A UK judge, presiding over fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi's extradition case over the estimated USD 2-billion PNB fraud and money laundering charges brought by India, rejected an application seeking a partial reporting ban at the start of a five-day trial here on Monday.
District Judge Samuel Goozee dismissed the application after hearing representations in what he called a "high profile case in India", including from members of the press present at Westminster Magistrates' Court who stressed the importance of free and fair reporting of the proceedings.
Modi's barrister, Clare Montgomery, applied for the partial restriction with reference to a BJP press conference held in India in May, giving "unfair commentary" on the evidence given by former Indian High Court Judge Abhay Thipsay during the first part of the extradition trial.
Thipsay, as a member of the Congress party, was accused of "party political bias" in his expert legal opinion, which challenged the Indian government's case.
"Having gone over the transcript of the press conference, I am satisfied it was given in a political context... opinions of politicians and commentary outside these proceedings are of no regard (to the case)," said Justice Goozee, as he concluded that there was no evidence of a substantial risk to the administration of justice which would necessitate restrictions on the media.
Modi's legal team have instead sought a written assurance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), representing the Indian authorities in the extradition proceedings, that there would be no government commentary on further evidence given by Thipsay, scheduled via a videolink on Wednesday.
CPS barrister Helen Malcolm agreed to address the request and went on to lay out the Indian government's case of intimidation against Modi.
A video was played in court to highlight the diamond merchant's role in coercion and death threats against so-called "dummy directors" linked to the companies he owned.
Meanwhile, Modi observed the proceedings from a room in his Wandsworth Prison cell in south-west London, frequently referring to documents before him and making notes.
The 49-year-old jeweller, who has been behind bars since his arrest in March last year, appeared via a video-link dressed in a dark suit and sporting beard and moustache.
Representatives from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) were in court and logged into the remote court network to observe the CPS present their case.
The hearings this week are earmarked to complete arguments on the prima facie case against Modi after the Indian government submitted additional "corroboratory evidence" in May.
It will then go on to deal with the additional extradition request, made by the Indian authorities and certified by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel earlier this year, which add on the charges of "causing the disappearance of evidence" and intimidating witnesses or "criminal intimidation to cause death" against Modi.
In line with the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Judge Goozee had directed Modi's appearance from prison, with social distancing norms in place for the part-remote setting of the hearings.
He had presided over the first leg of the extradition in May, during which the CPS sought to establish a prima facie case of fraud and money laundering against Modi.
The judge has already said that the separate extradition requests are inextricably linked, and he would therefore be handing down his judgment at the end of hearing all the arguments.
Additional hearings scheduled for November 3, for the judge to rule on the admissibility of the evidence that will be presented before him, and December 1, when both sides will make their final submissions, mean his ruling on whether Modi has a case to answer before the Indian courts is expected only after the final hearing in December.
The charges against the diamond merchant centre around his firms Diamonds R Us, Solar Exports and Stellar Diamonds making fraudulent use of a credit facility offered by the Punjab National Bank (PNB), known as "letters of undertaking" (LoUs).
The CPS has told the court that a number of PNB staff conspired with Modi to ensure LoUs were issued to his companies without ensuring they were subject to the required credit check, without recording the issuance of the LoUs and without charging the required commission upon the transactions.
Modi's team has sought to counter allegations of fraud by deposing witnesses to establish the volatility of the gems trade and that the LoUs were standard practice.
Modi has made repeated attempts at bail over the past year, each of which were turned down as he is deemed a flight risk.
The jeweller was arrested on March 19 last year on an extradition warrant executed by Scotland Yard.