The Choksi Saga: A Catch Me If You Can Game that could Turn Sour for India

Thrill, passion, flight, investigation, international law enforcement agencies in the small island nation of Antigua; diamantaire Mehul Choksi’s life has witnessed all of that and more
The Choksi Saga: A Catch Me If You Can Game that could Turn Sour for India

This 62-year old diamantaire has brought disrepute to the whole G & J industry in India, so much so that banks and importers are looking upon every Indian diamantaire with askance.

Founder and managing director of Gitanjali Group which was once the largest branded jewellery retailers in the world, Mehul Choksi in a career spanning four decades made fortunes worth millions of dollars, defrauded Punjab National Bank, founded way back in 1894 and touted as the second largest government owned bank in India to the tune of Rs 13,500 crore.This case is claimed to be India's biggest bank fraud.

Gitanjali used to sell its jewellery through over 4,000 Points of Sale and enjoyed a market share of over 50 per cent of the overall organised jewellery market in India. Prominent brands housed by the group included Nakshatra, D'damas, Gili, Asmi, Sangini, Maya, Giantti, World of Solitaire and Shuddhi. 

Mehul Choksi fled India along with his nephew, Nirav Modi after theFIR was filed about the bank scam. Choksi is wanted by the Indian judicial authorities for criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, cheating and dishonesty including delivery of property, corruption and money laundering. In an interview, Choksi claimed that he is innocent and all allegations against him are false, baseless and motivated by political expediency. He was also allegedly involved in stock market manipulation in 2013. In late May 2021, he had gone missing from Antigua and Barbuda. He was found and arrested in Dominica while trying to flee to Cuba in a boat.

The Beginning

Choksi started his career in the gem and jewellery sector in 1975, and took over the leadership of Gitanjali Gems from his father in 1985, when it was focused on just rough and polished diamonds. His younger brother Chetan Chinubhai Choksi owned and operated a diamond company named Diminco NV, based in Antwerp, which had defaulted on a US$25.8 million payment to a subsidiary of ICICI Bank.In 2013, the bank litigated a lawsuit against Diminco NV, in commercial courts in Belgium and UK.

The PNB Case

Choksi and his nephews Nirav and Neeshal Modi, of Firestar Diamonds are suspected of colluding with two employees of Punjab National Bank(PNB), the country's second-largest state-owned lender, in an alleged $1.8 billion fraud. At least six PNB staff and at least six employees of Choksi and Modi have been arrested so far. In March 2018, a special PMLA court issued non-bailable arrest warrants (NBWs) against Choksi. As a result he fled the country and is currently a fugitive of the Indian government. Recently, Choksi has protested his innocence in an open letter. 

Legal Eagles Swoop

On 6 March 2018, the CBI had detained Vipul Chitalia, the Vice-President of Gitanjali Group of Companies and a key aide of Choksi. Chitalia was arrested at Mumbai airport and remained in custody till March 2018.A designated PMLA authority held that 41 properties worth about Rs 1,210 crore, attached by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the name of Mehul Choksi and his associated firms, are money laundering assets and ordered that their attachment should continue.

The central probe agency provisionally attached 15 flats and 17 office premises in Mumbai, a mall in Kolkata, a four-acre farm house in Alibaug and 231 acres of land at locations like Nashik, Nagpur, Panvel in Maharashtra and Villupuram in Tamil Nadu, in February 2018 under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) in connection with the about US$2 billion alleged fraud at a Mumbai-based branch of the Punjab National Bank (PNB).

Flight or Fight

On 7 January 2018, Choksi had left India to the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. A few days later, the PNB scam was discovered. On 15 January, he took the oath of citizenship of Antigua and Barbuda, where he applied for the citizenship in November 2017 under the country's Citizenship by Investment program. On 17 June, his lawyer informed the Bombay High Court that he left India for medical check-up and not to avoid prosecution in the case. Ever since, CBI has been trying to extradite him back to India.

