A court in the UAE is examining whether Christian Michel, a UK citizen living in Dubai, can be extradited to a third country — India, where Michel is wanted in connection with the Rs 3,600-crore VVIP helicopter scam. Michel was among the alleged middlemen who brokered the deal and who, investigators claim, paid bribes to officials and politicians to swing the contract in favour of AgustaWestland, the British arm of Italian firm Finmeccanica. A look back at the scam, and Michel’s alleged role:
The helicopter deal
In 1999, the Indian Air Force floated a proposal for acquisition of 12 VVIP helicopters to ferry top government functionaries. In 2010, the deal was granted to AgustaWestland for over Rs 3,600 crore. This was, however, followed by allegations that technical specifications had been tweaked — including lowering of the service ceiling of the helicopter from 6,000 m to 4,500 m —to help AgustaWestland qualify and win the bid, for which bribes were allegedly paid.
The CBI filed an FIR on March 14, 2013, after a preliminary inquiry. The FIR named former IAF chief S P Tyagi and 12 other individuals as accused, apart from four companies. These individuals included members of the Tyagi family and three middlemen — Michel, Carlo Gerosa and Guido Haschke. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) too began investigations under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
Money & companies
According to the CBI and ED investigations, in the offset category (work to be mandatorily done in India), AgustaWestland set aside 70 million euros to be transferred to companies floated by the alleged middlemen. While Michel set up Global Services FZE in Dubai, Haschke set up IDS Tunisia, IDS Mauritius and Aeromatrix. In various chargesheets, investigators have claimed that Michel was supposed to get 42 million euros and Haschke 28 million euros.
“The real deal was that of the 70 million euros, only 30% would be utilised for actual work including engineering services and media handling while the rest would be diverted to pay bribes,” an investigator said. The CBI has alleged that Indian officials were paid bribes of Rs 362 crore to swing the deal in favour of the Anglo-Italian firm.
Out of the amount Michel was reportedly to get, 30 million euros was allegedly meant to be kickbacks. Out of this, 24 million was paid before the deal was cancelled, according to the ED chargesheet.
Investigations have found that while Gerosa and Haschke allegedly paid off members of the Tyagi family, Michel was dealing with Ministry of Defence bureaucrats and politicians. It is for this that Indian agencies have been chasing Michel. If he is indeed brought to India, it could potentially cause a political storm, since Italian probe authorities claim to have discovered a handwritten note that mentioned payments against code words such as “pol”, “Bur” and “Family”. Michel, however, has claimed in media interviews that the note was fake and prepared by Haschke.
As reported in The Indian Express earlier, the ED chargesheet says Michel sent cash packets to various people through his driver and regularly met various Indian entities, including cousins of Tyagi, while brokering the deal. He also bought and sold a string of properties in Delhi, which included a farmhouse in Chhatarpur and a showroom in DLF Emporio Mall in Vasant Kunj.
Dinner: During the time that flight evaluation trials for equipment were going on in Italy, Michel tried to host a dinner for Indian Navy officials in a hotel where the contingent was staying, the ED chargesheet says. It says Michel paid 2,500 euros to AgustaWestland employee Vivek Nagpal to host lunch and dinner. The Navy contingent declined the offer but Nagpal insisted and paid for one dinner, it claims. In Nagpal’s statement to the ED (as reported in the chargesheet), Michel was keen to get details about certain government payments made to AgustaWestland for Sea King helicopters used by the Navy. In 2014, Michel asked him to find out whether certain documents had reached the CBI.
Flight simulators: The chargesheet claims that Vivek Nagpal was paid Rs 15 lakh in cash in 2011 as a loan which was never repaid, and another Rs 10 lakh in 2012 to be given to one Anil Arora. “The reason for payment to Arora was that AgustaWestland proposed to IAF to have six axis full flight simulators for training of pilots on regular basis… to run it as an offset programme, save flying hours, fuel and spare parts etc… Christian Michel James assured that he would give the work of simulator project to Arora’s company if Indian Air Force approves for change of offset programme to simulator programme,” the chargesheet says.
Companies: The alleged payments to Michel flowed into his companies including Global Services FZE and Media Exim. According to the ED, none of the companies conducted any business for the money received nor delivered on the obligation of their contracts but were actually laundering kickbacks. The chargesheet notes that though Media Exim was set up as an export company, the only thing it ever sent out was Punjabi music CDs on demand from Michel himself. It received Rs 6.33 crore from Global Services for virtually doing nothing. The chargesheet says the company merely bought properties, jewellery and paintings which were later sold. The assets it bought included a flat each in Safdarjung Enclave (Rs 54 lakh) and DLF-Gurgaon (Rs 75 lakh), farmhouse at Satbari-Chhatarpur (Rs 1 crore), paintings of S H Raza and others (Rs 16.6 lakh), cars (Rs 30 lakh) and jewellery (Rs 350 lakh). These properties, except the one in Safdarjung, were later sold by Michel before he fled India in February 2012. The chargesheet says another company linked to Michel, Global Trade and Commerce Ltd, UK, raised invoices of 18.2 million euros to buy back obsolete Pawan Hans helicopters without ever making the purchase.
In July this year, Michel’s lawyer Rosemary Patrizi and his sister Sasha Ozeman told media that Michel had been detained by authorities in Dubai and CBI officials had interrogated him. They claimed the officials had put pressure on him to sign on a confession that said he had met UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi when the deal was being negotiated.
The CBI had denied this and said, “Christian Michel James was arrested in February 2017 by UAE. He was not arrested this year as claimed by the defence lawyer. CBI team has not examined the fugitive Christian Michel James nor has it influenced or pressurised him to extract confession.”
Michel has in the past denied having met any member of the Gandhi family in connection with the case. His lawyer has claimed that Michel refused to sign the alleged confession because he had never met Sonia Gandhi.
Even if the UAE court clears his extradition, Michel has the option of challenging the order in a higher court in the UAE. If the order is again in favour of Indian agencies, he can appeal to the UAE government.