Briton received Rs 225cr in kickbacks.
New Delhi: In what is bound to be a major boost to the Narendra Modi government ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Tuesday even-ing extradited alleged middleman, Christian James Michel, a British national, to India in the Rs 3,700 crore AgustaWest-land VVIP helicopter deal kickback case dating back to the UPA-2 government.
Soon after landing in Delhi on Tuesday night, Michel was taken to the CBI headquarters for questioning.
Michel’s extradition, which coincided with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the UAE, was not confirmed by government sources till Michel had boarded a private plane to India from Dubai. On Monday, the Dubai government passed an administrative order to enable extradition of Michel, 54, to India.
The alleged middleman, who had undertaken about 300 trips to India from the UAE between 1997 and 2013, is wanted on charges of alleged money laundering, bribery and fraud in connection with the controversial helicopter deal. Both the CBI and the ED had notified an Interpol red corner notice against Michel who was arrested in the UAE last year.
The ED, in its chargesheet filed against Michel in June 2016, had alleged that he received about Rs 225 crore from AgustaWestland. Two other alleged middlemen being probed in the case are Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa. The deal never went through and yet, according to CBI estimates, the controversy left the exchequer poorer by Rs 2,666 crore.
The controversial defence deal with Italian company Finmeccanica’s British subsidiary AgustaWestland for the procurement of 12 AW-101 helicopters for VVIP was inked by India in February 2010. The luxury helicopters were proposed to be bough for use by the President, Prime Minister, former Prime Ministers and other VIPs.
The extradition raises the possibility of Michel revealing names of politicians or bureaucrats who may have been paid bribes to clinch the deal during UPA-2. Any such revelation by Michel could be politically explosive as the country heads for general elections in less than six months.
The move comes at a time when the Opposition Congress — which led the UPA-2 government — is turning the heat on the Modi government over alleged wrong doings in the Rafale fighter jet deal with France.
Former IAF chief S.P. Tyagi was also arrested in the case by the CBI in 2016. This is the first corruption case in which a former armed forces chief has been held on corruption allegations. The former IAF chief allegedly helped the company get the contract for supplying VVIP helicopters by diluting the minimum specifications mentioned in the tender.
On January 1, 2014, the UPA-2 government in its final few months in power scrapped the contract over alleged breach of contractual obligations and charges of paying Rs 423 crore kickbacks to securing the deal. Agusta had denied the allegations.
Air Chief Marshal (retd.)Tyagi was arrested by the CBI along with his cousin Sanjeev Tyagi and lawyer Gautam Khaitan, for alleged involvement in the case. Accused of routing the kickbacks, the lawyer was earlier arrested by the ED. The accused were later granted bail by the trial court.
The CBI had, in March 2013, registered the case against the Air Chief Marshal and 12 others, including his three cousins Sanjeev, Sandeep and Rajiv Tyagi, AgustaWestland, its parent Italian company Finmeccanica and two Indian firms — IDS Infotech and Aeromatrix — for alleged receipt and payment of bribes.
According to the CBI, “Mr Tyagi allegedly entered into a conspiracy with other accused persons in 2005 and conceded to change the Air Force’s consistent stand that the 6,000-metre service ceiling (altitude upto which a helicopter flies) of VVIP helicopters was an inescapable operational necessity.
It was instead reduced to 4,500 metres. This helped AgustaWestland meet the eligibility criteria for the contract. The kickbacks were received through middlemen and relatives.”