Nirav Modi will be extradited to India from the UK to face charges of conspiring to defraud Punjab National Bank of more than a billion dollars, a judge ruled today.
Judge Samuel Goozee, sitting at Westminster Magistrate's Court in London, rejected each of the grounds laid out by Modi's defence against extradition despite criticising the presentation of evidence by the Government of India.
Modi faced multiple charges filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate.
It is alleged that Modi and his associates colluded with officials at the state-owned Punjab National Bank to defraud the bank out of more than $1.4 billion by using a credit facility known as Letters of Undertaking, a form of bank guarantee to facilitate international transactions.
The court had been told that the proceeds of the fraud were then laundered through a series of shell compes manned by dummy directors and located in Dubai and Hong Kong.
Modi is also charged with the destruction of evidence and intimidating witnesses. On all the charges, Judge Goozee found that Modi had a case to answer for and should be returned to India.
Modi's defence had contended that the LOUs had been legitimate business transactions and that it was all a commercial dispute involving "authorized though ill-advised lending". Judge Goozee dismissed this, ruling that several PNB officials along with Modi and his associates used a "ponzi-like structure" to launder the funds obtained through the LOU's.
"He (Modi) was not using the LOU's in a permissible fashion", Judge Goozee said, adding that "it wasn't in PNB's interest to create such huge exposure to a debt of this magnitude".
Modi's defence team, led by Clare Montgomery QC, who had previously represented the liquor baron Vijay Mallya had relied on a legal strategy very similar to the one used in Mallya's case, claiming that Modi would not receive a fair trial, that Modi was the victim of a political witch hunt, that the Indian judiciary was not independent and that Modi would not receive a fair trial.
Judge Goozee again rejected those claims.
He dismissed the expert witnesses on judicial independence in India - Justices Markandey Katju and Abhay Thipsay - that had testified in court in support of Modi's defence claims.
Judge Goozee said that he found Justice Thipsay's behaviour and attitude questionable. He also dismissed Justice Katju's contention that Indian judges issued politically favourable rulings as they wanted good post-retirement positions citing Justice Katju's own elevation to head the prestigious Press Council of India.
"India is governed by its constitution which ensures the independence of the judiciary. Indian courts are very capable of conducting a fair trial. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Mr Modi won't be denied a fair trial," Judge Goozee said.
In his summation, Judge Goozee also addressed another claim made by the Modi defence questioning the independence of the Indian judiciary citing a high profile press conference conducted by Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in which he claimed that the Congress was trying to save Modi.
Judge Goozee said that media attention, including "ill-advised political commentary" in high profile cases such as that of Modi's was "not unique to India". He said that that interest had been heightened by the allegations against Modi which involved defrauding "significant sums from a state-owned entity".
Having considered the transcript of the press briefing given by minister Prasad, Judge Goozee ruled, that it was clear in his view that it was "purely a press conference given in a political context".
Despite its high profile, the public commentary, social media interest and general media coverage of Modi's case, there is no evidence Judge Goozee ruled that the trial or the trial process itself would be "susceptible" to it.
The other two elements of the Modi defence had been to cite his "deteriorating" mental health and the conditions of Barrack 12 at the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai.
Ruling on the mental health issue, Judge Goozee that he was not satisfied by evidence submitted by the defence about Modi's mental and emotional health and that he was satisfied that he was fit to plead once he returned to India.
What's more, Judge Goozee said he was satisfied with the assurances provided by the government of India that Modi would have access to a variety of healthcare options - including counselling - both at the Arthur Road jail as well as outside through private service providers if necessary.
He also dismissed the defence contention that Modi would not be able to "afford" healthcare in India citing the millions of dollars in securities that Modi had routinely offered to secure bail - requests that were repeatedly denied.
Judge Goozee rejected yet more submissions made by expert defence witnesses about the conditions at Arthur Road, specifically a lawyer named Sajasl Yadav who had claimed that the conditions at the jail would contravene Modi's basic human rights.
"Mr Yadav's evidence cannot be relied upon because they cannot be tested", Judge Goozee said.
The judge said that Mr Yadav's evidence had been in the form of letters rather than sworn statements. Besides, he said, video purporting to show inadequate conditions at the prison and made by Mr Yadav was taken in June 2018 while the government of India had submitted video evidence of conditions in August 2020.
"The government of India has provided adequate submissions - including extensive video evidence-- about the conditions at Barrack 12. I am satisfied that this is an accurate reflection and I am satisfied that they are adequate," the judge said.
Nirav Modi joined the conference - as he had done throughout the trial - via video link from Wandsworth Prison where he has been held since his arrest in March 2019.
Judge Goozee's ruling will now head to the office of the Home Secretary Priti Patel who must sign off on Modi's extradition within two months. This is widely expected to be a formality as Home Secretaries would only contradict a judge's ruling only in exceptional circumstances.
Modi, meanwhile, has two weeks to file an appeal which he is expected to do at the High Court.
( With inputs from ANI )
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