New Delhi - Parliament has passed the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, that provides for measures to deter absconding economic outlaws from evading prosecution by staying outside the jurisdiction of Indian courts, with the Rajya Sabha's nod to the law.
The Lok Sabha has already passed the Bill last week and it is now set to become a law following President's assent.
The Bill says a person can be declared a fugitive economic offender (FEO) if an arrest warrant has been issued against him for an offence where the value involved is over Rs 100 crore, and he has left the country and refuses to return to face prosecution.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) will be the implementing and executing agency for this law.
To declare a person an FEO, an application containing details of the properties to be confiscated and the offender's whereabouts will be filed in a special court by the ED Director. The special courts will be designated under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 and would be "like exclusive courts", according to Finance Minister Piyush Goyal.
The special court will require the person to appear before it within six weeks from issue of notice.
While the Bill allows authorities to provisionally attach properties of an accused, while the application is pending before the special court, the proceedings will be terminated if the person appears before a court. Then he would be tried as per the existing laws.
If the person fails to attend, he/she would be declared an FEO and proceedings to confiscate their property/assets would be initiated.
However, the special court may exempt properties where certain persons may have an interest, such as secured creditors.
Further, the FEO or any company associated with him may be barred from filing or defending civil claims.
In his reply to the debate, Goyal said this provision was kept to prevent the offenders to scuttle legal proceedings through their proxies posing as minority shareholders.
He said some things have been left to the courts' discretion.
On an objection raised by a few members over the authorities not being required to obtain a search warrant or ensure presence of at least two witnesses before a search under the Bill, Goyal said proper safeguards and cautions have been provided under the Bill.
These include the officer mentioning in writing the reason for searches and ensuring the presence of at least two witnesses.
"We have not created any new offence under the Bill. One of the objectives of this Bill is deterrence and the other is to instil fear in the fugitive offenders' minds that they may be stopped from enjoying their ill-gotten wealth and to force them to return," the Minister said.
On the doubt raised by some members during the three-hour discussion that the Bill may not stand judicial scrutiny, Goyal cited a Supreme Court order of 2016 that has said that the government can rightfully deprive a person of enjoying his wealth if it is found that the assets/property is ill-gotten.
As some members raised the question of propriety of government seizing property of a person without his conviction, the Minister said the government sought to seize property of a person who has fled the country and refuses to return. But once he returns in designated time, he would be subjected to the regular laws, he added.
The upper house passed the Bill with a voice vote, rejecting a few amendments moved by CPI-M member Elamaram Kareem.
As Congress members claimed they did not get a copy of the amendments, Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu said he would order an inquiry into the matter because as per the Rajya Sabha table office, the said amendments were provided to all the MPs on July 24.