The CBI has absolved its former Special Director Rakesh Asthana of allegations of taking bribes from fraud-accused pharma company Sterling Biotech, sources have said.
This is the investigating agency's second clean chit to Rakesh Asthana, who had a controversial stint in the CBI until he was removed in 2018. Currently the chief of the Border Security Force (BSF), he was cleared by the CBI last March in another bribery case, linked to meat exporter Moin Qureshi.
RK Shukla, who retired as CBI Director last week, "signed the file giving a clean chit to Rakesh Asthana and others in the mid of January", sources said.
"It was a unanimous opinion of the investigation team, supervisory officers and the competent authority to close the case for want of evidence," they told NDTV.
The CBI had on August 30, 2017, filed a case against three officers, Sterling Biotech and unknown public servants for alleged corruption. The case was based on a diary seized from the premises of the promoters of Sterling Biotech, brothers Chetan and Nitin Sandesara, by the Income Tax department in 2011.
Relying on notings in the diary, then CBI director Alok Verma had accused Rakesh Asthana of receiving around Rs 4 crore in bribe from the Sandesara brothers.
Sources said: "The 12-digit numbers written against Asthana on the diary was examined, there was no such bank account anywhere. Every aspect was looked into in detail in the three-year investigation, and for lack of evidence, the investigation team was of the opinion that the case should be closed".
In 2017, Alok Verma had opposed the appointment of Rakesh Asthana as Special Director and, in a note submitted to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, alleged that the diary notings showed 23 entries in the name of the officer to the tune of Rs 3,94,72,106 (around 4 crore). Despite the objection, Mr Asthana was appointed.
The next year, however, the same case was referenced when the Chief Vigilance Commission ordered Mr Asthana's removal from the CBI. "... pending the process of inquiry into every issue arising in view of allegations and counter allegations directs that Rakesh Asthana, Special Director CBI be hereby divested of and shall not exercise any function, power, duty and supervisory role in respect of cases already registered and or required to be registered..." the top anti-corruption watchdog had said.
With the CBI now clearing him of the charge, there is speculation that Mr Asthana may return as its chief.
Mr Shukla's term has ended and a high-powered panel led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to meet soon to discuss names for his successor.
A CBI spokesperson did not respond to the development.
"An impartial enquiry has now proved that Mr Asthana was falsely implicated in the case by the then Director of CBI in connivance with some other officers. This has been highlighted by us since the beginning, both in the courts and CVC. We stand vindicated," said Rakesh Asthana's lawyer Amit Anand Tiwari.