Interpol Takes ‘Mehul Bhai’ off the Red Corner Notice
PM Modi was once close enough to the ‘fugitive’ to address him as ‘Mehul Bhai’. But Mehul Choksi now wants a court in the Caribbean to validate his claim that the Indian Government tried to abduct him
Mehul Choksi, a diamond merchant of Indian origin, and since 2017 a citizen of the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, has filed an affidavit in the country’s High Court claiming he was abducted and tortured by agents of the Indian government in May 2021.
It was already accepted by the Antigua and Barbuda Police and the Dominican judiciary that Choksi was in fact kidnapped from Antigua and taken to Dominica against his will.
This could be the first time since Indian independence that the Government of India has, directly or indirectly, been accused of indulging in gangsterism abroad in an overseas court. India, however, is not named as a defendant.
Marissa Robertson, the judge presiding over the case, adjudged that the government and police of Antigua and Barbuda have 'a case to answer' for not expeditiously and fully investigating Choksi's complaint.
Choksi is wanted by law enforcement bodies in India for allegedly defrauding Punjab National Bank (PNB) to the tune of Rs 13,000 Crores. The diamantaire denies the charge.
Choksi’s affidavit, submitted by London barrister and King's Counsel Edward Fitzgerald, says the boat that forcibly ferried him from Antigua to Dominica ‘had on board two men of Indian origin’. It then states: ‘The men told the applicant
(Choksi) that they were agents from the Research and Analysis Wing (‘RAW’), which is the Indian foreign intelligence service.’
The affidavit further asserts: ‘The applicant was made to speak with someone on a mobile phone who identified himself as Narendra Singh and who stated that he was “in charge of your case”, that he was in Antigua when the applicant was abducted and that he was to agree once he got to Dominica to return to India otherwise serious harm would befall him and/or his family. He said: “I will tie you upside down and skin you alive, and your family would be next. I have done this many times before.”
It continues: ‘Throughout the journey, the applicant was repeatedly beaten and ill-treated, including further tasering. The Applicant passed out on many occasions due to ill-treatment and fear.’
It goes on to emphasise: ‘There is evidence linking the Government of India to the applicant’s abduction… the evidence that an aeroplane came to Dominica to take the applicant to India’ and ‘the Government of India has the motive, means and influence to orchestrate the forcible abduction.’
The affidavit is connected to Choksi’s ‘Fixed Date Claim’ against the Attorney General and Police Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda, which pleads he ‘is entitled to a speedy and effective investigation’ into the circumstances of his ‘forcible abduction and removal from the jurisdiction of Antigua and Barbuda on or around 23 May 2021’.
Approving the wording of the claim almost in entirety, Judge Robertson ruled: ‘The defendants have a case to answer.’ She also ordered ‘the defendants are to file and serve their defence’, which, unless appealed against, has to be complied with by March 31, 2023. She also instructed ‘the defendants to pay 75% of the claimant’s costs on the application’.
Robertson observed in her judgement: ‘Counsel for the defendants notes… there has been a preliminary finding that
the claimant (Choksi) was forcibly abducted and removed from Antigua, that the police has named suspects and that there have been recommendations arising from the investigation.’
In its 19 June 2021 recommendations, the police indeed asked Antigua and Barbuda authorities to request Interpol to ‘identify the location’ and obtain ‘the possible return (to Antigua)' of five suspects – one Indian national, two men of Indian descent, a British citizen and a Hungarian woman – all residents of the United Kingdom.
The police report said a man holding a diplomatic passport of another Caribbean state, St Kitts and Nevis, and the Hungarian woman ‘rank at the top of the list of suspects’. However, the Antigua and Barbuda authorities did not act on the recommendations for 18 months.
Choksi’s affidavit contends: ‘There is evidence linking the abduction to the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, including (a) the men who abducted the applicant stated that they were from the police force of Antigua and Barbuda, (b) there is evidence that the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has stopped funding the investigation into the applicant’s abduction, and (c) the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda (Gaston Browne) expressly stated in media interviews that he was working with the Governments of India and Dominica to ensure that the applicant would be repatriated/deported directly to India on the express basis that the applicant could not then assert his rights as a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda…’
Choksi has been contesting in the High Court of Antigua and Barbuda an extradition application against him pursuant to a request by the Indian government. The process, though, is deemed to be long drawn out; and since the islands still have the British monarch as their head of state, the issue will ultimately have to be decided by King Charles III’s Privy Council in London.
