New Delhi: A UK High Court judge on Wednesday accepted a broad consistency of evidence put forward by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), arguing on behalf of the Indian government, in the extradition case against fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi.
Justice Ingrid Simler read out a detailed judgment at the Royal Courts of Justice, in which she upheld a lower court ruling to withhold bail and also summed up the case against Modi – wanted in India as the “principal beneficiary” of the fraudulent issuance of letters of undertaking (LoUs) in the nearly USD 2 billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud and money laundering case.
“Taken overall, there is a broad consistency of evidence,” Judge Simler noted, as she accepted all the concerns raised by the CPS.
Modi’s legal team had rejected any of destruction of evidence by him and claimed that any mobile phones disposed of were only to avoid tracking rather than to destroy the material held on them. But the judge dismissed this assertion, accepting the CPS assertion that they were destroyed to obstruct the CBI and ED investigation.
“There is a compelling case that this was done to prevent the investigating agencies from obtaining relevant data,” the judge agreed.
Describing the case as one of a serious and substantial nature, she went on to ask a series of rhetorical questions on why certain actions were taken by Modi and his co-conspirators, including flying witnesses out of India to Cairo, Egypt.
“All 12 witnesses make similar allegations; they were threatened and kept in fear of the applicant’s assistants and brother [Nehal Modi]. Why was that necessary, I ask rhetorically at least in one case, a Mr Ashish Lad was offered a payment of GBP 22,000; there can be no possible legitimate reason for the offer of that payment, she noted.
The judge reiterated that the strength of the evidence will be tested when the District Judge begins hearing the arguments in the extradition trial, expected later in the year, to establish a prima facie case against the diamond merchant at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
But at this stage, she remained unconvinced that Modi did not intend to abscond to a jurisdiction that did not have an extradition treaty with India or that he would not continue to interfere with witnesses and evidence in the case.
There is compelling evidence of interference [with witnesses] in the past and a strong basis of reaching a conclusion on what will happen [in the future], the judge said, adding that Modi’s presence in the UK may have been fortuitous but she could not find any significant ties to the country that would prevent him from fleeing.
Summarising the background of the Indian government’s case against Modi, the judge noted that the 48-year-old jeweller is accused of using a sophisticated corporate structure to give a perception of legitimate trading while misusing the letters of undertaking to defraud PNB in a conspiracy involving staff members of the bank.
An arrest warrant was issued against him in May and then a second one in July last year, with an extradition request made to the UK authorities in August 2018.
The High Court judge accepted that while there is a presumption in favour of bail for a person facing extradition, that presumption is subject to exceptions which include substantial grounds for believing the Requested Person will fail to surrender. And, in Modi’s case she concluded that she did find such substantial grounds, which means he will remain at London’s Wandsworth prison one of England’s most overcrowded jails.
His legal team’s pleas related to his health, including confidential medical documents claiming a severe impact on his state of mind behind bars, also failed to sway the judge’s ruling.