Top two Indian opposition leaders appear in court

Sonia Gandhi alongside her son Rahul Gandhi top two leaders of India's opposition Congress Party accused of illegally acquiring assets of parent company of National Herald newspaper

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Congress party President Sonia Gandhi, center, and party Vice President Rahul Gandhi, center right, head towards court in New Delhi, India.

Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, the top two leaders of India's opposition Congress party, appeared in court Saturday to face corruption accusations, as their supporters rallied around the country to protest the allegations.

The Gandhis are accused of illegally acquiring the assets of the parent company of the National Herald, a newspaper once run by their family. They have denied the allegations, calling them a vendetta against them by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The accusations against the Gandhis and some of their supporters come from Subramanian Swamy, a BJP member.

Saturday's hearing at a New Delhi district court was swift. Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party's president, and her son, the party's vice president, were granted bail of 50,000 rupees ($754), Kapil Sibal, a Congress lawmaker and lawyer, told reporters.

The hearing was the first legal step stemming from Swamy's charges. The next court date in the case was set for Feb. 20, when the court is expected to start hearing Swamy's evidence before possibly filing charges.

The National Herald was set up in 1938 by India's first prime minister and Rahul Gandhi's great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. The newspaper shut down in 2008 and the company that ran it, Associated Journals Limited, was converted into a real estate firm.

Swamy alleges that the Gandhis and some supporters illegally used party funds to acquire the assets of the real estate firm.

The Congress party has called the allegations an attempt by the BJP to muzzle the opposition.

"The current federal government is deliberately targeting its opposition," Sonia Gandhi told reporters after the hearing. "And it is using government agencies to do that."

Swamy, however, claimed that he had enough documents and evidence to secure a conviction. "I will win this case," he told reporters, adding that it was "an open and shut case."

"Ms. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi will be sentenced to serve prison time," he said.

With no formal charges being filed yet, it is not clear how much jail time, if any, the Gandhis and the others involved in the case could face.

Security at the courthouse was exceptionally tight, with hundreds of police and paramilitary troops swarming the area.

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi — family members of two former Indian prime ministers who were assassinated — are provided the highest level of security the country offers.

Rahul's grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister when she was gunned down in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. His father, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991, a year and a half after his term as prime minister ended.

Outside the court and across several parts of the country, tens of thousands of Congress party workers took to the streets Saturday to show their support and to protest the allegations against their leaders.

The Italian-born Sonia Gandhi has led the party since 1998.

The Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress party that they dominate has ruled India for all but 10 years since the country gained independence from British rule in 1947. But the party faced its worst electoral drubbing in national elections last year, winning only 44 seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament.