Fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, fighting his extradition to India on charges over the nearly USD 2 billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud and money laundering case, has filed another plea for bail to be heard by the High Court in London on Thursday.
The 49-year-old, who has been lodged at Wandsworth Prison in south-west London since his arrest in March last year and is scheduled for an extradition trial in May, is making his fifth attempt at getting bail on the basis of a change in circumstances.
However, he had already appealed to the High Court last year and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), arguing on behalf of the Indian government, said it will be arguing that the latest application should be heard at Westminster Magistrates’ Court level.
“We think it should be heard at Westminster Magistrates’ Court and will be making that point,” a CPS spokesperson said.
“The bail application is regarding a change of circumstances. Modi has increased the security and offered more stringent bail conditions than last time,” the spokesperson said.
Last week, Modi appeared via videolink from his prison before Judge David Robinson at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court for his routine 28-day call-over remand hearing and was remanded in custody to appear again via videolink on March 24.
He has made three previous attempts for bail at the magistrates’ court offering 2 million pounds and then doubling that to 4 million pounds as security, rejected each time over fears that he would flee the country and fail to surrender before the court.
Meanwhile, the Royal Courts of Justice in London will hear his latest bail application and consider if there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the previous appeal before the same court in June last year.
During the last High Court bail plea, Justice Ingrid Simler had concurred with Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot to conclude that there are “substantial grounds” to believe that the diamond merchant would fail to surrender as he does possess the means to “abscond”.
She had also found strong evidence to suggest there had been interference with witnesses and destruction of evidence in the case and concluded it can still occur.
“There are still places in the world one can escape to, which are an even safer haven from the Indian investigating authorities,” she said, countering Modi’s lawyers’ assertion that he did not have any incentive to flee the UK as he sees it as a safe haven of justice.
During the previous bail hearings, Modi’s legal team has highlighted the “unliveable” circumstances of his prison and also raised concerns for his mental health.
Judge Arbuthnot presided over the last application in November last year, when his legal team had offered the court an “unprecedented bail package”, including house arrest conditions akin to those imposed on terrorist suspects, just so he could be out of what is one of England’s most overcrowded prisons.
James Lewis, appearing for the CPS, had challenged the bail application on the grounds that there had been no material change in circumstances from the previous occasions and stressed that Modi continued to possess the means and intention to flee the UK.
“He has said he will kill himself if his extradition is ordered, that in itself is the strongest motivation for someone to abscond,” noted Lewis.
Modi’s barrister, Hugo Keith, had argued a change in circumstances in the doubling of the security offered to the court, from the previous 2-million pounds to 4-million pounds, and also a privately-paid guard service to ensure constant monitoring alongside electronic tagging.
Besides his client’s mental state in Wandsworth Prison, he informed the court of an extortion attack when two inmates entered his cell and kicked him to the floor and punched him in the face.
“It is obvious that it was a targeted attack following renewed media coverage recently in which Modi is wrongly referred to as a billionaire diamantaire,” said Keith, accusing the Indian government of having “thoroughly blackened” Modi’s name as a “world-class schemer”.
He argued at length about the diamond merchant’s difficulties in preparing for his case from inside prison, where he is locked up “isolated and vulnerable” in a cell 22 hours a day.
The judge had offered to intervene with a direction to the prison authorities to allow him access to a computer in order for him to effectively prepare his defence in the case.
Modi was arrested on March 19, 2019, on an extradition warrant executed by Scotland Yard on charges brought by the Indian government. During subsequent hearings, Westminster Magistrates’ Court was told that Modi was the “principal beneficiary” of the fraudulent issuance of letters of undertaking (LoUs) as part of a conspiracy to defraud PNB and then laundering the proceeds of crime.
His extradition trial is scheduled between May 11 and 15 this year. Meanwhile, he has been appearing regularly via videolink before the magistrates’ court every 28 days until the case management hearings in the case kick in.
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