The CBI has asked an Interpol body to restore the Red Notice against fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi, saying its decision to drop his name from the list was based on mere "imaginary conjunctures and unproven surmises" and had serious shortcomings, overreach of mandate and mistakes.
Red Notice is the highest level of alert by the 195-member strong International Police cooperation organisation Interpol to locate and provisionally arrest a fugitive pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI) said the Commission for Control of Interpol's Files (CCF) removed Mr Choksi's name from the Red Notice list in November 2022. The removal of the notice means Mr Choksi can freely travel out of Antigua and Barbuda where he is holed up after fleeing from India in 2018.
The statement was issued by the CBI a day after the media reported the CCF decision that came as a setback to Indian investigating agencies and triggered a huge political uproar.
Based on repeated appeals from Mr Choksi, who is wanted in the Rs 13,000 crore bank fraud in Punjab National Bank, the CCF removed his name from the Red Notice list in November 2022, it said.
The statement said the CBI has taken up with CCF the serious shortcomings, procedural violations, overreach of mandate and mistakes committed by CCF in the manner of reaching this unfounded and perfunctory decision.
Based on new information and serious errors in the decision, the CBI is taking steps for the decision of CCF to be revised, the agency said.
"The CBI continues to exercise available remedial and appellate options within INTERPOL for rectification of this faulty decision and for restoration of Red Notice." The CCF has subsequently clarified to the CBI that its decision "in no manner has any determination on any guilt or innocence of Choksi" for crimes he remains charged in India, the agency added.
The CCF which had removed Mr Choksi's name from the list of fugitives based on his appeal last year is a separate Interpol body which is "not under the control" of the Interpol Secretariat and is mainly staffed by elected lawyers from different countries where people can challenge decisions to declare them fugitives, the CBI statement said.
The Congress hit out at the Union government over the CCF decision, saying while the Opposition was being targeted by the Enforcement Directorate(ED) and the CBI, its "friend" was being let off.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said talk of patriotism by those giving "protection" to such people is a "joke".
In a tweet, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said, "'Vipaksh ko ED, CBI, Mitr ko rihaai' (ED, CBI for the Opposition, let off for friend)." "They are doing things to divert attention from real issues. Our embassies are being attacked. People who have run away with money from banks, Mehul Choksi, those giving protection to such people talk about patriotism, it is a joke." Mr Kharge told reporters. "We will ask the government to clarify on this." The Aam Aadmi Part(AAP) also accused the government of trying to save Choksi.
AAP Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson Raghav Chadha claimed that Mr Choksi's name was removed from the Interpol's Red Notices as Indian probe agencies failed to provide “concrete evidence” of the charges slapped on him.
The CCF which had rejected two previous appeals of Mr Choksi -- in 2018, to not publish his name on the Red Notice list and in 2020, to remove his name from the list --agreed with his fresh plea in 2022, a year after an alleged abduction attempt from Antigua and Barbuda, the agency said.
Before arriving at any decision, the CCF hears the agencies that have sought an absconder's fugitive status. The CBI was also asked to provide its input on Mr Choksi's appeal.
"It was clarified (by the CBI) that the desperately wanted criminal Mehul Chinubhai Choksi has been making all possible attempts to derail ongoing extradition proceedings in Antigua and Barbuda, to evade the process of law in India. However, based on mere imaginary conjunctures and unproven surmises, a five-member CCF chamber has taken a decision on the deletion of Red Notice, communicated in November 2022," the CBI said.
The CCF has also reiterated that "it has not established factual certainties and there is no factual finding in their decision that Mehul Chinubhai Choksi will not have fair trial", it added.
Mr Choksi had fled from India in the first week of January 2018, days before the Rs 13,000 crore fraud in the PNB was detected. At the request of the CBI and the ED, Interpol included his name in the list of most wanted fugitives called Red Notice in December 2018.
"It may be noted that Mehul Chinubhai Choksi was already located prior to the publication of the Interpol Red Notice and steps were also initiated for his extradition. Although the primary purpose of Red Notice was already achieved, the same was retained as a precautionary measure," the CBI said.
The CBI issued a diffusion notice to locate Choksi in February 2018. His movements were tracked by the CBI in close direct coordination with foreign law enforcement agencies, and he was located in Antigua and Barbuda where he had taken citizenship, a year before he escaped from India.
"Extradition request against Mehul Chinubhai Choksi was sent through diplomatic channels to competent authorities of Antigua and Barbuda in August 2018." The CBI had booked Choksi on February 15, 2018, and after the CCF decision came, the agency slapped fresh FIRs against him.
"The CBI has already filed two charge sheets in the case against wanted criminal Mehul Choksi and others...Subsequently in 2022, CBI registered five more criminal cases against Mehul Choksi and others for defrauding banks and financial institutions," it said.
The agency said that when extradition proceedings were going on against Mr Choksi in Antigua and Barbuda, he started approaching various international forums with fully concocted and imaginary narratives to create diversions.
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