Arms dealer Sudhir Choudhrie, defaulter Vijay Mallya and scamster Lalit Modi live honourably in London.Around the time in 2013 when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) put arms dealer Sudhir Choudhrie on the list of “undesirable contact men”, Theresa May, then the UK’s home secretary and now its prime minister, presented him with an Asian Business award for lifetime achievement. The suave businessman was blacklisted by the CBI as he was suspected of manipulating government contracts, and ministers and bureaucrats were expected to take extra care while dealing with him. Choudhrie was being investigated for his role in the contracts to upgrade 130 mm field-guns and the Barak missile deal in 2006. Even while the probe was on, Choudhrie moved to London and soon acquired British citizenship.
The billionaire arms dealer is now known to be a philanthropist, and almost got elected to the House of Lords as a long-time supporter of the Liberal Democrats. Now, the UK’s Serious Frauds Office (SFO) has found that companies linked to Choudhrie and his son Bhanu may have been paid bribes by some defence companies, including Rolls Royce and MiG, for contracts.
Will it embarrass the UK? Not likely. The SFO probe was on since 2014, when the father-son duo were detained and bailed out unconditionally. Despite that Choudhrie flourished, living a life of luxury in the heart of London’s Belgravia, where he and his family own a number of mansions.
Choudhrie typifies hundreds of others like him, who have found a safe haven in the UK, fleeing the the law in India. The CBI had to close investigations against him after the UK did not respond to letters rogatory (LRs) sent by them. The investigative agencies claim that they see this pattern in most of the cases and want the matter to be taken up by the government at the diplomatic level.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), busy preparing for Theresa May’s visit on November 6, has put the matter high on the agenda. In the last 23 years since an extradition treaty was signed between the two countries, India has managed to get only one person back—and that too because he did not contest the extradition.
Over the years, the UK has emerged as a safe destination for fugitives from Indian law. Indian officials have put together a list of 131 requests for extradition pending with the UK. The charges against the individuals range from financial crimes like money-laundering to more serious ones like espionage, murder and terrorist activity.
Of the 131, India has put 16 on a ‘top priority’ list. Right on top is Mohammed Hanif Umerji Patel, or Tiger Hanif, an accused in two bomb blasts in Gujarat in 1993, and a close aide of Dawood Ibrahim. He tops the list because the British PM is likely to be most familiar with his case. Papers of his extradition lay unsigned on her table for three years since May 2013, when she was home secretary. Accused of murder, attempted murder and terrorist activities, Hanif was one of the rare cases in which the UK High Court had dismissed his plea against extradition. May was supposed to sign the papers to ensure his departure from UK. His case has now been passed on to the new home secretary, Amber Rudd. This has given Hanif another chance to make further representations.
This list does not include liquor baron Vijay Mallya, accused of financial crimes including money-laundering and wilfully defaulting on loans worth Rs 9,000 crore from various banks. So far, the Indian government has only sought his deportation, which is an easier administrative process. However, with the UK refusing deportation, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has started the process of invoking the India-UK Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty to get Mallya extradited. The investigative agency is not very hopeful though, given the rather bleak track-record of the UK in extraditing accused persons to India.
Music composer Nadeem Saifi, accused in the Gulshan Kumar murder case, flamboyant former IPL chief Lalit Modi, naval war room leak case accused Ravi Shankaran, bookie Sanjeev Chawla and British national Raymond Varley, accused in child abuse cases in Goa—the list is long. Investigative agencies like the ED and the CBI feel the list is only going to get longer. “High-profile individuals like Mallya and Lalit Modi are seen as precedents now. Other accused may also feel that since the UK does not extradite easily, it is safe to escape there. We won’t be surprised if Moin Qureshi also lands up in London from Dubai, his stop for the time being,” a senior ED official told Outlook.
Meat exporter Qureshi, wanted by the ED for alleged money laundering and hawala deals, managed to fly off to Dubai from Indira Gandhi International airport on October 15 despite a look-out notice. “His final destination may very well be London, which has emerged as a highly livable luxurious refuge for law violators. The standard of living is very high there, especially if you have money. It is the business centre of the world, and the malefactors can continue with their commercial activities,” the official explained.
