The CBI has approached authorities in Antigua for details on the whereabouts of fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi, allegedly involved in the USD 2 billion scam in Punjab National Bank and who has taken citizenship of the Caribbean country, sources said. The CBI in its communication sent to the Antiguan authorities last evening cited diffusion notice issued by the Interpol against the fugitive businessman, who is Nirav Modi’s uncle and his alleged partner in crime, and sought details of his movement, landing and his present location, they said. If the CBI gets confirmation from Antigua about the presence of Choksi there, it can request the government of that country to extradite him without waiting for the issuance of Red Corner Notice by the Interpol, the sources said.
The agency had come to know from the External Affairs Ministry which had sent a communication from the Indian mission in the US suggesting that Choksi had travelled out of the US on an Antiguan passport, officials said. The report had landed in the CBI’s hands on July 23 after which a letter was dispatched to Antigua, they said.
Choksi had taken citizenship of Antigua in November 2017, and oath of allegiance on January 15, according to local newspaper Antigua Observer. “Holders of the Antigua and Barbuda passport enjoy visa free travel to approximately 132 countries, including the UK and the countries of the Schengen area,” the website of Citizenship by Investment unit of Antigua and Barbuda says.
Citing reports from Indian outlets on Tuesday that Choksi has fled to Antigua, the newspaper sent a questionnaire to Citizenship by Investment unit about him. It was informed that Choksi’s application was granted after “robust due diligence” and “international investigation” by “reputable agencies”, including the International Criminal Police Organization also known as Interpol and the CARICOM Implementing Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), the paper reported today.
The CBI, the nodal agency of India for Interpol, said that no information regarding background check of Choksi was sought from it by the international agency. “The Interpol has not sought any information related to Choksi from the CBI in the last three four years,” CBI spokesperson Abhishek Dayal said. Under the Citizenship by Investment Program of Antigua and Barbuda, a person can take their passport on a minimum investment of USD one lakh in NDF investment fund.
“Deprivation of citizenship will occur where such registration as a citizen was obtained by false representation or fraud or wilful concealment of material facts or the person has been convicted in Antigua and Barbuda of an act of treason or sedition,” the rules given on the website of Citizenship by Investment Program said.
A warrant was reportedly issued by Karnataka High Court against Choksi in 2016 in a separate matter. Choksi’s actions show that he had planned in advance his escape and subsequent life knowing that the scam would blow up after the retirement of PNB employee Gokulnath Shetty who was helping him with renewal of letters of undertaking, the sources said.
He escaped the country on January 4 on an Indian passport and took the oath of allegiance in Antigua on January 15, they said. Next day, his firm approached Brady House branch of the Punjab National Bank seeking renewal and issuance of letters of undertaking which were denied as the officer concerned sought cash guarantee for issuing these notes, the CBI FIR alleged.
The executives told the officer that they have been taking these letters over last several years without any demand of such guarantee, it said. The officer could not find instructions for such LoUs in bank’s system which led to detailed scrutiny where the scam surfaced prompting the bank to approach the CBI with a complaint against which an FIR was registered on January 31.
An LoU is a guarantee given by an issuing bank to Indian banks having branches abroad to grant short-term credit to the applicant. Choksi allegedly swindled Rs 7080.86 crore, making it possibly the biggest banking scam in the country, it had alleged. He and his companies allegedly availed credit from overseas branches of Indian banks using the fraudulent guarantees of PNB given through LoUs and letters of credit issued Brady House branch which were not repaid bringing the liability on the state run bank, the officials said.
The charge sheet, filed in the Mumbai special court after a three-and-a-month-long probe, alleged that Shetty, a deputy manager in PNB and arrested by the CBI, received Rs 1 crore from the companies of Choksi to issue LoUs to his companies, they said.