Scotland Yard assessing allegations regarding abduction and torture of Mehul Choksi

A British human rights lawyer has accused four people, said to be United Kingdom residents, of abducting and torturing Indian-born Antiguan diamond merchant Mehul Choksi

Fugitive businessman Mehul Choksi (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Fugitive businessman Mehul Choksi (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Ashis Ray/ London

The War Crimes Team of London’s Metropolitan Police, popularly known as Scotland Yard, is examining a complaint made by a British human rights lawyer Michael Polak. This accuses four people, said to be United Kingdom residents, of abducting and torturing Indian-born Antiguan diamond merchant Mehul Choksi.

In a characteristically conservative manner, Scotland Yard revealed: "We can confirm that the Met's War Crimes Unit, part of the Counter Terrorism Command, received a referral on 7 June 2021 which relates to allegations of torture. The referral is being assessed by officers, in accordance with the CPS/SO15 referral guidelines for war crimes and crimes against humanity."

The four seem to be 31-year-old Hungarian Barbara Jarabik, 45-year-old Gurdip Bath of St Kitts and Nevis, 50-year-old British national Gurjit Singh Bhandal and 63-year-old Gurmit Singh, an Indian.

The complaint is that on 23 May, Choksi, 62, was kidnapped in Antigua, bound, beaten and blindfolded and forcibly taken to Dominica by sea. There he was charged with illegal entry by Dominican authorities and detained. The Indian government wants him to be directly deported to India to face trial for allegedly defrauding Punjab National Bank of thousands of crores of rupees – without being returned to Antigua, the country of his current citizenship.

Even though the crime is said to have been committed in the Caribbean, British authorities are empowered to investigate, arrest and prosecute persons involved by virtue of a Universal Jurisdiction Act. The purpose of this legislation was to hold “those who commit the most serious crimes accountable for their actions” and “not provide a safe haven for war criminals or those who commit other serious violations of international law”.

Narendra Modi narrowly escaped being detained when he visited the UK as chief minister of Gujarat in 2003. The application to take him into custody for his suspected role in the 2002 riots in the state failed in court on a technicality. In fact, the security around him was upgraded by British police in anticipation of a citizen’s arrest, which would have adversely impacted Indo-British relations.

Distinguished diplomat Satyabrata Pal, then the Indian deputy high commissioner in London, later noted: “Two days into the visit, the (British) Foreign Office called the (Indian) High Commission in a panic to report that they had learnt that, following a precedent set during a recent visit by Robert Mugabe (then president of Zimbabwe), an attempt would be made to put Narendra Modi under citizen’s arrest, permitted by British law, while some lawyers were approaching a magistrate for a more conventional arrest warrant.”

“Luckily, the application for the warrant failed in court, and the British threw an invisible cordon around Modi to prevent the feared citizen’s arrest; so he strutted and fretted on his London stage a few days more, and left on schedule, his departure warmly welcomed by both governments,” Pal added.

A Whitehall notification states: “Crimes of universal jurisdiction can be reported to the police in the same way as any other offence.”

It continues: “The war crimes team of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism command is responsible for the investigation of all allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.”

Significantly, since torture is included in the list of offences for which prosecution under the Universal Jurisdiction law can take place, Polak highlighted in his complaint that Choksi was tortured. “He was severely mistreated by the use of electric shocks, being threatened with a knife, and beaten during this forced rendition to Dominica.”

The complaint pieces together the accused travelling on same flights and boats in an attempt to establish that they were working in harness. In April, all four took the same British Airway flight from Antigua to London. Bath and Jarabik arrived and departed between Antigua and Dominica the same month. On 25 May, Bhandal and Singh are recorded as entering Dominica on the same boat; and on 28 May the two, with Jarabik, leave this island on the same flight.

Interestingly, it looks like Bhandal and Singh were in April denied immigration by Dominica. An email submitted as evidence by Polak to Scotland Yard (headed “suspected human smuggling ring”) from Rhoan Barker, operations supervisor at the Joint Regional Communication Centre in Barbados, in an intelligence alert to several island states in the region, 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 the 15.4.21… and departed same day on o/b (on board) BA2156 (which is a British Airways flight from Antigua to London Gatwick).”

Bath and Jarabik reportedly live in London. Bhandal and Singh are supposed to be Birmingham-based. If Scotland Yard agrees with Polak’s contention, all four can be interviewed to explain themselves. Bath may, however, enjoy diplomatic immunity. He met Narendra Modi in September 2019 at an India-CARICOM (Caribbean Community) summit in New York and posted photos of them in conversation on Twitter. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, has been following him on Twitter.

In March 2018, Princess Latifa, daughter of the ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, escaped from the UAE to seek asylum in India. The yacht on which she sailed was intercepted by Indian forces in the Arabian Sea and she was returned to her father against her will.

In December 2019, a high court judge in London concluded: “The description of the way in which Latifa was treated by the Indian security services… does not give any indication that this was a ‘rescue’ (her father’s story) rather a ‘capture’.”

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) in its verdict echoed: “The detainee (Latifa) was extradited by the Indian forces, which had intercepted her yacht in international waters off the coast of Goa in March 2018, after the Prime Minister of India had made a personal telephone call to the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai.”

In the same verdict, WGAD noted about the claimed extradition of British aviation consultant Christian Michel from Dubai to Delhi: “On 4 December 2018, Mr Michel was reportedly handcuffed, blindfolded and transported by private jet to India, in a hurried and unlawful manner that prevented him from challenging any decision.”

The Indian government has been silent on the Latifa affair; but has taken umbrage about WGAD's views on the Michel matter.

From all accounts, a private jet was again deployed to bring back Choksi to India from Dominica. A lawful pursuit of him is certainly justifiable. But commando-style operations, circumventing due process, do not generally impress the democratic world.

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