After a year-long trial, a UK court is expected to decide on fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya's extradition case today. The 62-year-old, who has been on bail since his arrest on an extradition warrant last year, is scheduled to appear at the Westminster Magistrates' Court later today.
A team of officials led by the CBI's Joint Director, S. Sai Manohar, along with two officials of the Enforcement Directorate, left for London yesterday to attend this crucial hearing, sources told PTI. Manohar has replaced Special Director Rakesh Asthana, who had been attending the trial till the government sent him on forced leave, divesting him of all powers following his bitter feud with CBI Director Alok Verma.
What is Mallya accused of?
Mallya was the flamboyant promoter of Kingfisher Airlines, which was grounded in 2012. Mallya, his airline and its holding company, United Breweries Holdings, were tagged as wilful defaulters two years later. He is now wanted in India on alleged fraud and money laundering charges amounting to an estimated Rs 9,000 crore.
Mallya managed to escape to the United Kingdom in March 2016, allegedly by taking advantage of the dilution in a CBI lookout notice against him.
The lengthy court battle
The trial, which kicked-off on December 4, 2017, has gone through a series of hearings beyond the initial seven days earmarked for it. It opened with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) team, led by Mark Summers, laying out the Indian government's prima facie case of fraud and money laundering against Mallya. Summers sought to establish a "blueprint of dishonesty" against the embattled businessman and that there are "no bars to [his] extradition" on human rights grounds.
The CPS further argued that Mallya never intended to repay the loans he sought in the first place because Kingfisher Airlines' demise was inevitable.
The former King of Good Times has contested his extradition on the grounds that the case against him is "politically motivated".
His defence team, led by Clare Montgomery, deposed a series of experts in an attempt to prove that the erstwhile Kingfisher Airlines' alleged default of bank loans was the result of business failure rather than "dishonest" and "fraudulent" activity by its owner. She attempted to establish that the airline was suffering from consequences of a wider global financial crisis around 2009-2010 and that its failure was a result of factors beyond the company's control.
The court was also told that a consortium of Indian banks, led by the State Bank of India (SBI), rejected an offer by the liquor baron in early 2016 to pay back nearly 80 per cent of the principal loan amount owed to them.
The defence team, furthermore, had attempted to dispute Indian prison conditions as a bar to Mallya's extradition on human rights grounds, saying Indian jails do not have proper air and light. Although India had adhered to Judge Emma Arbuthnot's request for a video of the cell awaiting Mallya in Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail - Barrack 12 to be precise - Prime Minister Narendra Modi had subsequently voiced his displeasure over the request. "We still have the prisons where they [the Britishers] jailed our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru," Modi told his British counterpart Theresa May, adding that it was not for UK courts to question conditions in Indian jails.
In June, a week after he became the first person to be tried under India's new Fugitive Economic Offenders Ordinance, Mallya came out with a five-page letter that he claimed to have sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in April 2016, without receiving any response. In his statement at the time, he said that the letter promised to settle his dues with the Indian banks, and claimed he was ready to pay up the pending salaries of the Kingfisher Airlines (KFA) employees through the use of interest accruing on deposits of Rs 1,280 crore submitted with the Karnataka High Court since 2013.
More recently, Mallya took to Twitter to protest being labelled a wilful defaulter, stating that the loans were taken in a failed attempt to keep the airline afloat. "I did not borrow a single rupee. The borrower was Kingfisher Airlines. Money was lost due to a genuine and sad business failure. Being held as guarantor is not fraud," he tweeted last week. "I have offered to repay 100 per cent of the principal amount to them. Please take it," read another tweet.
He has also denied any links between his offer and Judge Arbuthnot's upcoming ruling today, or for that matter Choppergate scandal accused Christian James Michel's recent extradition from Dubai. "Respectfully to all commentators, I cannot understand how my extradition decision or the recent extradition from Dubai and my settlement offer are linked in any way. Wherever I am physically, my appeal is "Please take the money". I want to stop the narrative that I stole money," Mallya further tweeted.
What happens next?
According to barrister-at-law Muthupandi Ganesan, who is an extradition expert, if the Westminster Magistrates Court orders Mallya's extradition today, the matter will first go to the Secretary of State Sajid Javid. The latter will decide to agree or disagree with the verdict.
If Javed agrees with the extradition decision, Mallya can first appeal in the High Court followed by the Supreme Court. India should not get excited about a positive verdict because the above process will take about 18 months or more, explained Ganesan. Similarly, the crown prosecution can appeal to the High Court and later to the Supreme Court if Javed disregards an extradition verdict passed by the court.
"In case the concerned individual does not file an appeal, and Secretary of State agrees with the magistrate's decision, then the individual must be extradited from the UK within 28 days of the Home Secretary's extradition order," said Pavani Reddy, a UK-based legal expert and Managing Partner of Zaiwalla & Co.
However, if Judge Arbuthnot today rules that Mallya is not to be extradited, the crown prosecution on behalf of the Indian government can appeal to the UK High Court straight away. According to Ganesan, they won't have to take the Secretary of State route before appealing against the decision. All eyes are on the UK Court now.
With PTI inputs
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