Mehul Choksi had been living in Antigua and Barbuda since 2018 after taking the citizenship of the country.
The government has put in motion efforts to extradite diamond merchant Mehul Choksi as soon as it got word from authorities in Antigua and Barbuda that he had fled the island- nation.
According to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Choksi personally cheated the Punjab National Bank (PNB) of nearly Rs 7,100 crore, making him arguably the biggest alleged fraudster to have hit a single bank in Indian history.
With the government now being confident of getting its hands on Choksi, the only question that remains is when he will be brought back and from where, Antigua or Dominica.
What is Mehul Choksi wanted for?
Since January 2018, Choksi, along with his nephew Nirav Modi, is wanted in the $2-billion PNB fraud case. They misused the bank's credit instruments to fraudulently secure billions in loans and then launder the funds abroad. Choksi, the owner of retail jewellery company Gitanjali Group, which, till 2018, had over 4,000 stores in India, has been named an international fugitive by India.
The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have both filed chargesheets against Choksi, who has been named in criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, cheating and dishonesty, including delivery of property, corruption, and, most importantly, money- laundering.
However, the 62-year-old businessman from Mumbai has continued to claim innocence, claiming all allegations against him are false, and politically motivated due to which he fears for his life, if he were to be sent back to India.
How did he reach Dominica?
Choksi had taken citizenship in Antigua and Barbuda in 2017, which protects him from being extradited even in a criminal case. Based on current rules, the same proceeding automatically disqualified his Indian citizenship.
Fleeing India in January 2018, he travelled to the United States on medical grounds. In August 2018, Choksi was traced to Antigua, after which the CBI wrote to its counterpart in Antigua for his provisional arrest.
When did he go missing from Antigua?
On May 25, Choksi was reported missing in Antigua with his car and residence having been abandoned in the capital city of St Johns. The next day, Antigua said Choksi had fled to the neighbouring island-nation of Dominica. Subsequently, Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne said he has officially asked Dominica to arrest Choksi and directly hand him over to India. Choksi was arrested by Dominican authorities on May 27.
What are India's extradition rules?
The overarching legislation that governs the extradition of a fugitive from India to a foreign country, or vice versa, is The Extradition Act, 1962 (the Extradition Act). The Extradition Act is required to be read with the treaties that India has entered into with foreign countries. While India has signed extradition agreements with 47 nations, Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica don’t figure in the list.
However, India has separate special extradition arrangements with 11 nations, one of which happens to be Antigua. Signed in 2001, this has been invoked by the government since 2018 to bring Choksi in.
What stopped India from extraditing him earlier?
Sometimes classified as a tax haven, Antigua has strict rules to protect its citizens, many of whom are foreign expatriates seeking citizenship for legal and tax-related cover.
The country's authorities had earlier told India that since the CBI officially began its investigation into Choksi after he became an Antiguan citizen, he will be given full protection of the Caribbean nation's legal system. It had promised to keep the fugitive under watch as talks continued.
The latest turnaround in Antigua’s position came after Choksi fled the country and illegally entered Dominica. This seems to have angered the Antiguan government which said territorial integrity in the Caribbean region is held in high regard and illegally crossing the maritime border is a serious offence.
What is Choksi’s legal position right now?
Choksi's lawyer Vijay Agarwal has said that since he is no longer a citizen of India, he can only be sent back to Antigua. Agarwal has also pointed out that an Antiguan High Court order is currently in place against the processing of any request from India. But the Antiguan government now clearly seems to want Choksi to be off their hands.
“Dominica has agreed to hand Mehul Choksi over to India. We’ll not accept him back. He made a monumental error by skipping the island. The Dominican government and law enforcement agencies are cooperating with us and we have informed the Indian government to have him repatriated to India,” Antiguan PM Gaston Browne told local journalists earlier today.
So, how does the government now plan to bring Choksi to India?
Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sources told Moneycontrol that India had earlier planned to get Choksi back from Antigua under the provision of a law of the island-nation, which provides for the extradition of a fugitive to a designated Commonwealth country. Media reports suggest the government issued a gazette notification on August 3 to make the Antiguan law enforceable.
They added that since Antigua no longer remains opposed to the operation, the MEA is hopeful of a quick resolution and are in touch with both the governments of Dominica and Antigua. Sources said that all diplomatic channels are being utilised to get Choksi back.
While India does not have permanent diplomatic missions in any of the two countries, the High Commission of India in the largest nearby country, Trinidad and Tobago, is concurrently accredited to Dominica, while the High Commission in Guyana is accredited to Antigua. Sources said both High Commissioners are spearheading the operations and remain in contact with the respective nations under their diplomatic charge. They may also travel to the two nations soon.
Who will be involved in the operations?
In 2018, India had sought the help of the Interpol, the international body of police forces, to locate and extradite Choksi. Interpol had subsequently issued a Red Corner Notice (RCN) in December that year, which restricted Choksi to Antigua. But the RCN's main purpose is to locate an absconding-accused and not to arrest him.
With Choksi having been verifiably traced to Antigua, the government does not want to involve international authorities. India has advanced direct negotiations with the Antiguan government. As of now, sources say Choksi will be brought by CBI and MEA officials.
How soon will Choksi be brought to India?
Government sources refused to give a timeline on the issue citing that the case remains complicated. While they cite the continuous twists and turns since early 2018 that saw Choksi leave the US for Antigua, they said the situation remains hopeful.
The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda on Thursday told WION news that assuming no further legal impediments remain, Choksi can be repatriated to India in the next 48 hours in a private flight.