‘Secrets will be out’: PM Modi targets Congress on AgustaWestland
Michel, 57, arrived in India shortly before midnight on Tuesday after being deported from Dubai, bringing back into focus a Rs 3,600-crore deal for 12 AgustaWestland helicopters that was eventually scrapped after allegations emerged that kickbacks had been paid to ensure the contract went to the Italy-based manufacturer Finmeccanica (now known as the Leonardo group).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up the extradition of British businessman Christian James Michel, the alleged middleman in the multimillion-dollar AgustaWestland helicopter deal, during one of the last election rallies in Rajasthan on Wednesday to target the Congress party.
Michel, 57, arrived in India shortly before midnight on Tuesday after being deported from Dubai, bringing back into focus a Rs 3,600-crore deal for 12 AgustaWestland helicopters that was eventually scrapped after allegations emerged that kickbacks had been paid to ensure the contract went to the Italy-based manufacturer Finmeccanica (now known as the Leonardo group). It was both signed and scrapped by the previous Congress-led UPA government.
“You must have read in today’s newspapers about VVIP helicopter scam of thousands of crores. You would be aware about a letter of madam Sonia Gandhi. When we came to power to find out the files, we kept searching for it and finally found a ‘razdar’ (one who knows all secrets) who served powerful people,” Modi said at an election rally in Rajasthan’s Sumerpur.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi deflected the allegations. “I can’t answer. The Congress has made its position very clear. The Prime Minister should explain why he gave Rs 30,000 crore to Anil Ambani,” he told reporters in Hyderabad when asked about Michel’s extradition, referring to allegations he has previously made about the Rafale deal and an offset arrangement involving a joint venture between an Ambani company and Rafale-maker Dassault.
Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said Modi’s allegations were part of a “smear campaign”. “While the BJP and PM Modi are seeking fake credit without being subjected to investigation by the CBI for their own complicity and connivance, they are latching on to Christian Michel for committing a smear campaign against opposition leaders. The truth about Christian Michel is already out in the open,” he said in a statement, while alleging that Michel was being put under pressure to implicate the UPA chairperson.
Michel was brought to New Delhi on a special flight and taken to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters. He was produced before special CBI judge Arvind Kumar on Wednesday afternoon.
The British high commission in New Delhi said it was “urgently seeking information from Indian authorities on Michel’s circumstances” and UK authorities were in contact with Michel’s family and the Emirati authorities regarding the case.
Michel’s advocate asked the court in Delhi to send him to judicial custody but the CBI sought 14 days’ custodial interrogation to confront him with evidence and follow the money trail in the scam.
Appearing for CBI, its special public prosecutor (SPP) DP Singh said the investigation found that Michel had entered into as many as 12 contracts through two of his firms with Finmeccanica and AugustaWestland, Westland Helicopters, UK to “legitimise” the illicit commission he was paid.
The amount, EUR 42.27 million, was paid by Westland Group Companies to Michel’s firms without any work, Singh told the court.
Michel’s custody, Singh said, was required to unearth the conspiracy and identify his accomplices, including Indian Air Force officials, bureaucrats and politicians. “There were dispatches by Christian and he has also got information on classified material. There is a chain of money that needs to be unearthed.”
The judge allowed the agency to interrogate Michel for five days and asked the agency to provide all relevant documents including the charge sheet to the accused. The judge added that Michel would be allowed to meet his lawyers twice a day – 10am to 11am and 5pm to 6pm .
In India, Michel is being represented by Aljo K Joseph, a Supreme Court lawyer who was a leader of the Youth Congress till Wednesday evening. The party sacked Joseph, saying it did not endorse his decision to represent Michel and that Joseph had acted in a personal capacity.
A bail plea was also moved on Michel’s behalf but the court did not give any specific date for hearing it.
Addressing a press conference in poll-bound Rajasthan’s Jaipur, BJP president Amit Shah accused the Congress of playing negative politics and rejected charges that Michel’s extradition was a diversionary tactic.
“Congress has no other issue left. Should we not have nabbed the ‘bichauliya’ (middleman)? Does the Opposition want to save him?” he asked.
Modi, during his rally speech, described Michel as a friend of the ‘namdaar’, the Hindi word for a dynast that he has often used to target Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia without naming them. “He was a middleman of England, who was living in Dubai. He used to serve the friends of ‘namdaar’ in Dubai. The government has brought him to India. This ‘razdar’ will reveal the secrets. Don’t know where and how far it will go,” he said.
Michel is one of three middlemen being investigated in the case, in addition to Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa.
According to the CBI charge sheet, several parameters were tweaked to help AgustaWestland win a contract for 12 helicopters that were primarily meant to transport VVIPs. These parameters included the height of the cabin of the helicopter and the maximum altitude the helicopter could fly to.
These tweaks were made after bribes were paid, which came out in an Italian investigation. Three of the contracted 12 helicopters had been delivered to the Indian Air Force before the allegations became public.
The allegations stemmed from an Italian investigation, which eventually unravelled. The Supreme Court of Italy, hearing an appeal against the convictions in the AgustaWestland Case, dismissed the case in January this year citing lack of evidence.
The acquittals were for Finmeccanica executives Orsi Giuseppe and Spangolini Burno, who had been convicted for corruption and false invoicing.