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Popular Indian Politician's Corruption Conviction Spurs Nervousness

Supporters of J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of India's Tamil Nadu state and head of the AIADMK party, hold a protest against a prison sentence for the popular politician in the southern Indian city of Chennai Sunday. BABU/Reuters /Landov hide caption

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BABU/Reuters /Landov

Supporters of J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of India's Tamil Nadu state and head of the AIADMK party, hold a protest against a prison sentence for the popular politician in the southern Indian city of Chennai Sunday.

BABU/Reuters /Landov

In India, the law has caught up with one of the country's most powerful political figures. A court has sentenced the popular J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to four years in prison and a record $1.5 million fine.

Her crime: accumulating vast wealth for which the 66-year-old veteran politician could not account.

It is India's highest-profile corruption case addressing illegally amassed wealth; the ruling has stunned an Indian political class that is widely seen as permeated with graft.

Jayalalithaa's political career often mirrored the melodrama of the films she starred in before entering politics.

The movie star-turned-chief minister was convicted Saturday in a 1,000-page verdict, putting an end to a 18-year proceeding. A reported seven judges, three public prosecutors and some 25 petitions to the Supreme Court had all been part of the case, whose length demonstrates how slowly the wheels of justice can grind in India.

The court said the prosecution had proven beyond doubt that Jayalalithaa, who was elected to three terms as chief minister, had acquired assets worth approximately $9 million. The case involved ill-gotten gains from her first term in office.

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In a move initially seen as masterful back in 1991, Jayalalithaa had declared she would take a salary of just one rupee a month when she first became a chief minister. The move, however, gave prosecutors reason to inquire about how she could accumulate so many assets with so little income.

The Income Tax Department reportedly raided her residences in Chennai and Hyderabad. Her assets include a farmhouse, a tea estate, and farmland. The Economic Times reported that documents showed property seized by authorities also included 60 pounds of gold, 1,100 pounds of silver, 10,000 sarees, 750 pairs of shoes and 100 wristwatches.

Jayalalithaa claims the assets were gifts and, in a statement, she said the case was politically motivated.

As a measure of her popularity, 29 state ministers from her cabinet reportedly waited in a tent erected outside the Bangalore court. The case had been removed from Tamil Nadu to Bangalore to avoid any possible witness tampering.

The first chief minister to be convicted, Jayalalithaa was taken to the high-security Bangalore central prison, assigned prisoner number 7402 and moved to a women's barrack, according to the Sunday Times newspaper, which also noted that the facility "has no VVIP [very, very important person] cell." Her request to be moved to a private hospital was denied.

Jayalalithaa's attorneys are expected to appeal the sentence. In the past, politicians accused of serious crimes have relied on appeals, knowing the process could take years while they enjoyed their full term in office and even re-election.

However, the immediate consequence of Jayalalithaa's conviction is that she ceases to be both chief minister of Tamil Nadu and a member of the state assembly.

It is a test case for a landmark Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a law allowing elected representatives time to appeal. Removal from office is now immediate upon conviction in a criminal case by a trial court. The ruling was a bid to prevent politicians from abusing the appeals process.

As news of the verdict reached Tamil Nadu Saturday, women wailed and violence erupted. The case effectively removes Jayalalithaa from the political scene at the height of her popularity, as she just guided her party to a sweeping victory in the May general election. If her conviction stands, she will be barred from seeking office for six years starting from the day she completes her jail term.

The fact that one of India's highest-profile politicians has gone down is a worrying prospect for India's political class. As a measure of their nervousness, it is said that not even Jayalalithaa's rivals have gloated over her fall.