A prime character in the Rs 13,500 crore PNB scam, diamond trader Mehul Choksi has been reported missing since Sunday from the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, where he had fled in 2018 just before the lid was blown off the irregularities he had committed with his nephew Nirav Modi to defraud the public sector bank.
Not Seen After Heading Out For Dinner
According to a missing notice put out by the Antigua and Barbuda police, the 62-year-old Choksi was last seen at around 5 in the evening on Sunday before he left home in a car. Local media reported that Choksi was headed to dinner at a restaurant in the southern part of the island before he went missing.
The car in which he was seen has been found and police have launched an investigation into the disappearance of Choksi, who obtained citizenship of the Caribbean nation via the citizenship by investment programme in 2017. The year after, before his name came up in the scam he had made good his escape to the islands.
Why The Talk That He May Be In Cuba?
Reports in India have cited local sources and media outlets in Antigua and Barbuda that suggest Choksi may have made his way to Cuba, which lies about 1,700km northwest of the Caribbean islands, about a two-hour flight away.
The source of this information is a portal called WIC News, which quoted a person known to a close aide of Choksi as saying that the fugitive diamond trader had moved to Cuba fearing extradition to India. Choksi, the report added, is staying in a safe house in Cuba.
Why Is This Significant?
Cuba is not among the countries that has an extradition treaty or arrangement with India. That means the process of going about bringing Choksi back to the country may have to go through many further rounds of paperwork and negotiations.
The timing of the Choksi’s disappearance is also noteworthy. The Caribbean nation, with which India does not have an extradition treaty, but an arrangement only, had assured India that it will send back Choksi to India once he exhausts all his legal options against extradition from his new home.
“I can assure you that he (Choksi) will be ultimately deported after exhausting all his appeals. He will be extradited back to India to face whatever charges against him. It is just a matter of time," Gaston Browne, the Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister, was reported as having said last year.
In March this year, Browne had reached out to thank India and PM Narendra Modi after a batch of Covishield vaccines was shipped to Antigua and Barbuda. Browne had lauded India for “generously and selflessly" helping in their fight against Covid-19.
How have officials reacted?
An unnamed CBI official cited by NDTV this morning said the agency had not been officially notified about Choksi’s disappearance, which was confirmed to the website by his lawyer Vijay Aggarwal.
Antiguan officials and sources who spoke to Indian news outlets said they had no confirmation of the present whereabouts of Choksi and that police had launched efforts to trace him.
CBI sources told NDTV that since there is an Interpol Red notice out against Choksi since 2018, there will be official notification if Choksi underwent immigration formalities anywhere in the world.
How far the lack of an extradition treaty or arrangement with Cuba, if Choksi were indeed to be confirmed to be there, would pose a hurdle is not certain but there are options that countries that countries can resort to that do not have such an understanding. Factors like bilateral ties between the two countries in question play a crucial role.
A 2018 Observer Research Foundation paper pointed to issues with getting fugitive economic offenders extradited to India, noting that “the low numbers of extradited economic offenders (13 as against 28 ongoing investigations) can be attributed to the history of extradition treaties and the legal opinion regarding categorising financial irregularities as a civil offence rather than a criminal one".
Nirav Modi, the nephew of Choksi, and the other key accused in the PNB scam is currently in jail in the UK, where a court has cleared his extradition to India but it is understood that he can appeal the decision. Which means the case can drag for years, as is the situation with the extradition process of former UB group chief Vijay Mallya.