A London court on Monday approved India’s request for the extradition of arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari to face trial for tax evasion and money laundering in India. The case now goes to UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman for her assent. The development is politically significant since the cases against Bhandari have links with Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi.
What are the allegations against Bhandari?
Bhandari is being investigated in multiple cases by the Delhi Police, Income Tax Department, CBI, and Enforcement Directorate (ED). He first came under the scanner in 2016, when IT raided his premises in connection with undeclared assets allegedly held by him abroad.
During the raid, IT stumbled upon classified documents of the Ministry of Defence, after which Delhi Police booked him under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
The raid also led to the discovery of documents related to Bhandari’s properties in London, which were suspected to be linked with Vadra. In 2017, the ED registered two cases against Bhandari under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
The CBI had already begun a preliminary enquiry (PE) in 2016 into Bhandari’s role in the signing of the Pilatus aircraft deal for the Indian Air Force with a Swiss firm, in which kickbacks were suspected to have been taken. By then, Bhandari had left India.
What is the ED case?
In December 2017, the ED seized assets — properties in South Delhi and gold jewellery — worth more than Rs 26 crore belonging to Bhandari in connection with the FEMA case. In a statement issued at the time, the ED said Bhandari had “…acquired movable/immovable assets worth more than Rs 150 crores outside India…, which included undisclosed deposits in foreign bank accounts in UAE in the various foreign currency denominations, beneficial ownership of companies incorporated in UAE”.
According to the ED, these companies were Offset India Solution FZC, Santech International FZC, Serra Dues Technologies, and Petro Global Technologies FZC. Bhandari’s alleged assets abroad also included flats in Dubai and the UK. “The investigation…has also revealed routing of funds in various companies of…Bhandari through accommodation entries provided by shell companies,” the ED said.
How is Vadra linked to Bhandari?
A year after seizing Bhandari’s assets, ED raided premises associated with Skylight Hospitality, a firm linked to Vadra, in connection with a case of money laundering that it had registered against Bhandari for holding undisclosed assets abroad.
According to the ED, which questioned Vadra several times, the matter was linked to a Petroleum Ministry deal in 2008 (during UPA rule), in which alleged kickbacks were received by a UK-based company named Santech, in which Bhandari was a director.
On June 13, 2009, in a single transaction, almost $49.9 lakh flowed into Santech’s account — and Bhandari used £1.9 million of this money to buy a property in London’s Bryanston Square that same year, the ED told a court.
Bhandari subsequently sold the property to an entity linked to Vadra in 2010 at the same price, even though he had carried out renovations that cost more than £65,000, the ED alleged.
Vadra has earlier denied any wrongdoing, and having any connection with the London property.
What was the Petroleum Ministry deal?
In 2006, ONGC incorporated a special purpose vehicle, ONGC Petro Additions Limited (OpaL), in partnership with Gas Authority of India Limited and Gujarat State Petroleum Corp, to build India’s largest petrochemical complex in Dahej, Gujarat, for $4.5 billion.
One of the projects in this complex was implemented by Samsung Engineering Ltd, which had hired Bhandari’s UAE-based consultancy, Santech International FZC, before it bagged the deal. After the contract was awarded in December 2008, Samsung paid $49.9 lakh to Santech on June 13, 2009.
ED has claimed that £1.9 million of this money was siphoned off into another company named Vortex, and then used by Bhandari to buy the Bryanston Square property, which is currently held by Skylight FZE. The company is promoted by one C C Thampi, who has been arrested by ED.
The late Murli Deora was Petroleum Minister when the deal was struck. In July 2020, based on information provided by ED, CBI registered a case of corruption against Bhandari, Samsung Engineering Ltd, and unknown officials of ONGC.
And what is the Pilatus case?
The case is related to alleged bribery in the 2012 deal for the purchase of 75 trainer aircraft from Swiss firm Pilatus Aircraft Ltd at a cost of Rs 2,895 crore. In its June 19, 2019 FIR, the CBI has made unknown IAF and Defence Ministry officials as the top accused followed by Bhandari, Pilatus, and Bhandari’s company Offset India Solutions Pvt Ltd.
The CBI’s PE in 2016 found Pilatus had signed a “Service Provider Agreement” with Offset India Solutions in June 2010, before the contract was awarded to Pilatus. This, the CBI has said, was in violation of defence procurement procedures.
CBI also found that Pilatus paid 10 lakh Swiss francs to Bhandari’s two companies before the deal, and another 4.98 crore Swiss francs afterward. According to the CBI, various companies allegedly linked to Bhandari also received cash payments of over Rs 64 crore post the deal through a maze of companies.
According to the CBI, Pilatus “dishonestly and fraudulently” concealed this fact while signing a Pre-Contract Integrity Pact on November 11, 2010 with the Ministry of Defence. It also concealed the fact about payments to Bhandari after it bagged the deal.
When will Bhandari be back in India?
Extradition from the UK can often take long. India had requested Bhandari’s extradition in 2019; the UK government forwarded this to the relevant court in June 2020, and Bhandari was arrested that July. It will likely be a few months before the Home Secretary gives her assent, after which Bhandari will have the option to appeal in a higher court.
PNB scam accused Nirav Modi was arrested in March 2019, his extradition was approved by the court in February 2021, and by the UK government in April 2021. However, he is yet to arrive in India. Vijay Mallya was arrested in October 2017 and all procedures were completed thereafter. He too is still to reach India.