The art of conning: Mehul Choksi and absurd drama in the Caribbean
A tropical island paradise, a mystery woman, a private executive jet, a flashy but elusive diplomat, boats, abduction, torture --the Mehul Choksi saga has all ingredients of a Jeffrey Archer thriller
It is hard to say what Jeffrey Archer would make of the Mehul Choksi saga. It has all the ingredients of a thriller. A tropical island paradise, a mystery woman, a private executive jet, a flashy but elusive diplomat, boats, abduction, torture; and one or two Caribbean media outlets registered in India.
The lurid story has had several twists and turns, one more bizarre than the other. As court battles rage in the Caribbean for deporting the fugitive diamondtaire back to India, to release him on bail from a Dominican prison and to settle his citizenship in Antigua, police in the island nations and Scotland Yard in London are seized with his complaint of abduction and torture.
Several questions remain to be answered. Were Indian government agencies involved in the operation to secure Choksi? If the Indian Government was not involved, what could be the motivation of the alleged abductors? And if Choksi was indeed trying to escape to Cuba, why would he leave without his passport and sufficient money and leave behind his wife?
Newspapers in the Caribbean, at least one of which, Associates Times appears to be registered in India and owned by PDQ Media Pvt Ltd., have added dramatic details. An eyewitness in Dominica has been quoted as saying that Choksi was found dumping papers in the Caribbean sea when the police challenged him and he began to run and fell, injuring himself.
Another report stated that Choksi’s elder brother had bribed the opposition in Dominica and Antigua to demand that Choksi be freed. In both the island nations, the ‘Governments’ want Choksi to be deported to India while the opposition want the ‘rule of law’ to prevail.
Amidst all this bedlam, another question has gone unanswered. Why was the Indian Government so keen to charter an executive jet to bring back the fugitive ? There are procedures and protocols in place for deportation and once the formalities are completed, fugitives are bundled into a plane, sometimes with security and sent off. Why would the Government of India incur an expenditure of Rupees five or six Crore on sending the jet?
Choksi, who fled India in January 2018, has at least two cases filed against him for defrauding the Punjab National Bank of Rs 6097 Crore (PNB was defrauded of Rs 13,000 Crore in all) and for money laundering. But according to information in the public domain, he is yet to be declared a proclaimed economic offender because the case before the special court in Mumbai has not moved since 2019.
What is more, the Enforcement Directorate in 2019 had indicated that it had attached properties and bank accounts worth Rs 2,5347 Crore belonging to Choksi and his Gitanjali Group.
The attached property included 15 flats and 17 offices in Mumbai, a mall in Calcutta, a four-acre farmhouse in Alibaug, assets in Dubai, a Mercedes Benz car, fixed deposits and bank accounts in India and abroad besides 231 acres of land at Nashik, Nagpur, Panvel and at Villupuram in Tamil Nadu.
Choksi’s complaint is that on May 23, he was kidnapped in Antigua, bound, beaten and blindfolded and forcibly taken to Dominica by sea. There he was charged with illegal entry without valid travel documents by Dominican authorities and detained.
He named four people and accused them of masterminding his abduction, namely Gurdip alias Dev Bath, Barbara Jarabik, Gurjit Singh Bhandal and Gurmit Singh. While 33-year-old Barbara Jarabik holds a Hungarian Passport and Bath a diplomatic passport issued by St Kitts and Nevis, the other two are said to be British nationals.
Bath, a resident of Mayfair, London, had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September, 2019 at an India-CARICOM (Caribbean Community) summit in New York and posted photos of them in conversation on Twitter. In another photograph he is seen in conversation with Prince Charles. The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, follows him on Twitter.
Bath, born in Jalandhar, resides at Mayfair, London while Gurmit Singh is said to reside in Birmingham. Named by Choksi as one of the two Indians who accompanied him in the boat to Dominica, he is stockily built and on his facebook page he has posted photographs of himself posing with people flaunting firearms.
A complaint filed with Scotland Yard alleges that in April this year, all four took the same British Airways flight from Antigua to London. Bath and Jarabik arrived and departed between Antigua and Dominica the same month. On May 25 Bhandal and Singh are recorded as entering Dominica on the same boat; and on May 28 the two with Jarabik left this island on the same flight.
The complaint alleges that both Bhandal and Singh were in April denied immigration by Dominica. By way of evidence a copy of an email from Rhoan Barker, Operations Supervisor at the Joint Regional Communication Centre in Barbados was attached.
In an intelligence alert to several island states in the region, Barker wrote, “Please note that the undermentioned subjects were intercepted in Dominica on April 12, 2021, having arrived into the country on a yacht (Lady Anne) manned by two Saint Lucian nationals. Subjects appeared to be involved in a smuggling ring. Singh and Bhandal were attempting to disembark the vessel to board a flight to the UK. They were both denied landing and subsequently left for Antigua on the said yacht.”
After the pair apparently returned to Antigua, Randy Baltimore, Principal Inspector of Customs in a hand-written note on the email said “both passengers arrived on 15.4.21… and departed same day on o/b (on board) BA2156 (which is a British Airways flight from Antigua to London Gatwick).”
Addressing a press conference on Thursday, a London lawyer Michael Polak, who had filed the complaint to the Scotland Yard, reiterated that his client was abducted and tortured and taken to Dominica, where he doesn't have the protection of a final appeal to the Privy Council in London as he does in Antigua by virtue of his citizenship there.
Polak described Choksi's alleged kidnapping and abuse as an "attack on the rule of law". He also said countries involved in the crime had engaged in "pirate diplomacy". Apparently, a hint that the Indian government was complicit.
He alleged Choksi was denied access to a lawyer for three days after arriving in Dominica; and that he was asked to "sign a piece of paper" which made no mention of the fact that he was an Antiguan citizen, resident there. He asserted: "They wanted to whisk him away to India." He asked: "Is this the way any of our states should be behaving?"
Polak shared text messages relating to an Airbnb booking for two beach front villas with a boat in private Antigua made by the Hungarian woman Barbara Jarabik through an Indian-owned London-based travel agency. He maintained Choksi was lured to one of these properties, where his capture took place, after which he was forced on to the rented vessel. Jarabik is named in Polak's complaint to British police.
The island nation of Antigua is described as a tropical paradise with 365 beaches. It is also a tax haven in the Caribbean with no income, wealth or corporate tax. Its population was around 71 thousand in 2019 and more than one-third of them were said to be ‘foreigners’.
Choksi and his wife have been living in the Jolly Harbour area, where the Prime Minister of Antigua also lives, since 2018. His wife Priti in telephonic interviews with Indian TV channels rubbished the claim of the Hungarian woman that Mehul Choksi was known to her as ‘Raj’. Everybody in the island knew who Choksi was, she maintained, and it was inconceivable that Barbara, who herself is into business, would not have verified who Choksi was.
His lawyers claim he acquired the citizenship of Antigua by making the required investment, which is said to be around Rupees two Crore in Indian Rupees (200,000 US Dollars in real estate) and a donation of one Crore Rupees.
(With inputs from Ashis Ray in London)