India charges ex-minister in telecom graft scandal

Indian police on Saturday charged a former telecom minister with corruption and abuse of power 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 conspiracy, cheating, forgery and criminal misconduct on a charge sheet that ran to 80,000 pages and was carried in seven steel trunks to a New Delhi court house.

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.

The police probe into the issuing of the licences and allocation of 2G spectrum "has established the commission of offences" by Raja and others, the federal Central Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.

The corruption scandal is said to be possibly the biggest in independent India's history, losing the country up to $40 billion in revenues, according to the national auditor, although the government disputes the claim.

Charges were also laid against eight other people, including Raja's private secretary RK Chandolia and former telecom secretary Siddharth Behura.

Raja is accused of selling spectrum at 2001 prices and changing the application cut-off date to allow certain companies to win licences.
"The accused (companies) conspired with Raja and got licences before other people in the queue," prosecutor AK Singh told reporters.

Companies named on the charge sheet were Unitech Wireless, partly owned by Norway's Telenor, Swan Telecom, since renamed Etisalat DB Telecom and the Reliance ADA Group controlled by billionaire Anil Ambani.

All those investigated have denied any wrongdoing in the scandal, one of a string to have shaken the Congress-led government during its second term.

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.

Raja, who stepped down last November, has been arrested and is in jail.

Analysts say the case could be a Pandora's box for the Congress-led coalition as many of the players who received the telecom licences are seen as having links to the government.

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.

The Supreme Court had ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to pursue alleged corporate wrongdoers without being influenced by their status -- "be it millionaires or those on the Forbes (billionaire) list".

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