Choksi has a red corner notice against him, along with the multiple charges the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate have slapped on him.
Of late, India had seen more success in deportations compared with lengthy extradition proceedings, and the team visited to lay the groundwork for it. In any case, India does not have an extradition treaty with Antigua and Barbuda.
Officials in the know said that, by May, the diplomatic, legal and security concerns had been ironed out, and Choksi was supposed to be put on a commercial flight back to India. CBI Deputy Inspector General Sharda Raut—the investigating officer in the Punjab National Bank case, in which Choksi is an accused—was to produce him before a magistrate.
Deportation required political will, more than anything, and Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne was on board. “The Antiguan government took cognisance of all our concerns regarding the deportation,” said a senior government official. “All legal issues had been thrashed out.”
Delhi’s Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy had apparently made Browne more attentive to India’s concerns. It had also sparked hope of reviving the island nation’s economy ahead of its 40th independence day in November.
But that was not meant to be. India’s grand plans were scuppered. On May 23, Choksi vanished. He reappeared in Dominica two days later, bruised, battered and crying foul.
What started as a regular deportation by Antigua and Barbuda, considered Britain’s gateway to the Caribbean, soon turned into a cat and mouse chase across Caribbean waters.
On May 28, Delhi hurriedly dispatched a team of sleuths—led by Raut and foreign ministry officials— and put it on a private jet rented from Qatar. Commercial flights from Delhi to Antigua usually take more than 24 hours and Air Force flights could not be diverted; a logistically viable option was to hire a jet from Qatar, which has better connectivity, faster access and a fleet of private jets, said an official.
Top government sources said both Antigua and Dominican governments had given an in-principle assurance to India to deport Choksi. But after Choksi had landed in Dominica, differences had cropped up between certain agencies on whether a large CBI-ED team should be sent to press for deportation.
Finally, Raut, foreign ministry officials and officers of the CBI’s Interpol unit boarded the private jet to Dominica. There was no ED official on board even though it is the lead agency in the money laundering case in the Antiguan court. When contacted, ED officials said they had already sent bulk of their documents electronically. “In the normal course, only an officer or two are sent in a commercial flight to verify the arrest of a fugitive and brief the lawyers in another country,” said a former CBI director. He explained that a private jet, which costs a lot, would only be hired to send a large team of six to eight officials, after there is assurance by the host country that it will send the fugitive back.
“The RCN is an international warrant of arrest and requires the host country to facilitate it. That is the only way it is implemented,” said former CBI director A.P. Singh.
The bigger question is, who botched India’s plans?
Sleuths in Delhi suspect that certain powerful elements in the Caribbean islands leaked the information of Choksi’s deportation from Antigua and landed him in the Dominican police net. Choksi was allegedly in touch with some “external elements” who brought him to Dominica to “save him” from being deported to India.
He was allegedly offered a deal and a big “political” name was dropped. Choksi apparently took the bait. When the Dominican police got a whiff of his unauthorised presence on its soil, he was immediately picked up.
It is learnt that a local reporter, on his usual rounds, had visited the police station where he was told of a passport-less Indian in custody. As news broke, Choksi’s family and lawyers were alerted.
All hell broke loose. Browne claimed Choksi had gone to Dominica with his girlfriend to have a good time and should be deported to India. But Choksi, in his complaint to the Antigua police, claimed that he was kidnapped, beaten, blindfolded and put on the boat to Dominica by force.
In his five-page letter to the Antiguan police, accessed through his lawyer Vijay Aggarwal, Choksi said his kidnappers were “muscle men”, including two from India, who assaulted him when he had gone to meet his female friend Barbara Jarabik on the evening of May 23. He was put on a boat at Jolly Harbour with Barbara and two other passengers—Gurjit Bhandal and Gurmit Singh.
Aggarwal said they were suspected mercenaries who plotted to kidnap Choksi and deport him. While Gurmit is apparently an Indian national, Gurjit is said to be a UK citizen. But there is no confirmation of their antecedents either by the government or Choksi’s legal team.
The alleged role of “external elements” trying to stage Choksi’s exit from Antigua to Dominica for speedy deportation to India has added spice to the Caribbean chase.
The Choksi camp has alleged that two UK nationals were behind his mysterious landing in Dominica, and that the whole chain of events was part of an intelligence-led operation. The family is learnt to have hired a lawyer to take up the issue with Scotland Yard. Indian intelligence officials dismissed the allegation.
“Choksi cannot be brought to India by boat from the West Indies,” said a senior intelligence official. “Due process has to be followed to get him to India as he is a wanted man here. When he is produced in court, the agencies have to tell the court from where they got him.”
But Choksi’s legal team has already fanned out in the UK to draw international attention to the alleged human rights violations. Speaking to THE WEEK from London, Toby Cadman, cofounder of the Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, said: “I am not in a position to confirm or deny what happened in Antigua, but if it is established that there was an attempt to unlawfully deport Mehul Choksi to India, then it is a matter that will need to be fully investigated with those responsible being held accountable.”
Incidentally, Cadman is representing UK national Christian Michel, who is in Tihar jail in the politically sensitive AgustaWestland case, and has already petitioned the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on Michel’s behalf. Cadman claimed that Michel’s deportation from the UAE was a “quid pro quo” for Indian agencies’ assistance in sending Princess Latifa back to the UAE in 2018. “It is deplorable. It demonstrates that there is no commitment to the rule of law,” he said.
A senior security official said attempts were being made to discredit Indian investigating agencies, which have been successfully getting fugitives deported in the past few years. “Our worry is that Choksi will try to escape deportation using such allegations and counter-allegations to his advantage,” the official said.
Meanwhile, Barbara’s alleged presence on the boat and her emergence on television screens— saying Choksi was wooing her with gifts—has left his wife, Priti, distraught. “I was not his girlfriend and he is not my sugar daddy,” Barbara told a news agency. “I have my own income and business. I do not need his cash, support, hotel bookings or fake jewellery.”
Priti said she did not doubt her husband’s intentions, and that she wanted him to be returned to Antigua immediately. In fact, she told THE WEEK that she was waiting to celebrate her 35th wedding anniversary this December.
“I never claimed my husband was honey-trapped,” she said. “Barbara was just an acquaintance he walked with.”
Barbara’s comments have shifted the focus from the boat ride to Choksi’s alleged dalliances. This has not only thickened the plot, but has also put Priti in a spot. Was she unaware of the alleged relations or did she turn a blind eye to them?
According to investigators, Priti had divorced Choksi in 2012-13. The ED has recorded statements of Choksi’s friends and business associates, who said he told them at various functions that he was divorced. Priti, however, dismissed these claims.
She also said she would write to the Queen, who is the constitutional monarch and head of state. A 2018 constitutional referendum in Antigua had failed to pass an amendment replacing the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice as the final court of appeal.
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