Poisoned probe

If the mysterious death of Ashutosh Asthana, the prime accused and witness in the multi-crore UP Provident Fund corruption case involving judges, in a Ghaziabad jail on Saturday raised suspicions of foul play, the hurried cremation of his body has strengthened them. The body was cremated before a supreme court directive to preserve his body was delivered to the police. Though the post-mortem on the body had been done, there was demand for further examination as the results had been inconclusive. Doctors had however felt that he had died of poisoning and circumstances had pointed to that possibility. Asthana had threats to his life apparently because of his value as a witness. These had been ignored, and the jail authorities and the CBI, which is investigating the case, have much to answer for this lapse. It is pointed out that the death could not have taken place without the collusion of the jail authorities or other influential persons who wanted to silence him.

Asthana’s role in the case was crucial as he was the person who facilitated illegal withdrawal of about Rs 23 crore from the PF accounts of employees in the Ghaziabad region on the orders of judicial officers from 2001 to 2007. Asthana retained part of the money and claimed to have passed on the rest to the judges who authorised the withdrawals. As many as 36 judges, including many high court judges and one supreme court judge, are allegedly involved in the scandal. As it involved judicial corruption on a massive scale, the supreme court was directly monitoring the case. Asthana had provided a number of important documents to the CBI which now feels that his death is a major setback to its investigation.

The case should be followed up more vigorously, as these documents and the confession made by Asthana before a magistrate will stand judicial tests. It is equally important to probe the circumstances of his death and bring to book those who had a hand in it. It will also be noted that the judges, whose names have figured as beneficiaries of the scam, are still serving on the bench. It underlines the limitations of the present system of dealing with corruption charges involving members of the judiciary. When influential accused in similar circumstances elsewhere are generally asked to step aside to prevent them from derailing justice, it will be interesting to see how the supreme court deals with this crisis involving the judiciary.

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