By Alasdair Pal
NEWDELHI (Reuters) – An Indian court has ordered two men sent to India from the United Arab Emirates to be held pending trial over alleged bribery of government officials to buy helicopters, in a case which has become an issue in India’s upcoming general election.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to embarrass the opposition Congress Party over the case. Congress was in power when the abortive deal to buy 12 helicopters from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland for about 36 billion rupees (385 million pounds) was first agreed in 2010.
Accountant Rajiv Saxena and businessman Deepak Talwar were handed over to investigators for interrogation on Thursday after having been sent to India from the UAE. Their arrests follow that of another suspect in the case, British businessman Christian Michel, who was extradited to India from Dubai in December.
A submission from India’s Enforcement Directorate on Thursday said Saxena was the “key money launderer” in the scheme. Lawyers for Saxena told Reuters he denied wrongdoing. Reuters was unable to reach lawyers for Talwar. Michel has also denied wrongdoing.
The official Twitter account of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the prime minister had acted like “Batman” in the case, given the speed with which Saxena and Talwar had been extradited from the UAE to face trial in India.
Saxena’s lawyers said the accountant had not been extradited through proper Emirati legal channels. Saxena had been visited at home in Dubai by Indian intelligence agents, lawyer Shivani Luthra Lohiya told Reuters.
“They picked him up from his house for what they called a 15 minute chat: next thing he knows he is put on a flight to India,” she said. “This is not extradition, it’s abduction.”
A spokesman for India’s foreign ministry said it had no information that correct procedures were not followed. Emirati officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
On Tuesday the UAE’s ambassador to India Ahmed Al Banna told a press conference the speed of Michel’s extradition last month was down to the “personal touch” in the relationship between the two countries.
“That sometimes makes things that don’t happen in one year, happen in one day,” he said.
Since the abortive India deal, AugustaWestland has been merged with its Italian parent company Leonardo. An Italian court cleared two Leonardo executives of corruption charges in January 2018 over the case, and Italy rejected a request from India to extradite them in May 2018.
Modi made a crackdown on graft – and the AgustaWestland case in particular – a talking point in local elections in December, telling a rally Michel could reveal “secrets” about the deal while under questioning.
But the leader has also been dogged by India’s failure to capture the fugitive tycoons Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, all of whom fled the country after being accused of financial crimes.
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Peter Graff)