London: The UK High Court on Wednesday rejected Nirav Modi’s bail application, his fourth attempt as the diamond merchant fights his extradition from Britain to India in the nearly USD 2 billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud and money laundering case.
In her judgment handed down at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Justice Ingrid Simler concluded there are “substantial grounds” to believe that the 48-year-old fugitive diamantaire would fail to surrender as he does possess the means to “abscond”.
Reiterating similar concerns as those raised by the lower court in the UK during previous bail hearings, Judge Simler ruled that after considering all the material “carefully”, she had found strong evidence to suggest there had been interference with witnesses and destruction of evidence in the case and concluded it can still occur.
“The applicant has access to considerable financial resources, supported by an increased (bail bond security) offer of 2 million pounds,” the Judge noted.
“It is difficult, in my judgement, to see how the UK is a safe haven as there is no case of him being tried here 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.
The judge stressed that while it was not for her to take a “definitive view” on the evidence, she had proceeded on the basis that the government of India has acted in good faith in what is “undoubtedly” a serious case and a “sophisticated international conspiracy” to defraud together with money laundering.
Simler concluded that it is “difficult to predict how Modi would react to developments in the extradition process, which raises a “strong incentive” of failure to surrender before the UK courts to avoid returning to India.
“All 12 witnesses make similar allegations they were threatened and kept in fear in all these circumstances, there is compelling evidence that the applicant [Modi] and those acting on his behalf have sought to interfere and destroy evidence,” the judge noted.
She also accepted the Westminster Magistrates’ Court concerns that the diamond merchant had been based in the UK for only a short period of time and had no significant ties to the country, making him a flight risk.
Modi, who was not produced before the court for the latest bail hearing, remains in custody at Wandsworth prison in London and is due to appear for his next remand hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court via videolink on June 27.
At the High Court bail hearing on Tuesday, Modi’s legal team had repeated many of its assertions from previous three bail pleas before Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot at Westminster Magistrates’ Court to claim that their client was not a substantial flight risk, as claimed by the Indian government.
“Modi is not (Wikileaks co-founder) Julian Assange who sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy, but just an ordinary Indian jeweller. There is no evidence to show that he would do the prohibitive things listed (such as interfere with witnesses),” said Clare Montgomery, Modi’s barrister, as she once again offered to abide by “ostensibly harsh” conditions to be able to stay within a curfew at his lavish Centrepoint apartment in central London.
A reference was also made in court about the diamond merchant’s troubled state of mind while lodged at Wandsworth prison, as laid out in “confidential” documents which were not disclosed due to a court order.
The circumstances he has had to endure at Wandsworth have been personally difficult and the confidential exhibits reflect the experience that has marked him deeply, said Montgomery.
The reality is that he is not the cold-blooded hardened criminal as claimed by the government of India but a jewellery designer from a long line of diamond dealers, and regarded as being honest, careful and reliable, she said, adding that a number of individuals were willing to offer sureties and substantial sums to back up the claim that Modi is not a man who plans to run.
However, the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), arguing on behalf of the Indian government, reiterated the stand that it was at this stage that Modi posed a significant flight risk and had significant funds at his disposal to be able to flee to a country with which India did not have an extradition treaty.
“The government of India has strong, friendly bilateral relations with the UK, including an extradition treaty, and this case involves widespread allegations which have been submitted in good faith by Indian authorities, said CPS barrister Nicholas Hearn, who argued that the threat of Modi interfering with witnesses and destruction of evidence continued to loom as part of the ongoing investigations.
He also reiterated that while Modi’s legal team has attempted to characterise the case as a commercial matter, the Indian investigations carried out at high levels by two agencies the CBI and ED prove that it is a serious criminal case.
The judge had concluded that such a case usually “has a presumption of bail in the absence of strong evidence” and that she would be proceeding on the basis that the Indian judicial and investigating authorities are acting in good faith.
Modi, who has remained behind bars in judicial custody since his arrest in March, had the automatic right to file an application in the higher court and did not require permission to appeal.
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