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After billionaire fraudster Nirav Modi was found living life to the hilt in the UK, India scrambled to save face and fight off allegations that the Serious Frauds Office got little cooperation from it

By Sajeda Momin in London

Nirav Modi, the fugitive diamantaire who ran off with Rs13,500 crore of Indian taxpayers’ money, is living the life of Riley in London and cocking a snook at the Indian government.

Reputed British newspaper The Daily Telegraph pin-holed the 48-year-old businessman walking in an exclusive part of central London without a care in the world. Wearing a £10,000 ostrich-hide jacket, he answered all the questions the journalist posed with a smirk on his face, a glint in his eye and “sorry, no comment” on his lips.

The sighting of the absconder stung the Modi government so much that the BJP tweeted: “Many of these who cheated India…are living the life of fugitives and refugees”. However, The Daily Telegraph’s description of the billionaire’s lifestyle is hardly that of a refugee.

In an article headlined “Exclusive: India’s most wanted man Nirav Modi—accused of £1.5bn fraud—living openly in London”, the paper reported that he is living a “privileged lifestyle” in a plush three-bedroom apartment costing £8 million (Rs74 crore). “Occupying half of the floor of the landmark Centre Point tower block” in London’s West End, looking out across the city, is hardly the address of refugees. The report also pointed out that the monthly rent of a property of this nature would be in the region of £17,000 (over Rs15 lakh) which is what Modi is probably paying from his ill-gotten gains.

In fact, the UK is becoming the refuge of Indian billionaire fraudsters—liquor baron Vijay Mallya being another —but none of them is living the bleak life of refugees. Mallya, who has app­ealed his extradition order, still flits between his multi-million-pound townhouse in central London and his mansion in the Hertfordshire countryside.

Modi and uncle Mehul Choksi are the key accused in the scam that swindled Punjab National Bank out of Rs13,500 crore using fraudulent Letters of Understanding and Letters of Credit between 2011 and 2017. They both have Interpol Red Notices and extradition requests from the CBI and ED pending against them.

Modi fled India with his family in the first week of January 2018, weeks before the scam was reported to the CBI. He was last seen in a photograph with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Davos on January 23, 2018, days after he had left India.

In the two-minute video clip put out by The Daily Telegraph, Modi looks fatter than he did in the Davos photograph and is sporting a chic handle-bar moustache and beard, showing very little of the stress of being a wanted man.

Modi, according to the report, has started a new diamond business from offices in Soho, an upmarket area known for its fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. The new company, called Nirav Modi Limited, describes itself as a wholesale trader in watches and jewellery and a retailer of watches and jewellery in specialised stores but does not list Modi as a director.

Modi’s original exclusive diamond boutique in Old Bond Street in the posh Mayfair area of London continued to function long after the scam surfaced, and it is believed that he lived in the apartment above the store for some time immediately after he ran away from India. Finally, in August 2018, the store and the apartment were “seized on the authority of the landlord”, by which time Modi had already left.

The diamond merchant has also managed to obtain a National Insurance number from the Department for Work and Pensions, thereby allowing him to work, operate bank accounts and claim benefits like every other long-term resident of Britain. The Daily Telegraph questioned “why the British government had given him a National Insurance number and yet apparently failed to act on the Interpol Red Notice”. The newspaper goes on to say that Modi “has also been in contact with a wealth management company based in west London, which specialises in advice to rich foreigners”, probably to find ways to safeguard his stolen money.

After the initial attention by the media when the scam first broke in early 2018, Modi managed to duck the spotlight. The Indian government was busy focusing on Mallya. Caught off-guard by The Daily Telegraph’s detailed revelations, Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, announced that India was making efforts to bring him back. Kumar claimed that India knew Modi was in London and had sent a request to the British government for his extradition in August last year. He virtually blamed the UK for going slow, arguing that India was waiting for a response. “The fact that we have requested the UK for the extradition of Nirav Modi means that we are aware that he is in the UK,” Kumar told the media in Delhi within hours of The Daily Telegraph’s report being published. “We first made a request for extradition based on information provided by the ED in early August and then by CBI in late August, the UK government is yet to respond to MEA’s request,” said Kumar, trying to save face.

However, according to a report on NDTV, it is actually India which has been going slow on the case and ignoring the UK’s requests for more information. This report suggests even before the official request for extradition, India had sent an alert to the UK in February 2018 under the terms of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty to help it nab Modi. This was immediately after the CBI registered a criminal case against Modi and his family for fraud.

The UK’s Serious Frauds Office (SFO) which was given the case confirmed to India as early as March 2018 that Modi was in Britain. The SFO assigned Barry Stancombe, a lawyer who specialises in fraud and money laundering, immediately to the case. Stancombe and his team wrote a series of letters to India asking for more documents before they could proceed, but they got no response.

Stancombe even offered to go to India with his team to pick up the evidence so that they could arrest Modi, but there was no response to that either. “By December 2018 Stancombe got tired of chasing the Indian agencies and our sources say it gave them the feeling that India was not serious about getting Modi back,” said Sunetra Choudhury, political editor of NDTV. The MEA has denied any knowledge of “the request for any additional documents”.

On March 8, 2019, the UK Home Office told Indian authorities that their request to extradite Modi had been certified and it will be considered by the Westminster Magistrates Court. After the media expose, a red-faced Indian government is likely to send a joint team of the CBI and the ED to London next month to pursue Modi’s extradition.

One step ahead, Modi has already built his legal team in the UK. He is believed to have hired top law firm Mishcon de Reya—which represented the late Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles, heir to the British throne—to work on his request for asylum in the UK. Modi is also believed to have hired Anand Doobay, a high-profile lawyer dealing with fraud, extradition and money laundering, to work on his extradition case.

With the extradition process being a long-drawn-out affair, Modi is unlikely to stop leading his “privileged lifestyle” anytime soon.

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