The team of Indian officials that went to Dominica on a private jet, possibly to bring back fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi, is likely on its way back home — empty handed.
Although there is no official statement on why the team took a private jet to the Caribbean country on 29 May, but as soon as Choksi, who went missing from Antigua on 23 May, surfaced there, sources told ThePrint that the Indian agencies saw it as a “window to make their case, dodge the lengthy extradition process and bring back the fugitive.”
On the other hand, Choksi’s attorney Wayne Marsh has claimed that he was abducted by some people who looked like “Indians along with Antigua Police”, hinting that it was indeed an operation by the Indian agencies to get Choksi out of Antigua.
Whatever be the case, the operation to bring Mehul Choksi back did not succeed — not because the Indian agencies’ plan was faulty, but because Choksi had “a better one”, sources in the security establishment said. A plan allegedly to get the opposition of Dominica on his side, make a noise against his deportation calling it “unconstitutional” and delay the process using the law, with the help of his battery of lawyers.
The agencies, however, are hopeful that the court in Dominica, in its hearing on 1 July, will decide to deport Choksi to India instead of Antigua and Barbuda, whose citizenship he holds, and that they will have the last win.
This is why Mehul Choksi is the ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
‘He always has a plan’
Choksi, the managing director of ‘Gitanjali Gems’ who took over the business from his father Chinubhai Choksi in 1985, and turned it around by launching brands such as Gili, Nakshatra, Asmi, D’damas, Maya, Diya, and Sangini, with intelligent marketing and celebrity endorsements, is popular in his circle for being a “shrewd businessman”, who always has a “plan”.
According to a source in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Choksi, in a “bid to make massive profits and become one of the richest businessman,” misused the bank’s credit instruments, fraudulently secured hefty loans and then laundered the funds abroad.
He allegedly made Punjab National Bank issue 143 Letters of Undertaking (LOUs) and 225 Foreign Letters of Credit amounting to more than Rs 5,000 crore to three of his companies. These, in effect, make Choksi a bigger defaulter than his nephew and high-profile jeweller Nirav Modi.
An LoU is not a loan but a guarantee given by a bank in India to an overseas bank that it would meet the liability in case the firm borrowing from it (foreign bank) defaults. Diamond firms use LoUs to secure cheap, low interest “buyer’s credit” in dollars overseas, mostly to purchase rough diamonds. Banks are always supposed to cover their LOUs against collaterals, which wasn’t allegedly done in this case. A Foreign Letter of Credit is given to banks overseas to ensure that payment can be made to foreign suppliers.
“He misused the system to take tax payers’ money and then swindled it through several shell companies,” the source said. “Choksi, who is known to be a shrewd businessman, knew how to get things done using bank employees,” the source added.
In January 2018, by the time the CBI registered a case, Choksi had already fled the country.
“His plan worked. In May 2017, only he had applied for the Antiguan citizenship and got it. That was his fall back option. Just when he realised that he may get into trouble, he left the country. It was no coincidence, he has a very strong network,” a source from the security establishment said. “He knew that getting him back from Antigua will be very difficult, even more, because he is a citizen there,” the source said.
‘Used the opposition’
This time too, when Choksi landed in trouble with the Dominican authorities for illegally entering the country and feared that he may be deported to India, he used Dominican opposition to save himself, another source said.
“After Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne asked the Dominican government to deport him directly to India and declare him persona non grata, Choksi knew he was in trouble and may actually be sent to India, knowing the relations between Dominica and India. So he planned to use the Dominican opposition to evade deportation,” the source said.
Sources in the security agencies alleged that Choksi may have promised “monetary benefits to them.”
A part of the plan, sources said, was Choksi’s elder brother Chetan Chinubhai Choksi, who landed in Dominica on 29 May, meeting with the Leader of Opposition Lennox Linton and allegedly promising him to pay for election donation in exchange of support to press the matter in parliament.
“It is only after this that the opposition released a statement against the Dominican government accusing them of being involved in an organised crime and terming his transfer to India illegal. Why this sudden love for Choksi?” the second source said.
Sources also said that Choksi even got the Antiguan opposition on his side. “He got Harold Lovell, a leader of United Progressive Party (Antigua and Barbuda) who has said that their citizen cannot be extradited to another country and that Choksi will have to be repatriated to Antigua.”
Choksi’s lawyer Vijay Aggarwal, however, denied all these allegations. “It is all a lie. Choksi’s brother is in Dominica only to see that he is fine and nothing else,” he told ThePrint.
Currently, Choksi is facing two separate legal proceedings in Dominica. While a magistrate’s court in capital city Roseau is hearing the government’s charge that the businessman entered the country illegally, Choksi’s lawyers have moved the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court alleging that he was abducted, demanding that he be sent back to Antigua and Barbuda.
India, on the other hand, has claimed that it is making “all efforts” to bring back Choksi.
To strengthen their case for Choksi’ deportation, Indian investigators have also handed over documents related to the PNB scam, in which Choksi is a key accused, to Dominican state prosecutors.
Moreover, India has also claimed that Choksi still remains an India Citizen because he did not formally denounce his citizenship. His lawyer, Vijay Aggarwal, has however argued that according to the Citizenship Act, the moment one acquires a citizenship of another country, he or she ceases to be an Indian Citizen and hence deportation of Choksi to India will be illegal.
For now, Choksi is safe, at least till 1 July, when the Dominican court will decide whether he should be deported to India or Antigua and Barbuda. And if things go wrong for him, Choksi may have another plan up his sleeve.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)