Stories be Told

On 23 May 2021, Choksi had gone missing in Antigua and Barbuda. He was last seen around 5:15 pm on 23 May before leaving his home in a car which has been recovered by the police in Jolly Harbour area. A probe has been launched to look for him. It was reported that he may have fled to Cuba. On 26 May, he was found in a nearby Caribbean country of Dominica while trying to flee to Cuba by a boat and is held by the local police. This flee attempt would make CBI's case of extraditing him to India in Antiguan courts stronger. His lawyer claimed that Choksi was kidnapped by whom Choksi believed to be Indian and Antiguan police and brought to Dominica by a boat. He also claimed that Choksi had a swollen eye and several bruises when he met Choksi. The High Court of Justice Commonwealth of Dominica has currently issued a stay order on his repatriation from the country.

On 29 May 2021, Choksi's pictures were surfaced by Antiguan media. In the pictures, Choksi sustained several injuries to his left hand and the left eye is bruised and swollen. Several Indian agencies were in touch with the Dominican government using diplomatic channels urging that he is an Indian citizen and that he had an Interpol Red Corner notice and he should be handed over to the Indian authorities. The opposition parties United Workers' Party of Dominica and United Progressive Party of Antigua and Barbuda are allegedly utilising this opportunity to support him against his deportation to India, in return for campaign funding.

Sometime back Mehul Choksi alleged that he was abducted and disclosed the names of his alleged abductors to Antiguan police. Antigua police have commenced an investigation into the possible abduction of Mehul Choksi from Antigua on May 23, 2021. Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that Choksi's lawyers wrote to the Police Commissioner providing the names of the people he believes abducted him. Evidence suggests that Choksi was planning to escape to Cuba. He was granted citizenship of Antigua and Barbuda in January 2018. He is involved in a legal battle to prevent his extradition to India.

Antigua Prime Minister Gaston Browne wanted his citizenship to be cancelled, he wrote a letter in 2019, he has clearly said that Choksi will not be allowed entry in Antigua and he should be deported back to India.

Controversies and More

Since the PNB scam came to light almost every part of Mehul Choksi’s colourful life has been raking controversies of sorts.He said that he was abducted, beaten, tasered, tortured, put in a wheelchair and taken by boat  to the neighboring island of Dominica. 

While according to the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda Choksi illegally entered the country, allegedly having left his wife at home to take a younger girlfriend on a yacht for a romantic meal. One way or another he found himself under arrest on Dominica, charged with entering the country illegally. He was denied bail earlier today and remains in custody pending a further hearing. Almost every subsequent detail of what follows is disputed.

There was speculation during his three-day absence from his home in Antigua that he'd fled to Cuba, which was clearly not correct. Choksi's own account is that within minutes of arriving at the apartment of Barbara Jarabica, possibly his girlfriend, he was attacked by eight to 10 men.

"They said that we knew who you are and you have to go for investigation just now with us," he said.  "They just grabbed me and I tried to fight against them, but it was very, very hard... they came at me from all sides,” Choksi narrated to a newspaper reporter.His daughter Priyanka Choksi, who lives in Belgium, says she has no doubt it was an operation by the Indian government. "My father was abducted. Two mercenaries of Indian origin were on the boat," she said.

All of which may well be true, or not.  A court on Dominica has yet to be convinced. The woman who arguably lured Choksi may or may not have been Barbara Jarabica  described as a property investment consultant who studied at the London School of Economics. 

The issue now is whether or not Choksi will face trial in India. He is not keen. MrsPritiChoksi said: "My husband is no longer an Indian citizen as per Section 9 of the Indian Constitution. In 2017, he ceased to be an Indian citizen. The safest place on earth for him is Antigua."  She has a point, because under Indian law he surrendered his passport when he became a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda, even though he paid for the privilege under its citizenship by investment program.

But India is likely to counter that, citing the red notice issued by Interpol for his arrest, and claiming the only reason he sought citizenship elsewhere was to avoid a trial. Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, says Dominica should hand him over to the Indian authorities, because, he claims, Choksi left of his own free will.India's Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate are extremely keen for him to be sent back there. This is a legal tangle that shows no sign of being quickly sorted.So, even today Mehul Choksi retains his position on India’s most wanted economic offenders list and only time will tell if he can be brought back to India and after a fair trial be taken to an Indian prison.

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