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3 Indian officials charged in telecom scandal

By Ashok Sharma
Associated Press / April 2, 2011

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NEW DELHI—Prosecutors on Saturday formally charged India's former telecommunications minister, two other officials and six company executives with fraud and forgery in a scandal estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars.

The scandal involves the 2008 sale of cellular licenses in a "first-come, first-served" process that netted India only 124 billion rupees ($2.7 billion). Officially reportedly awarded some licenses to ineligible participants who then sold their stakes at a high premium. The state auditor general says the government lost as much as $36 billion in potential revenue by not auctioning the licenses.

On Saturday, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's FBI, said it charged former minister Andimuthu Raja and the others with criminal conspiracy, forgery and fraud. If convicted, they face up to seven years in prison.

Pretrial proceedings in the case are to begin later this month.

In February, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caved in to opposition demands and agreed to allow a parliamentary investigation into the scandal, which badly tarnished the clean image of his government.

Raja, who has denied any wrongdoing, was forced to resign from the government in November. He was arrested three months later.

The suspects include Shahid Balwa, the vice chairman of Etisalat DB, a telecommunications joint venture between Abu Dhabi's Etisalat and Dynamix Balwas, a real estate, hospitality and telecoms company. Balwa is also managing director of Dynamix Balwas, which is partly owned by his family.

The Press Trust of India news agency said Balwa allegedly sold a 45 percent share in a telecoms license to Etisalat at more than twice the price that the Indian government sold it for. Balwa also has denied any wrongdoing.