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New Delhi’s top elected official arrested in liquor bribery case

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NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal was arrested Thursday by a federal agency that accused his party and ministers of accepting 1 billion rupees ($12 million) in bribes from liquor contractors nearly two years ago, a top leader of his party said.

Atishi Singh, a leader of Kejriwal’s Aaam Admi Party, or Common People’s Party, denied the accusations and said they were fabricated by the federal agency, which is controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s government.

Singh said her party will ask India’s Supreme Court to quash Kejriwal’s arrest and that he should be questioned, not arrested, as the investigation is still in progress in the case. He will continue to be Delhi’s chief minister while the party fights the accusations, she said.

Footage from local TV showed police whisking away Kejriwal’s supporters in buses as federal agents arrested him after questioning him for hours at his residence in New Delhi.

One of the charges under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act is that 14 wholesale liquor distributors earned an “excess profit” of 3.38 billion rupees ($41 million) when the now-scrapped liquor policy was in operation two years ago.

The arrest came hours after Delhi’s High Court refused to grant any protection to Kejriwal, 55, over the summons issued to him by the Enforcement Directorate, a federal agency that probes economic offenses, in connection with the alleged scam.

The federal agency had called Kejriwal for questioning nine times in recent months, according to a government lawyer. But Kejriwal skipped the summons each time saying he was busy with his political work.

Kejriwal’s lawyer, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, told the court Thursday that the probe agency was being misused by the Modi government to weaken his party ahead of India’s national elections to be held in April-May.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been defeated in Delhi state elections by Kejriwal’s party and also was defeated in northern Punjab state in 2022.

The federal agency accused Kejriwal’s government of a sudden increase in the wholesaler dealers’ profit margin under the excise policy to 12% from 5%.

Government attorney S.V. Raju said that 14 wholesale liquor distributors earned “excess profit” of 3.38 billion rupees ($41.2 million) in less than a year and in turn paid 1 billion rupees ($12.1 million) in bribes to Kejriwal’s party and other ministers.

Kejriwal launched the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012, and it won the Delhi state legislature election a year later, when he became the chief minister. Kejriwal, a former civil servant, campaigned on a promise to rid the Indian political system and governance of corruption and inefficiency.

The party’s symbol — a broom— and its promise to sweep the administration of graft struck a chord with Delhi residents, fed up with runaway inflation and slow economic growth.

But he resigned as the chief minister 49 days later because his minority government couldn’t enact an anti-corruption law due to a lack of support from other political parties.

He took over as chief minister for a second five-year term in 2015 after his party’s stunning victory in the state elections when it grabbed 67 of 70 seats.

In the 2020 elections, Kejriwal’s AAP re-emerged victorious and retained power in Delhi. Kejriwal was sworn in as chief minister of Delhi for the third time in a row. Outside Delhi, his party registered another major victory in the 2022 Punjab state elections.

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