VVIP chopper scam: Legal angle

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The Supreme Court recently dismissed the bail plea of Christian Michel, the alleged middleman of the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam. He was extradited from Dubai in 2018 and is currently locked up in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. He had sought interim bail on the grounds of the danger of contracting coronavirus while in prison. SC rejected his petition as “it did not fall under any grounds for relief”.

“We don’t find any merit in the petition filed by the petitioner in the case. We, thereby, dismiss the same,” Justice Kaul stated. Justice Kaul was part of the two-judge bench that also comprised of Justice B R Gavai.

The AgustaWestland VVIP Chopper scam is a very famous helicopter bribery scandal in India. It is a million-dollar bribery scandal and corruption case that accuses some high profile officials. This case attracted a lot of attention when a parliamentary investigation was conducted in 2013. People like Ahmed Patel, Christian Michel, and former IAF Chief S P Tyagi are being accused, thus, making this a high-profile scam.

Details about the scam

In February 2010, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government signed a contract with AgustaWestland to purchase twelve AW101 of their helicopters for a price of Rs. 3,600 crore. These helicopters were meant for ferrying VVIPs including the President of India, the Prime Minister, and others. AgustaWestland is a UK based company that functions under its parent Italian company Finmeccanica.

In February 2013, Giuseppe Orsi, the chairman of Finmeccanica and Bruno Spagnolini, CEO of AgustaWestland were arrested on allegations of bribery and corruption by Italian authorities. This led the then UPA government to put the deal on hold.

It was alleged that the specific technical requirements of the required choppers were such adjusted that Agusta would win the bid. This included the lowering of the service ceiling of the helicopter from a height of 6,000 m to 4,500 m. The cabin height was also reduced. It was also claimed that Finmeccanica allegedly paid kickbacks to qualify for the deal with the Indian Air Force.

Soon after the arrests in Italy, the then Defence Minister A K Antony confirmed the allegations and ordered a CBI probe. A joint parliamentary probe was also put into motion. CBI launched its investigation and registered cases against many people including retired IAF chief S P Tyagi. In 2014, the chopper deal stood canceled due to the violation of the integrity pact. Only 3 out of the 12 helicopters were delivered.

A series of arrests were made from 2014 to 2018. CBI’s investigation revealed the involvement of air force officials, public servants, and private individuals. It was also found that this deal cost about Rs.2,666 crore to the exchequer. The role of Cristian Michel was revealed as well. He is one of the three middlemen in the deal who acted as ‘brokers’. The other two are Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa.

Christian Michel is a British consultant who was allegedly hired by AgustaWestland to manipulate high ranked officials.  He is being accused of paying bribes to government officials and politicians to ensure the bid in favor of AgustaWestland. The CBI also found that he had allegedly paid about Rs. 3,600 crores as kickbacks to Indian officials.

Meanwhile, the Italian court stated that there was a “reasonable belief that corruption took place in the case” and that former Chief Marshal S P Tyagi was also involved. But the bribery charges could not be proved and the defendants were acquitted of all charges.

However, CBI was not satisfied and in 2017 began the proceedings for the extradition of Christian Michel from Dubai. By December 2018, he was brought to India.

Legal provisions involved

The extradition of Christian Michel from Dubai is a diplomatic success for India.

India has extradition treaties with about 44 countries. Out of this 44, the United Arab Emirates has been the most helpful. So far, over the past 15 years, it has successfully deported or extradited 19 of 66 fugitives to India.

In simple terms, extradition is the surrender of one criminal to a particular country by another country. As per the principles of criminal law, a country cannot apply its penal code on a person who has committed a crime outside its territorial jurisdiction except in cases of national interest.

Extradition is an essential mechanism to ensure the prosecution in cases of cross-border crimes. This process is enabled by treaties between different countries. It can take place only between such countries that have signed the requisite treaty. Extradition arrangements are also often made by countries to mutually assist each other in relevant cases. In India, the extradition process is governed by the Indian Extradition Act, 1962.

Christian Michel’s extradition is a big win for Indian authorities owing to his key role in the VVIP chopper scam. He is currently lodged in the Tihar Jail. CBI is probing his role as a middleman in the deal whereas the ED has launched an investigation in the money laundering charges against him.

Recent developments in the case

Until now many arrests have been made that include Madhya Pradesh’s former Chief Minister, Kamal Nath’s nephew Ratul Puri and Christian Michel. Interrogations are going on. Michel has claimed that his interrogation went on for more than 600 hours.

Bail pleas are being dismissed repeatedly. Christian Michel has tried again and again but he was unsuccessful. Very recently, Delhi High Court, as well as the Supreme Court, dismissed his plea that was on the grounds of the risk of contracting coronavirus in prison.

Ratul Puri continues to be in prison. Investigations are going on; the evidence is being collected along with regular interrogations. In February, CBI was all set to obtain the required sanctions for filing charges against public servants involved in the AgustaWestland scam.

Testimonies of both the arrested individuals reveal that classified information on the deal was shared with the Ex IAF Chief Tyagi. According to reports, Michel was religiously keeping track of the files of the deal with the help of the retired official.

Probable future

India is facing a long legal battle in this case because merely an extradition cannot be a full-fledged win. It is important to note that Italy was the one that started this judicial battle against AgustaWestland. Hence, a major part of the evidence still lies with the Italian Government.  It is yet another battle for the Indian officials to acquire the details of the retrial proceedings or even simple documents. No treaties exist that allow the sharing of judicial information. Though, the previous charge sheets against the CEO and middlemen, Christian Michel are available. An intensive analysis of the same is yet to be conducted.

This scam that has crossed borders is extremely important for India and her reputation. The world must see India as a nation that takes serious actions in the service of justice.

Also, measures of the legislature such as the enactment of the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, 2018 are accurate steps in the domestic arena. But to put an actual end to this menace, it is advisable to sign more substantive and detailed extradition treaties with more countries.

This scam has also ruffled the feathers of the Indian politics by putting into question top UPA leaders like Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As details continue to be revealed by Christian Michel, it can lead to a storm in Indian politics with accusations on many top leaders. He has however already given the story a plot twister by claiming that he is being offered a deal to incriminate Sonia Gandhi in exchange for his freedom.

Conclusion

India has seen a surge in the number of high profile white-collar crimes over the past few tears. AgustaWestland scam becomes important than others as it involved not only private individuals but also top government officials and political leaders.  The arrest and extradition of Christian Michel throw light on the necessity of robust extradition treaties. Currently, India has extradition treaties only with 44 countries. This number must see an increase. Michel’s extradition can pave the way for other extraditions involving names like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi.

On 8 April 2016, the Milan Court of Appeal overturned the lower court’s decision and sentenced the former CEO of Finmeccanica, Orsi to four years of imprisonment. Later, on 8 January 2018, the Milan Third Court of Appeals gave its final decision of acquittal due to insufficient evidence. This case has seen serious twists and turns. But one thing that must be noted is that corruption still has its roots in India.

Author: Anushree Tadge from ILS Law College, Pune.

Editor: Shalu Bhati  from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

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