The affidavit also maintains: ‘There is evidence linking the abduction to the Government of Dominica.’ To substantiate this, it argues: ‘The applicant was met by a high-level reception when he was taken ashore to Dominica.’
Interpol issued three red corner notices linked to the case. The Antigua and Barbuda Police stated in January: ‘Those Red Notices were approved (by a magistrate of the islands Conliffe Clarke) and issued (by Interpol).’ The Antigua Observer newspaper reported last month that the Hungarian woman concerned was detained in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Antigua and Barbuda Police, though, have not confirmed this.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) in Britain is said to be seized of the matter, an informed investigator disclosed; but can only carry out arrests on British soil of those against whom Interpol has put out Red Corner notices, if asked to do so by Antigua and Barbuda.
Officially, the NCA’s comment in response to questions was characteristically: ‘We can neither confirm nor deny any investigation or requests (from Antigua and Barbuda).’ Interestingly, the spokesperson offered ‘apologies’ for not being able to do so.
The investigator also affirmed the NCA is attempting to track the money trail in respect of a suspected multi-million payment made to the kidnappers in the UAE for the extra-judicial targeting of Choksi.
Another setback for the Narendra Modi government comes from Interpol removing Choksi from its list of red corner notices. Interpol, it appears, is prima facie of the view that not only was an attempt made to kidnap the businessman, but Indian authorities were behind it.
Judging from Interpol’s purported statement, it was Choksi who applied for a deletion of his name. And Interpol seemingly decided: ‘There is credible possibility that the applicant’s
abduction from Antigua to Dominica had the ultimate purpose of deporting the applicant to India.’
It is undeniable that Indian agents arrived in Dominica in a chartered Qatar Airways executive jet in a bid to clandestinely whisk Choksi back to India; but were thwarted by a conscience-stricken Dominican police officer informing a radio presenter Loftus Durand about the businessman’s unlawful detention.
Durand broke the news on his programme, thereby triggering judicial intervention and Choksi’s eventual release.
Interpol felt Choksi would face ‘risks… if returned to India, in terms of receiving a fair trial or treatment’. This is a damning indictment by the 195-member inter-governmental police organisation of democracy and the state of law enforcement and the criminal justice system under the Modi government.
PM Modi was on sufficient good terms with Choksi for the former to publicly refer to him as ‘Mehul Bhai’. According to Choksi, this relationship gradually deteriorated after Modi came to power at the centre in 2014.
It's in the public domain that in 2016 or 2017 his company Gitanjali Gems appointed the late BJP Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s daughter and son-in-law as its lawyers in the northern Indian region and paid them an advance for their services. When PNB accused him of fraud in February 2018, Choksi avers Jaitley panicked and agreed to investigating agencies pursuing the matter, lest the latter be accused of complicity.
The businessman was in New York for heart surgery when his establishments in India were raided and their assets frozen. He has not returned to India since. Jaitley’s daughter and son-in-law either paid back Gitanjali’s advance or did not encash the cheque.
Choksi avows that around Diwali 2018 – with a general election six months away – he was phoned by an industrialist perceived to be particularly close to Modi. The caller suggested the jewellery trader should come back to India and that he would be given ‘a safe harbour’.
It was conveyed that Choksi would be arrested at the airport, but considering the condition of his health, detained at a hospital, not in prison. He was advised to donate money to BJP and assured that after an interval he would be released on bail.
Choksi narrates that after discussing the proposal with his family, he turned it down on the grounds that his doctors had advised him not to undertake long flights and also because he couldn’t trust the veracity of the offer.
When he communicated his decision to the Indian industrialist, the latter told him that if he didn’t return voluntarily, he would be ‘forcibly uprooted’ (‘ukhad ke le ke ayega’). On 23 May 2021, this actually happened.
Choksi now seems to be out to expose through judicial means the crime that was committed against him – preliminarily and effectively upheld by the Antigua and Barbuda Police and a Dominican court respectively. A London lawyer said, it looks like his objective is to get a Caribbean or British court or both to validate that his kidnappers acted at the behest of the Modi government.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs was as a courtesy given an opportunity to comment on Choksi's affidavit. It did not respond.