cervelli and case against Antony Raju
Antony Raju, then a junior working for counsel Selin Wilfred, represented the accused in the court. Meanwhile, Cervelli’s family members, too, reached Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.
On 2 August, 1990, the fast-track trial court found Cervelli guilty and sentenced him to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, besides slapping a fine of ₹1 lakh.
The garment in which he had smuggled hashish was among the evidence submitted to the court.
Soon after, Cervelli moved the high court, challenging the lower court’s verdict.
In his appeal, he requested the court to revisit the material evidence submitted in the lower court, especially the underwear.
When the underwear was examined, it was found too small for the brawny Australian and it had no pockets to keep the narcotic substance.
A practical trial, too, was conducted, which confirmed that the garment did not fit the accused.
The prosecution case collapsed. The court acquitted Cervelli on 5 February, 1991. In the first week of March, he took a Qantas flight home, “with no corresponding exit details”, the ANCB informed the Indian authorities.
High court’s suspicion and a fresh case
While acquitting Cervelli, the court suspected a strong possibility that the underwear was “planted in an attempt to wriggle out of the situation”, and suggested an inquiry.
The court’s vigilance officer conducted an investigation and submitted a report, highlighting the need for a detailed investigation. The smuggling case’s investigating officer also approached the high court seeking a probe.
Subsequently, the Vanchiyoor police in Thiruvananthapuram registered a case about tampering with the evidence in 1994.
A charge sheet was filed two years later, a month before the Assembly polls of 1996.
It was the year Antony Raju contested the election from Thiruvananthapuram West on a Kerala Congress(J) ticket with the backing of the LDF, and won.
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Underwear and the charge against Antony Raju
The charge sheet filed before the Judicial First Class Magistrate Court at Nedumangad, some 16 km from Thiruvananthapuram city, named a sessions court clerk, KV Jose, as the first accused and Raju as the second.
It alleged that Raju submitted an application to the sessions court on behalf of the Australian to release the latter’s personal belongings.
On getting a positive court order, the first accused, Jose, released the articles, including the underwear — a piece of crucial material evidence — from which the contraband was seized, to Antony Raju on 9 August, 1990.
On 5 December 1990, Antony Raju reportedly returned the underwear, which was forwarded to the sessions court.
The sessions court did not conduct a practical trial of the underwear before convicting Cervelli. It is alleged that Antony Raju swapped the underwear before returning it.
Jose and Raju were charged with cheating (Section 420), conspiracy (Section 120-B), dishonestly inducing delivery of property/causing disappearance of evidence of offence (Section 201), the threat of injury to induce a person to refrain from applying for protection to a public servant (Section 190), and public servant disobeying direction of law with the intent to save a person from punishment or property from forfeiture (Section 217) of the Indian Penal Code.
High court quashes proceedings
As the case dragged on, social activist George Vattukulam approached the high court, requesting a faster trial.
Antony Raju, too, moved the high court, seeking an order for quashing further court proceedings in the underwear case. He argued that the case must be quashed as the police directly registered it despite the rules mandating a formal complaint by the court or a court official.
On Friday, 10 March, the High Court of Kerala quashed criminal proceedings against the minister on technical grounds.
However, the single bench of Justice Ziyad Rahman clarified in the order that “this would not preclude the competent authority or the court concerned from taking up the matter and pursuing the prosecution in compliance with the procedure contemplated under Section 195(1)(b) of the CrPC”.
The judge also observed that the charges against Raju included interfering with functions of the judiciary and polluting the justice administration mechanism.
While admitting the claims of Raju’s counsel that the existing investigation had not followed proper procedures, the judge ordered a new process ensuring a fresh and fair trial in the case.
Stage set for fresh trial
The stage is now set for correcting the procedural lapses and starting the trial afresh, which would begin within weeks.
According to the information available, the High Court Registry has directed the district court in Thiruvananthapuram to lodge a fresh complaint against Antony Raju and the former court staff, who allegedly assisted him in switching the evidence.
The district court can forward the complaint against Raju to the jurisdictional court at Nedumangad for further action.
The delay in the trial of the evidence tampering case has been a topic of heated discussion in legal circles.
In the high court, Raju’s lawyer demanded the quashing of the case as Section 195 of the CrPC mandated only the respective court or an officer designated by it could file any complaint in offences committed in the court.
The high court has instructed the Registry to initiate the trial process afresh.
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What next in underwear case against Antony Raju?
According to legal experts, the trial court will summon the accused and facilitate further process once the district court or the designated court official concerned files a fresh complaint.
Significantly, there will not be any new investigation in the case, and the proceedings will be based on evidence and documents collected so far.
Though Antony Raju welcomed the high court quashing the proceedings in the underwear case, he remained silent over its order for procedural correction and reinitiating the trial.
Despite repeated attempts by South First, the minister’s office refused to comment on whether the new development in the case would likely receive public attention in the coming days, further denting the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s image.
Two violations, says former judge
“The case shows two kinds of violations. The first is very serious: Cheating a court by tampering with the evidence. The other is the inordinate delay in conducting the trial,” Justice (Retd) B Kemal Pasha of the Kerala High Court, told South First.
“Antony Raju’s influence as a powerful lawyer, politician, and administrator might have caused both. He has avoided trial all these years and hid the case details while occupying the Cabinet minister post,” he said.
“Raju and the ruling front must think of the legal, constitutional, and moral propriety of such a person occupying a high public office,” Justice Pasha added.
But with the procedural lapses now getting cleared and the opposition parties saying that the minister has no moral right to continue in office, uncomfortable days are likely ahead for Raju and the LDF government in Kerala.