Fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, fighting extradition to India on charges over the nearly USD 2 billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud and money laundering case, is set to be produced before a UK court for his trial on Monday, to take place in a part-remote setting due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The 49-year-old jeweller, who has been lodged at Wandsworth Prison in south-west London since his arrest in March last year, is expected to be produced physically at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London. However, given the social distancing measures being followed by prisons and courts, District Judge Samuel Goozee had conceded that an alternative would be for him to be produced via videolink.
"Some prisons are producing prisoners in person, so I will direct Wandsworth Prison to produce Modi in person for the trial from May 11. If that is not practicable, his participation by live link remains a backstop," Judge Goozee said at the last remand hearing in the case on April 28.
It has been agreed that a limited number of legal representatives will be present physically in court for the trial, while witnesses give their evidence via videolink. Modi will be able to observe the proceedings either from the dock, if the prison authorities agree to a physical transfer, or via the judiciary's common viewing system (CVP) from Wandsworth Prison.
The five-day hearing starting on Monday relates to the Indian government's extradition request certified by the UK government last year. The case has been filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and relates to a large-scale fraud upon an Indian PSU through the fraudulent obtaining of letters of understanding (LoUs) and the laundering of the proceeds of that fraud.
Two additional charges of "causing the disappearance of evidence" and intimidating witnesses or "criminal intimidation to cause death" were added on by the CBI and certified earlier this year. "The May 11 extradition hearing is going ahead and the new request (two additional offences part of the CBI case) has not been joined but will be dealt with at a separate later hearing, probably in July," said the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), appearing on behalf of the Indian authorities.
CPS barrister Nick Hearn told the court at the last hearing in April, held via tele-conference, that the government of India's representatives would be following the proceedings and giving instructions via the court's online common viewing platform, given the COVID-19 related travel restrictions. "We have received comprehensive responses in writing from the government of India, which would reduce the likely length of cross-examinations," said Hearn.
It was also confirmed that the diamond merchant would not be giving evidence in the case, but his legal team plans to produce around six witnesses, including a jewellery expert as well as judicial and prisons experts. Most of the legal cases in the UK have incorporated videolink and telephonic options where possible amid the social distancing rules in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Modi, whose Wandsworth Prison is considered one of the most over-crowded in England, had made a fifth attempt at bail in the High Court last month, which was rejected as the judge ruled that he continued to pose a flight risk. The jeweller was arrested on March 19, 2019, on an extradition warrant executed by Scotland Yard on charges of fraud and money laundering brought by the Indian government.