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Lakhani a bumbling idiot or a sly arms dealer?

A report in The Independent says he seems more like a bumbling rogue, writes Vijay Dutt.

india Updated: Dec 29, 2003 12:21 IST

More doubts about him being a hardcore politically motivated arms dealer have surfaced as details are being dug out about Hemant Lakhani, 69, arrested by FBI for allegedly smuggling an anti-aircraft missile into the US.

According to reports here CBI has been requested by the US and UK intelligence agencies to look into Lakhanis background and links if any in India. A former RAW officer has been quoted saying that Lakhani was possibly set up.

But in the US, the 18-month long security stakeout during which his telephone calls and movements were monitored by the FBI have been described as a major breakthrough in the fight against terror and a triumph of close cooperation between US, Soviets and British intelligence.

The Independent on Sunday said: "The apparent ease with which Lakhani was so comprehensively compromised, and for so long, points to an intelligence "triumph" that is more carry on than John le Carre'. The paper says the picture that has emerged of him reveals a bumbling rogue caught up in an elaborate sting.

It points out that in May last year he faxed a brochure to his "clients" and also turned up in Moscow this spring, and according to one account, later literally "doorstepped" an arms factory in the Krasnoyarsk region in eastern Siberia to find out if it had any thing to sell. The agencies that were monitoring him must have realised that Lakhani was "operating outside his usual environment and with such brazen incompetence" that perhaps they were being had".

Various people who have known Lakhani for almost 30 years have described him as an ordinary middle class man who has had close links with the Hindu community. In fact some suave NRIs said Lakhani was a "fool" and a " bumbling idiot" who would trust any one and any silly plan to make easy money for him to get him out of his eternally recurring financial problems. His neighbours in Hendon in north London, too, said that he was an amateur arms dealer pressured by financial worries to try make some quick money.

He had also tried to break into the high society while his wife Kusum was active in social and charity work. Lakhani had met Diana, a high point in his life while his wife had become president of Sangam, a well-known charity organisation founded by Asian women.

The Sunday Times, however, differed and said that its investigations uncovered details of his previous links with a notorious arms dealer Sanjivan Ruprah in Kenya who was named by the UN two years ago for selling arms to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.

Ruprah was described as "odious" by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, because of his links with Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer accused of supplying arms to the Taliban. Ruprah was arrested last year in Italy and it is said Kenyan authorities started investigating Lakhani when he fled the country soon after Ruprah's arrest. They suspected that the two were involved in the seeking of arms for diamonds to rebel group movements in Congo and Burundi. Customs confirmed to the Times that Ruprah and Lakhani were known as business partners.

Lakhani is now being suspected of allegedly selling arms to Al-Qaeda groups. But even then there is much disbelief about his alleged sympathy for the terror group. The British intelligence said they had no knowledge of his activities and their role in the sting operation was minimal. Moreover, if he was involved with sales through his Kenya partnership, why do his financial records show he was quite hard up economically.

There is much to unearth, said a source.

First Published: Dec 25, 2003 21:33 IST