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India charges ex minister in telecom graft scandal

NEW DELHI, Apr 3 – Indian police on Saturday charged a former telecom minister with abuse of power and conspiracy in an alleged mobile spectrum fraud that cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenue.

The south Indian politician, A. Raja, was also accused of cheating, forgery and criminal misconduct on a charge sheet and annexed documents that ran to 80,000 pages and were carried to court in seven steel trunks.

Raja, a low-caste politician from a regional party in Premier Manmohan Singh\’s national Congress-led coalition, is suspected of rigging rules for the sale of second generation (2G) mobile licences in 2008 to favour some firms.

Three executives employed by a telecom firm belonging to the conglomerate controlled by prominent billionaire Anil Ambani were also charged.

The charges were the first to be laid in the corruption scandal, said to be potentially the biggest in independent India\’s history, and capped months of investigation into the issuing of the licences and allocation of 2G spectrum.

The scene is now set for a high-profile trial that could be a Pandora\’s box for the Congress-led coalition, as many of the players who received spectrum are seen as having links to the government, analysts say.

A special court has been set up to speed up the case, in which prosecutors plan to call 125 witnesses including the attorney general and 49 other senior government officials along with a host of top telecom executives.

The fraud lost the country up to $40 billion in revenues, according to the national auditor, while the federal Central Bureau of Investigation on Saturday estimated losses at around $6.7 billion.

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"I am satisfied that there is enough incriminating material on the record to proceed against the accused persons," judge O.P. Saini said.

The spectrum scandal has cast a cloud over India\’s mobile industry, the second fastest-growing in the world.

Charges were also laid against eight other people, including Raja\’s ex-private secretary R.K. Chandolia and former telecom secretary Siddharth Behura.

Raja — who has been arrested and is in jail — is accused of selling spectrum at 2001 prices and changing the application cutoff date to allow certain companies to win licences. He stepped down last November.

Firms named on the charge sheet were Unitech Wireless, partly owned by Norway\’s telecommunications giant Telenor, Swan Telecom, since renamed Etisalat DB Telecom, and Reliance Telecom, part of Ambani\’s Reliance ADA Group.

Executives of Swan Telecom, Unitech Wireless and Reliance Telecom were among those charged. If found guilty, the accused could face years in jail.

Reliance said in a statement, "The CBI media release itself states that the charges are based on its own investigations, and the accused are presumed to be innocent, till their guilt is finally established after a fair trial."

A spokesman for Unitech Wireless said neither the firm nor any of its officials "have done anything inappropriate or illegal". Etisalat said it would comment only after studying the charges.

All those accused have previously denied any wrongdoing in the scandal, one of a string to have shaken the government during its second term.

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Singh, 78, has been battling to salvage his upright reputation in the face of opposition charges that he turned a blind eye to corruption in the interests of preserving his coalition.

The charges come at a sensitive time for the government — ahead of five state elections that begin this month — in which Congress needs to fare well or risk a shift in the political landscape that could hurt its fortunes.

Scandals ranging from the Delhi Commonwealth Games last October to the 2G telecom sale have led to months of bad publicity, sapping the popularity of Singh\’s administration and rattling foreign investors.


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