Ranchi, Oct 3 (IANS): Former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad was Thursday jailed for five years for his role in the Rs.950 crore fodder scam that surfaced 17 years ago, effectively ending the electoral career of one of India's best known politicians.
The sentencing -- the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) founder was also fined Rs.25 lakh -- takes away Lalu Prasad's membership of the Lok Sabha, where he was a familiar face, occupying one of the front benches. Lalu Prasad's lawyers vowed to appeal in a higher court.
"When I have not done any crime, how have I been punished?" a dazed Lalu Prasad, 67, asked at the Birsa Munda Central Jail here when the special CBI court announced the sentence. Judge Pravas Kumar Singh retorted: "You can appeal in the higher court."
Lalu Prasad's lawyer earlier pleaded for a lenient sentence, citing his age and health issues. The judge was also told how the Indian Railways had performed profitably when he headed the ministry.
CBI lawyer B.M.P. Singh demanded deterrent punishment.
Among a total of 37 convicts who were sentenced Thursday, former chief minister Jagannath Mishra and Janata Dal-United leader Jagdish Sharma were jailed for four years each.
While Mishra, who was admitted to a hospital Wednesday after injuring himself in the bathroom, was fined Rs.2 lakh, Sharma was fined Rs.5 lakh.
There was a hushed silence as the judge sentenced Lalu Prasad for conspiracy. With only lawyers allowed in the court, an army of journalists and some Lalu Prasad supporters were massed outside.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which for years was a favourite target of Lalu Prasad, was elated. BJP's M. Venkaiah Naidu remarked: "Though justice has been delayed, it has not been denied."
In Patna, Lalu Prasad's wife and former chief minister Rabri Devi alleged "a conspiracy" against her husband for which she blamed both the BJP and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Although RJD leaders claimed that Lalu Prasad would continue to guide them even from prison, he would not be able to contest elections for six years from the date of his release.
Lalu Prasad was the Bihar chief minister when the CBI filed a charge sheet June 23, 1997 accusing 56 people of fraudulently withdrawing Rs.37.70 crore from the Chaibasa treasury in 1994-95 on the strength of forged and fabricated documents.
Of the accused, seven died and two were pardoned after they turned approvers. Another man confessed while the then deputy commissioner of West Singhbhum district was discharged for his role in another case.
A former RJD legislator, R.K. Rana, got five years' jail and was fined Rs.30 lakh.
B.N. Sharma, who supplied fodder to the Bihar government's animal husbandry department, was asked to cough up Rs.1.5 crore -- the maximum fine imposed on anyone in the case.
On Sep 30, the CBI court held all 45 accused guilty. It sentenced eight of them to three years in prison and slapped them with fines up to Rs.50 lakh.
Lalu Prasad became the second politician this week to lose membership of parliament in line with a Supreme Court ruling. On Tuesday, Congress MP Rasheed Masood was jailed for four years for his role in illegally giving MBBS seats to undeserving medical students.
Lalu Prasad stepped down as chief minister in 1997 when his name figured in the CBI investigation in the fodder scam.