By Poonam Joshi
London [UK], May 12 (ANI): The extradition trial of fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi continued at the Westminster Magistrate's Court in Central London on Tuesday.
Given the social distancing rules in place as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, many of the participants joined the hearing via videolink -- including Helen Malcolm, lead counsel for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which is representing the Indian government and Modi himself, looking healthy and rested in an open-neck white shirt and black jacket.
He remained alternately calm, fidgety and bemused as the day wore on, even nodding off at one point before swiftly looking at some documents to refocus. He was also seen enjoying an apple at one point.
On Monday, the CPS laid out the Indian government's case against Modi, who was arrested in March 2019 in London and charged with money laundering and defrauding Punjab National Bank (PNB) of more than Rs 11,000 crore.
District Judge Goozee was told that Modi, 49, indulged in bribery, lies and threats in obtaining loans and lines of credits from the bank. He is also charged with engaging in a campaign of intimidation against whistleblowers and witnesses as well as a carefully orchestrated campaign of evidence destruction.
It was a case of deja vu at the court as Modi is represented by the formidable Clare Montgomery QC, the barrister, who represented the embattled liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya at the same court at the very start of his extradition trial.
Montgomery opened proceedings by stating that the PNB's allegations appeared "straightforward" but that they have not been able to provide the evidence to back those allegations.
The Indian government's case is "long on assertion and short on proof", she declared.
Among the defence team's tactics -- as in the case of Mallya -- is to claim prison conditions at Mumbai's Arthur Road jail will contravene Modi's basic rights. Montgomery claimed that assurances provided by the Indian government as to the standards of the jail were inadequate.
Overcrowding and medical facilities are getting worse, she claimed.
She also claimed that Modi has a "potentially serious mental health condition" and that he would be put in a vulnerable situation if sent to the jail which does not have the resources to provide the care that he would need, including potential suicide watch facilities.
Turning back to the case against Modi, Montgomery questioned how Modi could have managed to destroy evidence relating to the alleged fraud because its' very scale meant that documentary evidence would not only be held by Modi's companies and the bank but various government entities, as well as foreign banks.
Montgomery also questioned the veracity and authenticity of documents obtained by the Indian government and submitted as part of its case. Citing the government's claim that Modi colluded with a retired bank employee, Montgomery questioned how such a retired employee was able to download documents that would only be available to current employees.
The other issue addressed by Montgomery was the allegation that the entire fraud allegedly carried out by Modi and his companies was a "Ponzi Scheme" - that the companies applied for LOU's (Letters of Understanding) to cover previous LOU's.
Montgomery responded to that charge by pointing out to the court that accounts of the companies allegedly involved in the fraud showed cash flows that went up and down as any company's would and they remained solvent throughout the period of the alleged fraud.
This she claimed showed that it was not a Ponzi Scheme as such a scheme would involve continually declining cash flows which would then have to be replenished by further loans.
Instead, she contended that the companies remained solvent and financially healthy until PNB itself ceased extending them credit facilities. "These are losses created by PNB itself," Montgomery stated.
She also contended that there is a clear "accounting trail" for transactions that are now alleged to have been fraudulent.
She pointed out that for instance, transfers to US dollar accounts held by PNB -- transfers that the bank now says it does not recognise or claim are fraudulent -- could not have been carried without the bank's express knowledge.
In another remarkable echo of a contention made by Montgomery during the extradition trial of Vijay Mallya, she accused the Indian government of "copying and pasting" witness statements.
Citing witness statements obtained by police in Mumbai in relation to charges of witness intimidation by Modi, she pointed to glaring similarities in the statements that could "reasonably assumed" to have been given by different individuals at different times.
There was high drama towards the end of the day's proceedings when a video was shown to the judge by the Crown Prosecution Service. Due to technical difficulties, it was not made available to journalists who could only listen into the audio intermittently.
The court was told that it had been recorded in June 2018 and purported to show several men claiming that they had been forced to sign "witness statements" by unknown figures or officials "under duress".
The men also claim that they had been forced to "flee Dubai" to an unspecified third country, that their "passports were confiscated" and that they had "made up" statements because they wanted to return home to India.
One man is heard on the video claiming they were threatened that "the CBI will hang you upside down and beat you up" if they did not comply.
Another can be heard saying, "We were scared to stay and wanted to go home so we signed so that we could have our passports back and we could return to India. But 95 per cent of the statements we made were false. They were made under duress."
The men also claim that they had only been "working for Modi for less than a year" and they were "fearful for their lives". They also claim that their mobile phones were "destroyed."
However, due to the videolink system and the court's failure to link members of the press into the video, ANI is unable to independently verify to whom the men are referring.
A full transcript of the video and its background is expected from the CPS in due course.
The trial is expected to continue until Friday and there is speculation that the Government of India is preparing to submit further evidence against Modi on Wednesday. (ANI)