- Mehul Choksi's Antigua citizenship was cleared much before CBI filed case
- Antigua had said it will honour India's request to extradite Mehul Choksi
- Choksi invested in the Caribbean island nation exchange for citizenship
Fugitive businessman Mehul Choksi's request for citizenship would have been rejected if the Antigua government had known about the charges against him in the PNB scam. Antigua Foreign Minister EP Chet Greene told NDTV on Saturday, promising his government's cooperation on an extradition request sent by India on a later date.
Mr Greene explained his government's offer of cooperation to its friendly relations with India and his government's interest in protecting its integrity and also the Citizenship Investment Program, or CIP, that seeks to tap into the estimated $ 2 billion global citizenship market.
Mehul Choksi had used this citizenship programme to invest in the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda in exchange for citizenship. The citizenship was cleared much before India's federal probe agency Central Bureau of Investigation registered the first PNB fraud case against Mehul Choksi and nephew Nirav Modi, a celebrity jeweller with star clients in India and abroad.
They have been accused of extracting loans abroad based on fake guarantees in the name of the Punjab National Bank, India's second-largest government bank.
"We would not have, and I want to be very clear, we would not have granted him citizenship of Antigua Barbuda had we known of the situation," Mr Greene told NDTV in an exclusive interview.
The citizenship had cost him just a little over Rs 1.3 crore, not such a big amount for some accused of fraud running into thousands of crores.
Indian agencies learnt of the move only six months after Mehul Choksi swore his oath of allegiance to the commonwealth country in the East Caribbean country.
In Mehul Choksi's new home, the controversy around his citizenship has sparked concerns that the country could get a reputation of being a safe haven for fugitives that could cost it visa-free access to some countries,
The Global Passport Power Rank 2018 places Antigua and Barbuda passport at the 22nd rank with visa-free access to 132 countries. India is at 68th rank with Morocco, with visa-free access to just 65.
Last year, Antigua had lost the privilege of visa-free access to Canada due to worries about its weak identity management practices.
Mr Greene said they checked every single applicant, not just Mehul Choksi, to ensure that there is nothing against them.
"Antigua and Barbuda citizenship programme did its due diligence on the gentleman... Those reports, those background checks have indicated that he was someone fit... for citizenship which he was granted in January this year. There was no indication from the background check done, of him having any kind of infractions, or anything of this nature in his character," the minister said.
The minister said the government was prepared to make the records of the background check public "because again, we want to prove that every step of the way acted properly".
"Because first of all, our desire is to protect the integrity of Antigua and Barbuda and of CIP programme," he said.
According to CIP statements, the government runs the applicant details past the database maintained by the international police body, Interpol, and the multilateral Crime and security management arm of Caribbean countries, CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security.
An Indian request to put out a red corner notice against Mehul Choksi is still pending with Interpol that has sought some clarifications. Earlier this month, the alert was issued to all countries against celebrity jeweller Nirav.
The notice is put out to ask countries to help with tracking down and arresting a wanted person, so that they can be extradited. It is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant.