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source:77 games 2021-6-17

How did a man wanted for India¨s biggest bank scam land up on a distant Caribbean island nation!bruised, black-eyed and bearing an incredulous tale of being a target of an alleged rendition? Since he fled India in 2018 after being wanted for defrauding the Punjab National Bank (PNB), the Mehul Choksi saga has taken some astonishing twists. None as sensational it would seem as the events of the past few days. Choksi, 62, alleged he was honey trapped by a woman he had met on the island of Antigua, where he had been in hiding since he fled India. He was allegedly tased, beaten up, tortured by unidentified people of Indian origin and spirited away on a yacht to Dominica, another island nation.

The diamond merchant, who was once the envy of the South Mumbai trade and carved up a multibillion dollar global diamond empire, has his back to the wall. He is simultaneously battling the law of three countries!India, where the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) want him back to stand trial for bank fraud; Antigua, which recently stripped him of its citizenship after discovering an Interpol Red Corner Notice (RCN) against him; and Dominica, which is investigating his abduction story and his plea for deportation back to Antigua. Either ways, the proceedings over the next few days have put the fugitive diamantaire within a hair¨s breadth of something which didn¨t seem possible until recently!being thrust into a jet to face the law back in India.

Notices from banks and investigating agencies outside his home in Mumbai; Photo by Mandar Deodhar

The great escape artist

In January 2018, PNB authorities told the police that Choksi and his nephew Nirav Modi had defrauded them of Rs 13,500 crore. It was by far India¨s largest ever bank scam. The mind-boggling numbers easily eclipsed India¨s largest bank robbery!the October 2014 heist in Haryana¨s Sonepat, where thieves burrowed into a PNB branch and stole valuables estimated to be worth Rs 100 crore.

Choksi¨s alleged scam spanned the globe. A 132-page report submitted to the US bankruptcy court in Delaware on February 20, 2019 lists how he did it. From his sea-facing duplex penthouse on Malabar Hill, the portly diamantaire ran a global web of international diamond firms that swindled banks by allegedly bribing key bankers. The alleged fraud consisted of obtaining bank loans by raising fraudulent Letters of Undertakings (LoUs) and showing sham transactions to `import¨ jewellery into India through a web of secretly controlled shell entities.

Choksi was born into a Palanpuri Jain business family engaged in diamond trade. India accounts for over 70 per cent of all the world¨s exports of cut and polished diamonds. Palanpuri Jains are one of the two communities controlling India¨s diamond trade (the other being the Kathiawadi Patels). The community is small, tightly knit and traces its origin to Palanpur, a town in Gujarat¨s Banaskantha district bordering Rajasthan. Members of this wealthy community are strictly vegetarian and travel with their own cooks when they vacation overseas.

When his alleged fraud was close to being discovered, Choksi jetted away to the United States in early 2018, and from there to the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, where he had acquired citizenship through an investment scheme in 2017. The Caribbean Sea countries comprise around 16 small nations; many of them serve as offshore tax havens and Flags of Convenience for merchant vessels.

The tourism-reliant island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, smaller than Puducherry, has a $1.6 billion (about Rs 11,700 crore) GDP. This is less than the money Choksi and Modi allegedly defrauded the PNB of. Antigua¨s 95,000 population is a little more than India¨s smallest Union territory, Lakshadweep. It has a 10,000-seat Sir Vivian Richards cricket stadium, named after the island nation¨s most famous son. A string of global celebrities, such as Giorgio Armani, Silvio Berlusconi, Eric Clapton and Richard Branson, own holiday homes on the island.

Besides the citizenship, which allowed Choksi visa-free travel to 150 countries, was the lure of its yachts, marinas and the sparkling sea front. It¨s not clear when and how the boat bug bit but it was deep enough for him to buy his own!a sleek white Larson 350 39-ft cruiser yacht named after his flagship firm `Gitanjali¨. Choksi took his friends on the boat for spins across the Mumbai Harbour to his farmhouse in Alibag. ^It (sailing) rejuvenates me like nothing else, ̄ he told a business newspaper in 2010.

On May 23 this year, Choksi vanished from his home in the posh gated community in Jolly Harbour, a screensaver-like town on the southwestern part of Antigua with multiple marinas and yachts. Choksi had gone out for dinner alone that evening and was to meet his `friend¨, Barbara Jarabik. His wife Priti raised an alarm and filed a police complaint. His lawyer says Choksi left his keys in his car, did not carry his passport or personal effects and did not inform anyone where he was going. On May 27, he surfaced in Dominica, another island nation 180 km to the south of Antigua.

Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty

In their complaint to Antigua¨s police after he emerged in Dominica, Choksi¨s family narrates what transpired. They allege that Jarabik, a Hungarian national based in London who frequently jetted into the island, called Choksi to her rented apartment on the island. There, the statement alleges, he was set upon by several persons and taken away on a wheelchair on board a yacht, beaten, tortured and made to speak to an unnamed Indian politician. He identified two of his abductors as Gurmit Singh and Gurjit Singh Bhandal, UK-based persons of Indian origin. After sailing for 15-17 hours, he was brought to Dominica and left on a beach, and later arrested by the police.

Barbara Jarabik, Choksi¨s `friend¨ who has been accused by his family of a hand in his alleged abduction

It all sounded like a dodgy B-movie version of the world¨s most famous rendition that had unfolded some 5,500 km south of the Dominica China Friendship Hospital, in Dominica¨s capital Roseau, where Choksi is currently being held. In 1960, Mossad agents had kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, bundled him into a passenger jet and spirited him out to face trial in Israel.

On May 29, Indian police officials arrived in Dominica, on a chartered jet, to take away Choksi. A fortnight later, crucial parts of his version of the events have begun to be challenged. TV interviews by Jarabik on June 8 suggested she had indeed met Choksi but on the morning of May 25, just hours before leaving for London.

Jarabik is a director in Cullinan Properties, a real estate firm based in Mayfair, one of the toniest parts of London. Company papers list her address in Brent, a northwestern suburb of London. She says she met Choksi while on a business trip to Antigua last August. Choksi, she says, introduced himself as `Raj¨, and in the months that followed, seemed obsessed by her and bombarded her with hundreds of text and WhatsApp messages sent from multiple numbers. He also apparently gifted her diamond rings and bracelets, but the diamonds turned out to be fake. The story the Choksi family is putting out is fake, she says. ^If I was to be an agent or a kidnapper, I had hundreds of opportunities to kidnap him. Why would I do that in Jolly Harbour? ̄ Jarabik asked in a June 8 interview to India Today TV.

There is, however, the possibility that Jarabik, believed to be in her early 30s, might have known Choksi before she arrived on the island. Among her firm Cullinan¨s clients were Frost Diamonds, a company owned by Choksi¨s nephew Nirav Modi, now behind bars in London since his arrest in March 2019.

Vijay Aggarwal, Choksi¨s New Delhi-based lawyer, questions Jarabik¨s claims. In a statement to india today magazine, he pointed to a string of coincidences in Jarabik¨s testimony. Aggarwal said she chose to resurface on a day a complaint was filed with the Antigua police and on the day Choksi¨s bail application was listed. It was also the day a complaint was filed with the Scotland Yard in the UK (by the Choksi family), asking for the role of the four foreign nationals to be probed.

Is it a coincidence that all the people being investigated are residents of the UK? Could it be that Choksi, fearing extradition from Antigua (which has a treaty with India), chose to go to Dominica (which has no extradition treaty)? Aggarwal contests this. He says that if Choksi was lying (about the kidnapping), why would he not have made prior arrangements to stay at a hotel in Dominica. His other counters: why would Choksi¨s family file a complaint on the same day of his disappearance? Why would he leave his passport in Antigua? Why would he have injuries on his body? Why would he not carry any luggage or personal belongings and cash? Why would his family and lawyer be unaware of his antecedents?

These questions will perhaps be answered when the police in Antigua and Dominica submit their statements before the courts in their respective countries.

Can India get Choksi back?

Indian authorities are confident of getting Choksi. But the legal process has temporarily stalled his deportation. Choksi has been charged with illegal entry into Dominica, for which he could be deported to Antigua. But there¨s a hitch. The deportation to Antigua has also been stalled because Antiguan PM Gaston Browne said on June 6 that Choksi was an Indian national and his Antiguan citizenship had been revoked since he had lied about the Interpol RCN while filing his citizenship application.

The Choksis have challenged this contention in Antigua¨s high court but the hearing for that case has been postponed to November 2021. Indian authorities have, meanwhile, asked for Choksi to be deported to India because he is an Indian national and an RCN is pending against him since December 2018.

This RCN is the reason Choksi was initially denied bail in Dominica. What massively tips the scales in India¨s favour is the fact that Antigua has agreed that Choksi is an Indian national and needs to be sent back to India. Choksi¨s next bail hearing is scheduled for June 11. If given bail, he will remain in Dominica until the court decides what to do with him, including possibly considering his deportation to India.

Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, an attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago, is not as hopeful. ^Both Antigua and Dominica have a bad reputation of harbouring white-collar criminals. The courts will follow the law and are fair, but overall governments have a very poor record of extraditing rich criminals, ̄ says Badri-Maharaj. He points to the case of Jack Warner, a Trinidad politician-businessman wanted for fraud, who has resisted attempts by the US to extradite him for over six years now.

If India succeeds in bringing Choksi back to face justice, it will be a huge development. ^The much-touted UK judicial system (also followed by the Caribbean countries) has been bent for too long to accommodate renegades like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Choksi, ̄ says Ajay Agnihotri, former IRS official and financial forensicologist.

At a South Mumbai party in 2017, Choksi had let another diamond merchant into the `secret¨ of his success and the unending cycle of bank loans. ^You have to pay a taxi driver when you get offI don¨t ever plan to get off the taxi, ̄ he said. Indian authorities may finally get a chance to put his mantra to test.

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