June 2, 2021 4:10:28 am
Fugitive jeweller Mehul Choksi, key accused in the Rs-13,000-crore PNB loan fraud case, was recently arrested in Dominica by authorities there after he was found to have illegally entered the country from Antigua, where he had been staying since 2018. India has now sent a team of eight officials, including from the CBI and the Ministry of External Affairs, to secure Choksi’s deportation to India. A private jet is said to have reached Dominica on May 28 to ferry him back to India. But the matter is now facing a legal hurdle with the jeweller’s lawyers approaching Dominica’s Supreme Court, which has stayed his movement out of the country and is set to hear the matter on Wednesday.
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What is the legal hurdle?
Choksi’s legal team has asserted that contrary to claims made by Antiguan authorities, the jeweller did not flee Antigua but was abducted by laying a honey trap. The legal team has claimed Choksi was befriended by a woman over the last six months, called to an apartment in Antigua on May 23, and abducted by a group of men from there. He was then allegedly beaten up and forced into a yacht before being ferried to Dominica.
While Antiguan PM Gaston Brown has told media that Choksi can be deported to India from Dominica itself, Choksi’s lawyers have argued that he cannot be sent back to India as he is not an Indian citizen anymore. Choksi acquired Antiguan citizenship in 2017, just over a month before he fled India in January 2018, and has even surrendered his Indian passport.
What is India’s case then?
Sources in Indian agencies pursuing Choksi say he may have surrendered his passport, but India has not accepted this and a certificate of surrender of passport has not been issued. More importantly, they say Interpol has issued a Red Notice against Choksi for financial crimes committed in India, and this would be argued in court. India has already sent all relevant case papers to Dominica.
What does the law say?
As far as Choksi’s citizenship is concerned, the law is very clear: India does not allow dual citizenship. According to Section 9 of the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, any Indian citizen who acquires foreign citizenship ceases to be an Indian citizen.
“Any citizen of India who by naturalisation, registration, otherwise voluntarily acquires, or has at any time between the 26th January, 1950 and the commencement of this Act, voluntarily acquired the citizenship of another country shall, upon such acquisition or, as the case may be, such commencement, cease to be a citizen of India,” Section 9 says.
The only exception when this law does not apply is when the two concerned countries are at war with each other.
Neither the Act nor the Citizenship Rules of 2009 specify any procedure required for termination of citizenship in case of acquisition of foreign citizenship. Legal experts say the law is clear that Indian citizenship will cease to exist the moment one acquires foreign citizenship.
So, for all practical purposes, Choksi remains an Antiguan citizen even though the government there has begun a legal process to revoke his citizenship; this has been challenged in an Antiguan court by the jeweller.
What about his Indian passport?
According to the Ministry of External Affairs, as per the Passports Act 1967, it is mandatory for all Indian passport holders to surrender their passports to the nearest Indian Mission/Post immediately after acquisition of foreign nationality. Misuse of Indian passports constitutes an offence under Section 12(1A) of the Passports Act 1967. “The Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, does not allow dual citizenship… The Government of India has prescribed imposition of penalty on a graded scale, depending on number of trips made on Indian passport after acquiring foreign nationality, for the violation of Passport Rules and retention of Indian Passport for more than three years after acquiring of foreign nationality,” the Ministry says on its website.
Sources, however, said the law’s intent is to prevent a person from using an Indian passport for travel after acquiring foreign citizenship. “Some countries, which do not allow dual citizenship, insist on surrender of the Indian passport before formalising citizenship of their country. However, this is not the case with Antigua. In any case, it is immaterial whether you have surrendered your Indian passport or not. If a foreign country has granted you citizenship, under Indian law you cease to remain an Indian citizen,” said a former official of the Ministry of External Affairs who has dealt with passport issues.
What can India hope for then?
India’s best chance of getting Choksi back to India is to convince the Dominican court that it has a strong legal case against him and that he is a fugitive. Sources said India would also argue that his sole intention of acquiring Antiguan citizenship was to escape the clutches of the law in India.
“That he has an Interpol notice against him is good enough ground to hand him over to India. As far as the issue of his being beaten up is concerned, it is not associated with us. We don’t know who has beaten him up,” an official said. Another official argued that even Christian Michel, accused in the VVIP helicopter case, was brought to India from the UAE where he was staying as a British citizen. There, however, India followed extradition proceedings in court that dragged on for over a year. India does not have an extradition treaty with Dominica.
The Indian team could face hurdles in the face of Choksi’s legal team alleging human rights violations and suggesting a planned extra-judicial extraction on part of Indian and Antiguan authorities. Wide media coverage of the entire episode and serious injuries sustained by Choksi could also play a part in court.
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