That these absconders are taking their millions to the UK probably makes them a less of a liability for London. “It is for a reason that Napoleon called Britain a nation of shopkeepers. They are very conscious where their economic interests lie,” says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
The rich and powerful find it easy to settle down to a life of comfort there without investigative agencies snapping at their heels. “People like Mallya and Modi can invest in the UK to obtain citizenship. They have the option of applying for a UK passport or applying for the Tier 1 investors visa that enables them to stay by investing two million pounds in Britain,” says former home secretary G.K. Pillai. Modi is believed to have invested up to a million pounds in stocks and shares. Also, if the businessman can show that he has more than 10 employees, then the process to obtain a “PR” or permanent residency can get faster and it would eventually lead to UK citizenship.
Former diplomat and senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar says the UK has a long history of giving refuge to people from countries where they claim the law is not just. The UK’s coddling of Chilean dictator Gen Augusto Pinochet is well-known. Shady characters from Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Libya, Russia and Serbia—including some involved in war crimes—have also sought and obtained refuge in the UK.
“From Russian oligarchs to pro-Khalistan and Kashmiri separatists, all have found shelter in the UK. This has played a part in making Britain a global power. They use dissidents and opponents as pressure points. This has been a sore point in India-UK relations for a long time. Khalistani activists have long been given shelter in the UK, and they continue to be given space. They use them as tools against us as and when required,” says Sibal. “When we raise the issue with them, they get away with the plea that their judiciary is independent. India has not succeeded in any extradition—even when our case was watertight,” he added.
Sibal concedes there are cases in which Indian agencies do not do their homework well and fail to make a strong case with the exacting British legal system. Aiyar concurs, saying the UK does have procedures to send back fugitives after they are convinced that they will get a fair trial. “India should have the expertise to secure extradition in British courts. If they continue to handle things in a higgledy-piggledy manner, like the Modi and Mallya cases, then the UK is a very good place for them to park their money and live it up,” he says.
Former chief of naval staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat says that it was not just pro-Khalistan activists or Kashmiri separatists who were useful to Britain. Even people like Modi, Mallya and arms dealer Ravi Shankaran are useful to the UK as “negotiating levers”. He says these people move in elite circles and have deep connections. “They have access everywhere. Real intelligence work is done at that level. They are the movers and shakers and know about proposals for arms purchases and government plans,” he says. Middlemen like Choudhrie and Shankaran are a significant category of those facing inquiry or cases in India but ensconsed comfortably in London.
Another arms dealer, Sanjay Bhandari, tried to slip away to London, but, based on a look-out notice, was stopped in June, just before he boarded a UK-bound flight. But Lalit Modi was far-sighted: he moved to London in 2010, before the ED could have his passport cancelled. Living there in style as is his wont, he is learnt to have invested in Lindeborg Law, a firm specialising in cases involving the Interpol. Six years in ‘exile’ seem to have made him some sort of an expert.
“When Mallya landed there in March, Lalit Modi is believed to have helped him settle down, even providing legal aid,” an Indian diplomat reveals. Mallya, a “UK resident” since 1992, did not take long to settle into a high-flying lifestyle. He was seen at the Champions Day Race at Ascot last month—as Indian agencies struggle with investigations into money-laundering, buying property abroad with the money banks lent to Kingfisher Airlines, and the downfall of the airline.
Though Mallya’s passport was cancelled by the Indian government, hoping that the UK would deport him, it did not make any difference to London since he arrived on a valid visa. Going by their Twitter activity, Mallya is keeping himself busy with his Sahara Force India F1 team and Lalit Modi is watching the BCCI tamasha, lashing out intermittently against Rajiv Shukla, Anurag Thakur and the “corrupt” board. “Perhaps he sees a sliver of hope of returning to India if and when the BCCI is sacked,” the diplomat adds.
By all accounts, even Shankaran is doing well in London. Composer Nadeem Saifi, having lived in London since 1997, obtained a UK passport and shifted to Dubai in 2006 to run a perfumery business. Since he has a UK passport, he doesn’t fear extradition from UAE, which is no more considered a safe haven for fugitives from the Indian law. Even statistics bear that fact. Of 62 fugitives extradited to India in the past 14 years, 17 were sent by UAE, 10 from the US, four each from Canada and Thailand, three each from Germany and South Africa, two from Belgium and one from the UK. Samirbhai Vinubhai Patel became the first Indian to be extradited from the UK in 23 years since the two countries signed an extradition treaty on December 30, 1993. Accused in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Patel did not oppose his extradition unlike others wanted in India and was sent back in October 2016. Patel “consented” to his extradition and agreed to face trial in a case of rioting at Ode village in Anand district of Gujarat on March 1, 2002, in which 23 Muslims were killed.
