A special court in Delhi has granted the Central Bureau of Investigation five days custody of Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal, ANI reported. Michel was extradited to India from the United Arab Emirates late on Tuesday night, NDTV reported.
Michel was taken to the Central Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Delhi where he was questioned through the night and produced before a CBI special court on Wednesday evening, according to ANI. He will be produced before the court on December 10, according to PTI.
The Central Bureau of Investigaton sought custody of Michel to “confront him with evidence”. Special Public Prosecutor DP Singh, appearing for the agency, told the court the investigation into the deal is under way. “We need to discover the money trail and the people involved,” Singh said, according to Bar and Bench.
Michel’s lawyer had moved a bail application but the court kept it pending for the next hearing. The court also allowed his counsel to talk to him for an hour each in the morning and evening, ANI reported.
Michel’s advocate asked the court to send him to judicial custody but the CBI sought 14 days’ custodial interrogation, PTI reported. Special CBI Judge Arvind Kumar, however, granted the agency five days to interrogate Michel.
The court has also asked the CBI to provide relevant documents, including the chargesheet, to Michel.
Meanwhile, an unidentified British High Commission official on Wednesday said the UK has asked the Indian government for consular access to Michel, who is a British national, PTI reported. A British High Commission spokesperson said that it has asked Indian authorities for information on his “circumstances”. “We are in contact with his family and the Emirati authorities regarding his case,” the spokesperson said without identifying Michel.
His extradition came hours after Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj held discussions with her UAE counterpart Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the CBI said. Last month, a court in the United Arab Emirates had upheld a lower court’s order, which allowed Michel’s extradition.
The AgustaWestland helicopter deal, which snowballed into a huge controversy in 2016, relates to an agreement that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government signed with the British-Italian firm in 2007. The deal was put on hold after Italy arrested the head of Finmeccanica, AgustaWestland’s parent company, on charges of paying bribes to win the contract. Michel is one of three suspected middlemen who Indian investigative agencies believe brokered the deal.
In July, reports claimed Michel was being pressured by Indian agencies to frame Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in return for exoneration from criminal proceedings.
The CBI in a statement said that the extradition took place under the guidance of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and was coordinated by the agency’s interim Director M Nageswara Rao.
Michel’s lawyer declined to comment when asked if her client had received a fair hearing. “It is difficult to judge, we tried to convince the court but we couldn’t,” Rosemary Patrizi told the Hindustan Times, adding that the legal team will consider options under Indian law. “Now we have to wait,” she said.
“Christian Michel James will be examined with respect to his involvement in the case and confronted with documents recovered during raids by Swiss Authorities and received by CBI through LRs [letters rogatory] indicating the bribes paid by Mr Christian Michel James to the Indian authorities for securing the contract for supply of VVIP helicopters from M/s AgustaWestland,” the agency said in a statement.
In its first chargesheet in the case, which was filed in September 2017, the CBI accused Michel of receiving €42.27 million in 2010-’11 through his companies in Dubai and London for service rendered to Finmeccanica, the Hindustan Times reported.
At the time the deal was being negotiated, he visited India 25 times and stayed in Hotel Ashoka and The Claridges in Delhi, and Windsor Manor in Bengaluru. He also reportedly conspired to disqualify Agusta’s competitor Sikorsky Aircraft during field trials to stop the American company’s commercial bids to the defence ministry from being opened.
Meanwhile, responding to allegations that Michel was extradited in an attempt to put pressure on Congress leaders, Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah asked what was wrong with arresting the alleged middleman. “Does the Opposition want to save him?”
While addressing a rally in Rajasthan on the last day of campaigning before the Assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Michel has served politicians and “will now disclose secrets”.
Earlier in the day, Congress leader Salman Khurshid accused the CBI of involving his party in the case so that people would raise questions. “It is just a game to put a question mark on the Congress,” he said. “If the CBI is now getting involved in this case, we will fight against it. But I hope they have their facts and figures in place to persuade a court.”
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala alleged that Narendra Modi and the BJP government were faced with “imminent defeat” in the state polls and were seeking to “weave a web of lies” and construct a “mesh of deception to hoodwink” the people of the country, PTI reported.
The Congress leader claimed that never before in the history of India has a prime minister been found “complicit in gaining “false evidence” against Opposition leaders “to seek revenge”.