Fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, fighting extradition to India on charges over the nearly $2 billion PNB fraud and money laundering case, appeared via videolink before a UK court on the first day of his five-day extradition trial on Monday, taking place in a part-remote setting due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The 49-year-old jeweller, who has been lodged at Wandsworth Prison in south-west London since his arrest in March last year, joined the proceedings via the court's common viewing platform (CVP) at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London dressed formally in a white shirt and black blazer.
The hearing got off to a delayed start as officials sorted out technical difficulties of connecting the court room to the prison.
Given the social distancing measures being followed by prisons and courts, District Judge Samuel Goozee had conceded that Modi can follow the proceedings via videolink rather than the norm of being produced in person.
"It is important that if you have any difficulty with the audio or visual of the proceedings at any time, to let us know immediately,” Judge Goozee told Modi, so that he can follow the court proceedings in an open way as per the law.
A handful of legal representatives were present in the court room, as previously agreed, with witnesses set to give their evidence via videolink.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), appearing on behalf of the Indian authorities, began by laying out the basis of the Indian government's case. CPS barrister Helen Malcolm appeared via videolink to tell the court that Modi acquired “eye watering amounts of money” fraudulently from Punjab National Bank (PNB).
“There is really nothing very complicated about this case. It covers three aspects - the fraud, then laundering of that fraud money and the rotation of goods around the Modi empire,” she said.
The five-day hearing which started on Monday relates to the Indian government's extradition request certified by the UK government last year.
The case has been filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and relates to a large-scale fraud upon an Indian PSU through the fraudulent obtaining of letters of understanding (LoUs) and the laundering of the proceeds of that fraud.
Two additional charges of "causing the disappearance of evidence" and intimidating witnesses or “criminal intimidation to cause death” were added on by the CBI and certified earlier this year.
CPS barrister Nick Hearn, the co-counsel in the case, told the court at the last hearing in April, held via tele-conference, that the government of India's representatives would be following the proceedings and giving instructions via the court's online common viewing platform, given the COVID-19 related travel restrictions.
“We have received comprehensive responses in writing from the government of India, which would reduce the likely length of cross-examinations,” said Hearn.
It was also confirmed that the diamond merchant would not be giving evidence in the case, but his legal team plans to produce around six witnesses, including a jewellery expert as well as judicial and prisons experts.
Most of the legal cases in the UK have incorporated videolink and telephonic options where possible amid the social distancing rules in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Modi, whose Wandsworth Prison is considered one of the most over-crowded in England, had made a fifth attempt at bail in the High Court last month, which was rejected as the judge ruled that he continued to pose a flight risk.
The jeweller was arrested on March 19, 2019, on an extradition warrant executed by Scotland Yard on charges of fraud and money laundering brought by the Indian government.