Down but not yet out

Three high-profile figures from the subcontinent are fighting extradition. Loveena Tandon attended the recent hearings

It’s been an incredible summer for journalists covering the ‘3M’ extradition cases. Not only did these court cases keep my diary choc-a-bloc; they were also masterclasses in human psychology.

The ‘3M’s in question are tycoon Vijay Mallya, a former member of India’s Upper House of Parliament accused of defrauding banks to the tune of Rs 9,000 crore; fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, wanted by Interpol for embezzlement and corruption, among other charges; and Jabir Moti, an alleged senior member of D-Company, an organised crime network run by Mumbai underworld boss Dawood Ibrahim.

While Mallya and Modi stand accused of white-collar crimes, Moti is linked with darker, more violent deeds. What all three men have in common is that, having once flown so high in their respective societies, today they face disgrace, extradition and the prospect of lengthy jail terms.

Courtroom 3 at Westminster Magistrates Court was the setting for Vijay Mallya’s July 2 plea for permission to appeal against the extradition order which would see him returned to India to face serious fraud charges. One application for leave to appeal had already been rejected in April and Mr Mallya, the strain showing behind his eyes, sat in the public gallery awaiting this crucial judgement. Despite the accusations against him, I could not help but feel a rush of pity at seeing this proud, spirited man brought so low

I spotted Mr Mallya’s partner Pinky clutching a special beaded necklace used for doing ‘jap’. Always immaculately dressed, Pinky has never missed a single hearing. (I can say that with confidence, as neither have I.) She always follows the proceedings diligently and never utters a word to any of us journalists, though she occasionally offers a courteous smile if our eyes meet.

Most times, Pinky tries her best not to betray her feelings. But July 2 was different. I could sense her tension, as well as Mr Mallya’s. Clearly feeling the pressure too were his barristers, Claire Montgomery QC and Anand Doobay, who have endured a long series of setbacks in Mallya’s case, as well as in that of Nirav Modi, whom they are also representing.

When the two-judge bench granted permission to appeal on one count of admissibility of evidence in the prima facie case, I could hear the sigh of relief. I have rarely seen Ms Montgomery really smile but that day her face lit up as she turned to her team and said, ‘I am happy.’

On his way out Mr Mallya encountered all of us reporters, as per usual. Unlike on other occasions, this time he walked straight up to us with an ‘I-told-you-so’ attitude, though I felt he looked more relieved than happy. It was as if a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders – at least for the time being. The matter of his extradition has, after all, been delayed rather than resolved.

Trouble likes company, and the next morning Mr Mallya shared his thoughts about the case on Twitter. He wants to start afresh, move on after paying back the banks and the employees.

I wonder if Nirav Modi, indicted in the Rs 13,700-crore Punjab National Bank fraud, ever contemplates a ‘new start’ as he undertakes his daily routine in Wandsworth Prison, washing up, cleaning his own toilet and performing chores to earn a meagre weekly wage. While both Nirav and Mallya’s crimes fall into the category of financial fraud, they are very different personalities in different situations. Mallya is free but fighting; Nirav is fighting to be free, though in vain.

A remand hearing on 27 June at Westminster Magistrates Court was told by Nirav’s lawyer that his prison routine left him struggling to go through the 5000-page document he had to read in order to give instructions to his legal team. I sincerely hope Nirav considers choosing to be extradited to India. I wonder what is making him fight this so hard, as his chances of being extradited are far higher than Mallya’s. At least getting bail is next to impossible after the strong high court judgement. When in court, Modi no longer take notes assiduously, as he used to. He now looks subdued, despondent: a spent force. It remains to be seen if the saying ‘what you sow, so shall you reap’ will come true in his case.

I am more curious to find this out in the case of Jabir Moti – also known as Jabir Motiwala and Jabir Siddiq – who is wanted by the US for money laundering, extortion and conspiracy to import unlawful substances. Moti’s is the third extradition story I am covering, and by far the most thrilling.

Jabir Moti’s case could be the basis for a film script, and he a movie villain. When he walked in to the courtroom on August 21 last year for his bail hearing, he did not utter a word but his swagger and demeanour said it all. This man had attitude. If there was anything to be said, it came from various intimidating people seated in the public gallery – possibly Moti’s courtiers.

During the lunch break it seemed as though they were tracking us journalists. Finally I’d had enough. I walked up to them and enquired about their connection with Moti. Taken by surprise at such straight questioning, they stopped sending us intimidating looks but did not reveal their true identity. I have not seen them in court since. After all, few remain aboard a sinking ship.

Jabir Moti’s trial began on July 1 this year. On several occasions US government documents were quoted, in which Moti was called a ‘high-ranking’ official of D-Company, an international crime syndicate led by Dawood Ibrahim, himself implicated in the 1993 Mumbai bombings and now living in exile in Pakistan. Every time Moti’s alleged affiliation to D-Company was referred to, I strained my ears to hear, word for word, what was being said and the context in which it was said.

Interestingly, while the prosecution built their case on Moti’s D-Company links, the defence used the same argument to stall his extradition to the United States. Apparently, Moti – who, like Nirav Modi, is housed in Wandsworth Prison – has a history of depression, anxiety and PTSD. He is said to have suicidal tendencies and has tried to commit suicide on three previous occasions. Due to his connection with D-Company, with its terrorist associations, the defence argued that he might end up in solitary confinement in the US. This could drive him to yet another suicide attempt and, knowing this, to extradite him would be a violation of his human rights. What grim irony, to be so concerned for the human rights of a man who cared nothing for those of others!

To see a don in the dock was surreal enough. The sight of a depressed don in the dock was even more so. Tired and haggard-looking, Moti mostly kept his head down and his hands folded across his chest, though he would glance up intermittently with a pathetic gaze. He truly did look depressed – starkly different from how he had appeared at his bail hearing.

On the third day of the trial, Moti did not come back after lunch. He was unwell, the court was told, and seeing a health professional. Yet thoughhis arrogant attitude might have been toned down, as he’d walked out of the court his swagger was still intact. No wonder the prosecution argued that his suicide attempts were nothing more than attention seeking.

Indeed, Moti’s efforts to convey how distraught he was through his body language and expressions were, at times, bizarre to the point of comical. I use the word ‘efforts’ because when this very ‘distraught’ man walked from the dock, he did not strike me as particularly distressed; rather, he had all the brash self-assurance of a mafia don.

It would be such a treat to know if D-Company is pulling strings to free Moti from jail and halt his extradition, or if they have left him to rot in prison.

What’s the hurry, anyway? Who wants a good film to end too soon? ‘Picture abhi baqi hai’ as the suspense of the 3M cases continues.

Loveena Tandon is a foreign correspondent for the India Today Group (Aaj Tak & Headlines Today)

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