“Patel’s case is an exception and does not reflect a change of approach by London. There are more than a dozen letters rogatory (LRs) from the ED and the CBI pending with the UK. They do not even acknowledge them,” says a CBI official, hinting at a tit-for-tat response from India. “Though we have extradited three persons to the UK in the past 14 years, even we are going to go slow with letters rogatory and processes,” he says.
In fact, the UK foreign office has conveyed to India that they too will raise the issue of imprisonment of six British ex-servicemen in Chennai. The men were arrested in 2013 as they had strayed into Indian waters with weapons. They were part of 35 crew members sentenced by a Tamil Nadu court to five years in prison in January this year for carrying unlicensed firearms. They were held while working for an anti-piracy security company protecting commercial ships off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.
In February, this year, then UK minister of state for immigration James Brokenshire, during his visit to India, had said that extradition matters were for the British courts to decide. He said this after Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju raised the issue of pending extradition requests with him. The UK minister said that besides the provision of death penalty in India, the European Commission’s provisions on Human Rights (ECHR) proved to be hurdles in acceding to extradition requests from India.
Former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar says that till the time Brexit is not implemented, UK would be party to EU norms and things are likely to remain the same. He said that any accused who raised the issue of likelihood of his human rights being violated got a sympathetic hearing in British courts. They took issues like human rights violation of the accused, minority rights, torture in Indian jails, possible political motivation behind the case and likelihood of death sentence very seriously. “If the courts are convinced that any of these is the case, they will not extradite the individual. They are very particular about the accused getting a fair trial. So the accused invokes one or more of these points, and prevents their departure from the UK,” the diplomat explains.
Shankaran, for instance, had raised “abuse of process” and delay in grant of bail to his co-accused in Indian courts. Tiger Hanif had claimed “real risk of torture”. Nadeem had pleaded he was unlikely to get a fair trial as he was a Muslim. Though the UK Supreme Court on December 21, 2000, did not accept Nadeem’s minority plea, it had inferred that the accusation of murder and conspiracy against him was “not made in good faith and in the interests of justice”.Bookie Sanjeev Chawla, accused in 2000 match-fxing scandal involving the late South Africa captain Hansie Cronje, was arrested in London in June on India’s request for extradition. However, the UK authorities have written to Delhi police asking for details about security arrangements and facilities in the jail he will be kept in. Though the Delhi police have informed the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), through the MEA, that Chawla would be housed in Tihar Jail, “a central facility following international standards”, they are not confident about the outcome.
Mallya has already stated that he will not get a fair trial in India as the authorities had launched a “witchhunt” against him. In a pre-recorded video message at the 100th annual general meeting of United Breweries Holding, Mallya said “it is part of concerted efforts to make me a poster boy of bad loans and financial crime”. Lalit Modi has maintained that his relocation to UK is a security measure and his life would be in danger in India.Asked to comment, the UK government says that it, and the CPS, which represents India in court, are committed to working with the Indian government to combat serious crime. The government cites the October 2016 extradition of Samirbhai Patel, and says “it’s important that both the UK and Indian governments and authorities continue to understand each other better so that criminals can be brought to justice”. Then the clincher: “However, extradition is largely a judicial process and we have to respect the independence of both the Indian and the UK’s judiciary.” It refused to comment on individual cases, like that of Mallya, Modi and Shankaran.
Senior lawyer Susheel Bajaj, who represented Dawood aide Iqbal Mirchi, an accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, in his extradition case, told Outlook that the chief reason for extradition cases collapsing was bad paperwork. India had failed to get Mirchi extradited since the evidence against him was based on a closure statement of a co-accused, which is not admissible in the UK courts. He died of a heart attack in London in 2013.
Former diplomat K.C. Singh concurs: Indian agencies are unable to present a watertight case, relying more on innuendo than evidence. But this is strongly refuted by former ED chief Bhure Lal. He says it is not as if Indian cases are weak. “Laws have territorial jurisdiction and the requirement in the UK is different. It is entirely up to the courts there. We have to engage their lawyers most of the time and they are very expensive. There are so many ifs and buts. It is not fair to say that our cases are weak,” he tells Outlook, adding that there is scope for enhanced sharing of intelligence and better diplomatic outreach.
That is possibly true, but to go by the example of Mallya, Modi and Mirchi, the Union Jack signifies a safe sanctuary for law-breakers.