Probe agencies are still struggling to present a watertight case against him.
NEW DELHI: On 4 December, Christian Michel, an alleged key accused in the Rs 260 crore kickbacks related to the Rs 3,727 crore Agusta Westland helicopter tender, completed four years in prison.
Earlier, on 18 May, the legal team of Michel had moved the Supreme Court, seeking bail for him after the same was denied by the Delhi High Court on 11 March. The next date for his bail hearing is 11 January 2023 and after 12 hearing dates at the Supreme Court, in all likelihood, Michel is likely to get a bail as the investigating agencies are still struggling to present a water tight case against him.
Despite being in the custody of investigating agencies for such a long time, he is yet to be convicted in the case with the investigating agencies repeatedly stating to the court that they are still in the process of collecting “crucial documents” related to the case. Among the grounds given by his team to secure a bail for Michel is that he has spent more than four years in prison for an offence whose maximum punishment is seven years.
Michel was extradited to India on 4 December 2018 and taken into custody by the ED on 22 December. In the last hearing on 6 December, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud asked the Central Bureau of India (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) whether the fact that Michel was a foreign national justifies the complete deprivation of his liberty. The investigation in this case started nine years ago when the CBI registered an FIR in the case in March 2013 which was followed by the ED registering a case in July 2014.
Since then, not a single political entity—in a scam which was said to involve the highest offices of India and political leaders—have been arrested. “To be honest, I am not surprised. Indian agencies have a record of failing to secure conviction in most of the cases of alleged scam in arms deals. Pick up any case. The present case was registered nine years ago, the main accused in the case is in our custody for more than four years now and yet the CBI, as per its own arguments in the case, is yet to collect ‘crucial documents’. The SC, if it does so, will be in its right to give him the bail,” a former senior officer who handled the case very closely told The Sunday Guardian.
According to Sriram Parakkat, who is representing Michel, as per Section 436 A of the Criminal Procedure Code that deals with bail provisions, if an accused has completed half of the maximum sentence one can get, then he/she should mandatorily be granted bail. “The maximum sentence for the crime which he has been accused of is 7 years and he has already spent more than half of that time in jail. The Section related to forgery was added in the supplementary charge-sheet which carries life imprisonment. Against that, we have argued that Section 20 of Extradition Act prohibits charging any offence for which the accused has not extradited and Michel was not extradited from Dubai to India for forgery,” Parakkat told The Sunday Guardian.
Responding to the arguments of the CBI and ED that it needed Michel’s custody to recover crucial documents, Parrakat said that the agency had all the time to recover what they wanted. “From 2013, CBI and ED had been ‘searching’ for documents all around the globe. Until 2018, Michel was not incarcerated, there was no disturbance which Michel did to collect the documents. After all, what can he do? He’s just a speck in the universe compared to the all invasive, pervasive power of a state agency like CBI which can get other state governments to cooperate if diplomatic pressures are affected correctly,”.
The defence team of Michel, when asked about whether Michel has named anyone else as a co-accused in the scam while being in custody, refused to answer the question stating that it would “disturb the investigation and other processes”.
In an interview to The Sunday Guardian in January 2019—Christian Michel refuses to implicate Sonia in Agusta scam—Michel had told this newspaper that he was being asked by the CBI to implicate certain politicians in the case. The alleged scam had first come to light after Italian authorities began its investigation in 2011 regarding alleged payment of bribes through two middlemen—Christian Michel and Guido Ralph Haschke—in relation to supply of 12 VVIP helicopters by Agusta Westland to the Government of India.
When the allegations of bribery came to light, the contract dated 8 February 2010 was terminated by the Government of India on 1 January 2014. The fact that Italian courts tried and acquitted the other accused in the case, has also hampered the efforts of Indian agencies to build a strong case and prove that money was actually paid to prominent politicians.
“The CBI, ED have in their custody a person who they claim is a prime accused in the case. Then why have they not been able to move beyond him and arrest the people who took the bribe as the two agencies have been claiming? There can only be two reasons for this—either no bribe was paid as Michel has claimed or the agencies, for reasons best known to them, have not been able to establish the bribe trail for which you also need to show who were the recipients. In any case, the agencies, as of today, are on the backfoot,” a senior central government counsel, who has represented the government of India in similar cases, told The Sunday Guardian.