Mumbai, June 10: After a night in the Byculla Women’s Prison, socialite and businesswoman Sheetal Mafatlal went home to her plush Altamount Road home on Tuesday. Additional metropolitan magistrate M J Mirza took over an hour to dictate the order before pronouncing her release on a bail of Rs 5 lakh.
Sheetal was arrested in the early hours of Sunday by the Customs’ Air Intelligence Unit from Mumbai airport for allegedly smuggling in gold and diamond-studded jewellery and for non-declaration of valuables worth over Rs 53 lakh. The court had sent her to four days of jail custody on Monday and kept her bail application for orders on Tuesday as public prosecutor Arun Gupte had asked for time to file his written reply.
Sheetal’s advocate Satish Maneshinde said that the bail could have been granted on Monday itself had there been no insistence on a written reply, as the bail plea was argued orally by both sides.
“Such delaying tactics by the customs are undoing what the law ministry and the Prime Minister have been fighting against,’’ he said. The customs department, however, said that since a written reply was sought, it was its duty to file a proper reply.
The court, which heard the arguments both for and against Sheetal’s bail, finally seemed to uphold most of Maneshinde’s contentions. Relying on Supreme Court orders while granting bail in similar duty-evasion cases, the magistrate also took into account the two-year-old amendment of the Customs Act which converts a non-bailable offence into the bailable category. Maneshinde had pointed out that Section 135 of the Customs Act was amended to make non-payment of duty on imported goods worth Rs 1 crore a bailable offence. He said in this case, the allegation was that the goods were worth only Rs 53 lakh.
Yet another modification was that if the duty payable was less than Rs 30 lakh, the offence could be bailable. In Sheetal’s case, assuming she had to pay duty, it would have amounted to Rs 18 lakh and hence she was entitled to bail, her lawyer argued. The court seemed to accept this and in the bail order directed her to deposit Rs 18 lakh towards duty.
The condition for bail imposed by the court was that Sheetal should appear before the AIU officers of the customs department twice a week—Mondays and Thursdays—and not leave India without the court’s prior permission.
Gupte’s arguments that her influential family status could hamper the investigation did not influence the magistrate who instead held it in her favour, given that she had property and family in the city.
Atulya Mafatlal, Sheetal’s industrialist husband, looked to be a relieved man. The first person he called was his mother-in-law, who he said had been anxious to learn of her daughter’s fate.
Atulya later told TOI, “It is still quite bizarre and I am extremely hurt that the customs people kept calling her a smuggler. Why couldn’t they just have said duty-evasion like in other cases, even assuming they were right? It was very mean of them to brand someone a smuggler. It was quite unnecessary and harms the reputation of a lady.’’