Christian James Michel, an alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal, on Thursday described Congress President Sonia Gandhi as the “driving force” behind the purchase of the choppers for use by VVIPs. Speaking to NDTV in Dubai, Michel had confirmed the authenticity of a note he had written to AgustaWestland India head Peter Hullet in 2008, in which he had suggested that the British High Commissioner in India target Gandhi and her close advisers to help seal the deal for the 12 AW-101 helicopters.

However, he clarified the move was “lobbying, not bribing”, given that Gandhi was powerful at the time as the Congress had been in power. In the letter, he had named Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee, M Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes, MK Narayanan and Vinay Singh as her advisers.

‘Kickbacks were paid’

While Michel agreed that kickbacks were paid in connection with the deal, he said they “went below [the then Indian Air Force chief) SP Tyagi, not above him”, adding that “[he believes] a great deal of bribe money is still in Mauritius or went back to Italy”. He also denied having met any of the Congress leaders in the 180 times he had visited India between 2005 and 2013.

When questioned about his earlier claim that the Congress leaders played no part in the Rs 3,600-crore scam, the UK national said, “I have to protect the Gandhis to protect myself. I have to prove they are innocent to prove my innocence.”

‘Narendra Modi met Italian prime minister’

The alleged middleman, who India is desperately trying to question in the case, reiterated his claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently met with his Italian counterpart Matteo Renzi on the on the sidelines of a United Nations meet. While the Ministry of External Affairs denied it, Michel stood by his claim that Modi had offered to release the two Italian marines, imprisoned in India for killing two fishermen off the coast of Kerala in 2012, in exchange for information on the AgustaWestland contract that could implicate Gandhi.

Enforcement Directorate seeking extradition

The Enforcement Directorate plans to approach the United Arab Emirates, seeking Michel’s extradition for questioning in the scam. Officials in the agency said a formal request is ready and will most likely be dispatched in a few days, The Times of India reported. In his interview with NDTV, Michel said he was ready to cooperate with Indian investigators, but he “doesn’t want to languish in jail like the Italian marines”. Earlier, Michel’s lawyer had said he was ready to come to India to face investigators if he was assured he would not be arrested.

The ED had made an extradition request to the United Kingdom January 8. However, London sent back a list of questions, pointing out a flaw in the request that it did not specify Michel’s exact location. Also, while the ED’s request had said Michel was in the UAE, the Central Bureau of Investigation had maintained that he was in the UK. Both agencies have an Interpol-issued red corner notice against him. They believe that Michel’s companies received around 42 million Euro to facilitate the deal for AgustaWestland, of which a substantial amount was distributed as bribes.

The scam

The AgustaWestland helicopter deal, which has snowballed into a huge controversy, relates to an agreement in 2010, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was to buy 12 helicopters from the British-Italian firm for around Rs 3,600 crore. The deal was put on hold after Italy arrested the head of Finmeccanica on charges that the company paid bribes to win the contract. CBI had registered a case against SP Tyagi and 13 others, including his three cousins and the European middlemen involved in the scam.