British businessman Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the graft-tainted Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal during the UPA rule, was Wednesday sent to five-day CBI custody by a Delhi court, a day after he was extradited to India from the UAE.
As the extradition sparked a political slugfest between the BJP and the Congress, Michel, 57, was produced before Special CBI Judge Arvind Kumar amid tight security at the Patiala House courts complex. The Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI) arrested Michel, who was chargesheeted in the AgustaWestland case, on his arrival from Dubai late last night. Michel will again be produced in the court on December 10. CBI prosecutor D P Singh said Michel was required for custodial interrogation to unearth the "deep rooted conspiracy" and the money trail.
The custody was required to identify Michel's accomplices including the Indian Air Force(IAF) officials, bureaucrats and politicians, who were influenced/instrumental in changing the decisions, which made Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland eligible to participate in the bidding process and ultimately bagged it, he argued. India has since scrapped the contract with Italy-based Finmeccanica's British subsidiary AgustaWestland for supplying 12 AW-101 VVIP choppers to the IAF over alleged breach of contractual obligations and charges of paying kickbacks by it for securing the deal.
The deal, initialled in 2010, was scrapped on January 1, 2014. While seeking custodial remand of Michel, the CBI prosecutor contended "an amount of 42.27 million Euro(Rs 283 crore at the then prevailing exchange rate) was paid by the Westland Group companies to the firms of accused Christian Michel James as kickbacks/ bribe without undertaking any work against the receipt of such amount." Michel is one of the three middlemen being probed in the case, besides Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa, by the Enforcement Directorate(ED) and the CBI.
He had denied the charges and alleged that the CBI wants him to take the names of the Gandhi family, a claim which had been refuted by the central probe agency. In the court, the special judge was informed by the CBI that its investigation showed Michel had entered into 12 contracts through two of his firms -- M/s Global Trade and Commerce Ltd, London and M/s Global Services FZE, Dubai, UAE, with M/s Finmeccanica, M/s AgustaWestland, M/s Westland Helicopters, UK, etc. The CBI prosecutor argued this was done by Michel to legitimise the illicit commission on the procurement of VVIP Helicopters by the Ministry of Defence.
He said the accused has to be interrogated thoroughly for which his 14 days custody was required but the judge granted five-day custody. He further submitted Michel has to be confronted with number of documents, including classified information and the CBI has to find out the role and identity of other accused persons involved in the alleged payoffs. The CBI's plea for custody was opposed by Michel's counsel Aljo K Joseph and Vishnu Shankaran who said they have not yet received any documents from the agency and that the accused may be remanded to judicial custody.
The court rejected the oral prayer of Michel's counsel that a lawyer be permitted to be present at all times during his interrogation. The Congress alleged that the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were "latching" on to Michel for a "smear campaign" against opposition leaders. But the allegation was rejected by BJP President Amit Shah who challenged the Congress to spell out its stand on the extradition of Michel. “I want to know whether any middleman should be arrested or not? What does the opposition want? Does it want to save them,” Shah told a press conference in Jaipur.
Modi also brought up Michel's extradition at his rally in Pali in Rajasthan on the last day of campaigning for the state Assembly polls on Friday. "The government has brought the middleman involved in a helicopter scam from Dubai. He served politicians and will now disclose secrets," the prime minister said. "Let's see how far this goes." Asked about Michel's extradition, Congress President Rahul Gandhi asserted his party has made its position "very very clear" in this matter earlier at a news conference and raised the alleged irregularities in the Rafale jet deal with France.
Gandhi told reporters in Hyderabad that the prime minister should explain the alleged payment of Rs 30,000 crore to industrialist Anil Ambani in the deal. The Anil Ambani-headed Reliance Group has denied any wrongdoing. Michel had an anxiety attack upon reaching CBI headquarters past midnight last night for which doctors were called to attend him, official sources said. Michel was given medical treatment after which he was subjected to intense grilling about the money trail and identification of documents, they said. He was allowed to sleep for two hours between 4 am and 6 am Wednesday before being provided with breakfast.
After 6 am, he was again subjected to questioning by the officials of the Special Investigation Team(SIT) of the CBI before being taken to the court in the afternoon. In more trouble for Michel, official sources said he will be made to undergo a separate round of grilling by the ED over the purported creation of "shell firms" in India and abroad that were alleged to have been created by him and others to launder bribe money. The British High Commission also stepped in and sought consular access to Michel.