Ranchi, Sep 30 (IANS): Bringing to end one of India's longest-running corruption cases, a court in the Jharkhand capital Monday convicted RJD chief Lalu Prasad and 44 others for illegal withdrawal of millions of rupees from the then undivided Bihar's animal husbandry department in the early 1990s, in what is popularly known as the fodder scam.
The BJP Monday hailed the verdict as justice for Bihar's people, while Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal admitted the party's future was at stake.
Convicted for forgery, cheating, falsification of accounts and conspiracy, among other offences, and offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the former Bihar chief minister faces a maximum of seven years jail.
"Special Judge Pravas Kumar Singh found all the 45 accused guilty," a CBI lawyer told reporters.
The quantum of sentence against Lalu Prasad and 37 convicts will be announced Oct 3. Eight convicts were sentenced Monday itself.
Those convicted also included former chief minister Jagannath Mishra of the Congress and Janata Dal-United MP Jagdish Sharma, for fraudulent withdrawal of Rs.377 million from the district treasury in Chaibasa, now in Jharkhand after the state's division in 2000.
The case is related to alleged fraudulent withdrawal of money from the treasury during 1994-95 using forged letters and spurious bills, raised without the actual supply of medicines, instruments, maize and groundnut cake to the husbandry officer of Chaibasa, the CBI said.
After the day's proceedings, Lalu Prasad was sent to Birsa Munda central jail in Ranchi.
His eldest son Tejsavi told reporters that the judgment would be challenged in a higher court.
Lalu Prasad reached Ranchi Sunday along with Tejasvi by plane and stayed in the railway guest house. On way to court in the morning, he offered prayers at the Durga temple on Ranchi's Ratu Road.
RJD leaders, including Lok Sabha member Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Prabhunath Singh and Lalu's brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav, were present in the courtroom when the judgment was pronounced.
The verdict is crucial for Lalu Prasad and his political future since the central government ordinance that would have shielded convicted parliamentarians and legislators from disqualification may be withdrawn after Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi trashed it.
BJP leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy called it justice for the 10 crore people of Bihar, while Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley accused the central government of trying to shield the RJD leader through an ordinance.
"It is a historic judgment and a justice day for the 10 crore people of Bihar," Rudy told reporters in New Delhi.
Lalu Prasad's wife and former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi alleged that he has become a victim of an opposition conspiracy, and asserted that in his absence, she and her two sons will lead the RJD and work hard to strengthen the party.
"Laluji has become a victim of opposition conspiracy," Rabri Devi told media persons at her official residence in Patna.
Publicly, RJD leaders putting up a brave face, saying the party was united, but admitted the development was a major setback at a time when the RJD was seemingly gaining ground it had lost in Bihar.
There were a total of 56 accused in the case. But during the trial, seven accused died, two turned approvers, one admitted to the crime and one was discharged.
The court earlier fixed July 15 as the date for verdict, and asked the 45 accused to be present in the court.
But Lalu Prasad moved the Jharkhand High Court and later the Supreme Court, seeking change of the judge due to alleged bias against him. Both courts dismissed his petition, and directed him to complete his arguments in the trial court.
The CBI registered the case March 27, 1996 on the apex court's direction and took over investigation in the case, earlier registered by Bihar Police at Chaibasa Police Station Feb 2, 1996.
Lalu Prasad quit the chief minister's post in 1997 when his name figured in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the scam.
Around 54 of the 61 cases were transferred to Jharkhand from Bihar. Different CBI courts have passed judgments in more than 43 cases. Lalu Prasad and Mishra were named as accused in five cases.