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Former Indian Prime Minister Rao sentenced 3 years in prison

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October 13, 2000 


NEW DELHI (AP) - Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison for bribing lawmakers to back his government on a crucial confidence vote that saved his government in July 1993.

Rao, 79, who held office from 1991-96, was convicted Sept. 29 of criminal conspiracy, bribery and corruption, becoming the first Indian prime minister to be found guilty in a criminal case.

Buta Singh, who served as his home minister, received the same sentence.

India's court system, notorious for years of delays, has begun dealing with serious cases against politicians. Also this year a popular southern politician has been convicted in a series of corruption cases dating back to 1991 and a powerful Bombay kingmaker and party president was brought to court on six-year-old charges of inciting riots.

Judge Ajit Bharihoke sentenced Rao and Singh to a total of three years "rigorous imprisonment" for the three counts against them, and an additional three years under the Prevention of Corruption Act, ordering them to be served concurrently. He also imposed fines of 100,000 rupees (dlrs 2,175), in lieu of an additional six months.

They were released on 200,000 rupees (dlrs 4,350) bail until Nov. 8, giving them a chance to appeal.

The judge also ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation, the equivalent of the FBI in the United States, to file bribe-taking charges against the four lawmakers who received the 16.8 million rupees (dlrs 365,000) in bribe money. One of them had helped the prosecution and was the main witness in the case.

The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that the four had parliamentary immunity from prosecution. But Bharihoke said the men's bribe taking occurred outside Parliament.

Rao came out of the courtroom surrounded by lawyers and armed commandoes who protect him because of his former high office. A special guest house in South Delhi was being prepared for his imprisonment, the Press Trust of India reported, because it is believed he would be in danger if he was sent to a regular prison.

The "rigorous imprisonment" that the judge imposed usually means fewer privileges and a substandard class of prison.

Rao was born into a poor farmer's family and is an accomplished linguist and fiction writer in three languages. His ascendance to high office was as surprising in political circles as his conviction. He entered Parliament in 1977, and served as Indira Gandhi's foreign minister and home minister in the 1980s.

He didn't even run for Parliament in 1991, but was put forward by the dominant Congress party after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. He was the first prime minister from India's south and the first one, other than a member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, to complete a full five-year term.

His tenure as prime minister was marked by growing prosperity and the historic opening of India's Soviet-style economy. His latter years, however, were marred by scandal. Since leaving office he was also prosecuted, but acquitted, in a forgery case. The state is appealing the acquittal.

Known as "the silent sage" for his noncommittal style, Rao once told his detractors, "Not to take a decision is also a decision."

Rao's attorney, R.K. Anand, had argued that the state did not prove the former prime minister himself had paid the bribe. The lawyer for Singh, the former home minister, told the judge it was a case of extortion, and the governing party had no choice but to pay the money.

"This kind of corruption is a plague which is contagious," prosecutor R.N. Tiwari said Wednesday in the sentencing hearing. "Corruption is opposed to democracy, affects the economy and destroys the cultural heritage."

He had asked for the maximum sentence saying "the most rigorous punishment which is applicable for these crimes" should be given as a deterrent. "The high office they have held should not come in the way of getting a fitting punishment."

The case involved payments to four lawmakers of the regional Jharkhand Mukti Morcha party in return for their support of the ruling Congress party in the vote of confidence on July 28, 1993.

Rao, whose government had 251 seats in the 528-member lower house, won by a margin of 14 votes.

Arguing that it was good for India in the long run for Rao to have remained in power, Anand said, "You have to see how the economy of the country has benefited and see also the decline from '96 to today."

Buta Singh's attorney, Rajindra Singh, said, "It's not a case of paying bribe. It's a case of extortion at the point of a gun. To prevent yet another election, they (the government) had to make a decision."

"Political blackmail happens all the time," he said, comparing the cash payment to reports that current Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is about to roll back oil price increases to keep a member of his coalition from withdrawing her support from the government.

"What choice did Rao have?" Rajindra Singh said. "It was under these dire circumstances of an atrocious nature that the money was given."

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