A CBI team will leave for Argentina on Wednesday to try and get Ottavio Quattrocchi back to India. No official from the agency — facing heat following revelations that it might have concealed news of the controversial Italian’s detention from the Supreme Court — would come on record, but it seems two senior officers will travel to South America. A second team, consisting of legal experts, could follow.
The 69-year-old Quattrocchi — wanted in the Bofors payoffs case for the last 14 years, and against whom Interpol issued a red corner notice in 1997 — was held at Iguazu Airport in Misiones province while on way to Buenos Aires on February 6. CBI needs to furnish a formal request for his extradition to the Argentinians within 30 days of the detention, a deadline that runs out on March 8.
A day before parliament assembles for a session that is likely to be noisy on account of Quattrocchi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi appeared to be readying for combat.
"The Opposition will be attacking you and criticising you," she told Congress workers at a public meeting organised to mark two years of Bhupinder Hooda’s government in Sirsa on Sunday. "But you should not pay attention, and continue to work in the service of the people, and success will be yours."
She did not mention Quattrocchi or Bofors, but Congress workers said they believed the reference was to Opposition attacks on her over the issue.
BJP deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, VK Malhotra, said his party has given notice for suspension of Question Hour on Monday to press for Quattrocchi’s extradition and seek an explanation for the government’s silence over his detention till as late as February 23. NDA leaders are meeting on Monday to discuss strategy, Malhotra said.
Leader of the Opposition LK Advani has already accused the government of suppressing information — to either prevent repercussions in election season, or protect Quattrocchi, or both. Veteran CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu has demanded every effort to ensure the man's extradition.
CBI sources on Sunday said they had finished most of the background work needed before the team leaves for Argentina.
"The process of translation of the 300-odd pages of documents received from Argentina, which were in Spanish, has been completed and all the papers and other legal documents relating to the case have been sent to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for authentication. By Tuesday, we will be through with all formalities," an officer said.
CBI is understood to have sought the help of JNU's School of Languages with the translations. It is also learnt to have asked the MEA whether it would like to depute a liaison officer with the team.
Once in Argentina, the sleuths are likely to hire a local firm to handle the extradition, as it had done in the case of underworld don Abu Salem who had been detained in Portugal. Senior officials conceded the task at hand was difficult. The Malaysian High Court had turned down a similar request by the CBI in 2002.
Later, a UK bank took off the freeze on Quattrocchi's accounts after the CBI failed to provide sufficient evidence to the British who had, in July 2003, frozen the three million pounds in them. And the Delhi High Court has already quashed the corruption charge against Quattrocchi in the Bofors case, and all that remains, according to the CBI's web site, is a charge of "fraud and bribery".
"Quattrocchi will obviously challenge our claims strongly in court there," the official said.