NEW DELHI // A former Indian government minister went on trial yesterday accused of playing a central role in a massive corruption scandal over the allocation of mobile phone licences.
The trial comes seven months after the indictment was presented to India's Supreme Court alleging a massive misappropriation of government funds during the allocation of the 2G mobile network spectrum.
The undercharging of the licences is said to have cost the government an estimated US$38billion (Dh139.5bn) in revenue.
Andimuthu Raja, who was telecommunications minister from 2007 to 2010, appeared in court yesterday alongside 13 other defendants including telecom company executives and politicians. They face charges including criminal breach of trust, bribery, forgery and cheating.
Mr Raja was arrested in February after the Central Bureau of Investigation found evidence he had subverted the spectrum allocation process.
Mr Raja's role in the case shook Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration. Mr Raja belongs to the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party - the Tamil Nadu-based party that has been a key partner with Mr Singh's Congress Party in India's coalition government.
The investigation has gripped the nation, where corruption is considered a matter of course and politicians and influential businessmen are often seen as above the law.
The trial encompasses the business and political worlds and involves India's largest listed company.
Cho Ramaswamy, a Tamil Nadu-based political commentator, said Indians would be watching the trial closely. "The trial has just begun, but the CBI is quite capable of messing up and having the case thrown out," Mr Ramaswamy said.
The CBI has a history of bungling high-profile corruption cases, he said. Yesterday morning in court, defence lawyers complained of lack of air conditioning and space, asking that the trial be moved to another courtroom.
In the afternoon, the court heard from a prosecution witness, Anand Subramaniam, the assistant vice president of Reliance Capital. A Reliance subsidiary, Reliance Communications, had initially been suspected of involvement. But the company's directors are now prosecution witnesses. Reliance was suspected of winning bids for 2G spectrum licences through front companies, including Swan Telecom.
Mr Subramaniam backed down from a statement he made to the CBI about authorising the opening of an account for Swan Telecom, one of the companies accused of graft. He said he had not worked with any of the firm's accused executives. He also said he could not remember under whose direction he had signed the authorisation letter.
The prosecution is expected to present testimony from more than 150 witnesses, including Vinod Kumar Budhiraja, the chief regulatory officer of Etisalat DB, Etisalat's India subsidiary.
Etisalat bought a stake in Swan Telecom worth $900 million in March 2009, which was later renamed Etisalat DB. Swan Telecom's executives are on trial for their suspected involvement in the 2G scandal. The UAE company holds 44.73 per cent stake in Etisalat DB.
The trial is expected to last at least until the end of the month.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse