AgustaWestland chopper scam: From Christian Michel to Sonia Gandhi, take a look at the key people named in the case
In February 2010, the Congress-led UPA government signed a contract with UK-based AgustaWestland to buy 12 AW101 helicopters for the Indian Air Force for Rs 3,600 crore.
The AgustaWestland scam came to light in 2013 when the then defence minister AK Antony accepted the fact that bribes were taken in the Congress-led UPA government's deal with a UK based firm, AgustaWestland which was given a contract to supply choppers for VVIPs.
In February 2010, the Congress-led UPA government signed a contract with UK-based AgustaWestland to buy 12 AW101 helicopters for the Indian Air Force for Rs 3,600 crore. The purpose of this deal was to have choppers to fly VVIPs like the president, prime minister and others. However, on 1 January, 2014, India scrapped the contract with Finmeccanica's British subsidiary AgustaWestland for supplying 12 AW-101 VVIP choppers to the Indian Air Force (IAF) over the alleged breach of contracts and charges of kickbacks of Rs 423 crore paid by it to secure the deal. The ED alleged that money was laundered through multiple foreign companies which were used as fronts to park alleged kickbacks.
Here are some of the key players involved in the developments of the alleged scam so far:
Christian Michel is a British consultant who was allegedly hired by AgustaWestland — the British arm of the Italian company Finmeccanica — to acquire the Rs 3,600 crore deal for the company by influencing officials of the IAF and the then UPA government. According to a Firstpost report, Michel was named as a middleman by Italian investigators. According to Italian court documents, Michel handled €18 million of the total kickback of €30 million.
The Firstpost report also reveals that Michel had actually been working on the deal since 2002 when the first global Request for Proposal (RFP) for choppers was issued (March 2002), even though there are reports to suggest that he got involved in the deal towards the end of 2006.
In February 2017, the UAE authorities arrested Michel. He faced prosecution there as several investigations revealed that he rerouted bribes to India through his Dubai-based firm Global Services. The bribes came from the money he had received from AgustaWestland to broker the deal.
Soon after his arrest, Michel revealed that the CBI had forced him to mention Congress president Sonia Gandhi's name in the course of the interrogation. He had accused Indian investigators of pressuring him to frame the Congress leaders in return for a clean chit in the multi-crore scam — a charge the CBI has refuted.
The Indian Express reported that Michel's advocate and sister who said that the “Modi government and its agencies were forcing him to sign a false confessional statement naming Gandhi in return for complete exoneration from any charge whatsoever in the AgustaWestland case.”
According to CBI officials, the chase to nab Michel started in 2014 and in September 2015, a non-bailable arrest warrant was issued against him. He was finally extradited to India from UAE late in the night on 4 December, 2018 and landed in New Delhi for CBI's questioning.
Guido Haschke is an Italian and US citizen who was residing in Switzerland. He was arrested in October 2012 by Switzerland police after he was raided by Italian officials. The CBI had named Haschke in its FIR in 2013. However, CBI sources had said in 2013 that they were not seeking Haschke's immediate extradition to India at the time. In March 2013, Italian officials had sought his extradition from Switzerland following the alleged VVIP chopper deal case.
According to reports, AgustaWestland's former chief executive Giuseppe Orsi hired Haschke, who was then a consultant for the Finmeccanica group, to lead dealings in India to secure the VVIP choppers contract.
Haschke's main involvement in the case was regarding a note allegedly written by him and addressed to Michel, which named the Gandhi family and several other Indian politicians. Michel had later denied the claim while questioning the authenticity of Haschke's handwritten note that named Indian leaders.
NDTV in 2016 had reported that Indian investigators had been allowed to question Haschke when he was extradited to Italy in 2013 but he refused to identify the "AP" mentioned in his note, whom prosecutors suspect was Congress president Sonia Gandhi's political aide Ahmed Patel.
The 70-year-old Carlo Gerosa was named as one of the three alleged middlemen by the CBI wanted in the case. According to reports, Gerosa's interrogation and statement have been very important for the ED's and CBI's investigation.
In October 2017, Italian authorities, on the basis of an Interpol notice sought by the ED, arrested Gerosa but soon released him. In June this year, Italy refused India's request to extradite Gerosa in connection to the case. CBI sources said that Italy has refused the agency's November 2017 request to extradite Gerosa, adding that the message had been delivered to the Ministry of External Affairs.
In this big defence kickback controversy, the role of the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, former defence minister AK Antony, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and former IAF chief SP Tyagi was also put to question.
Former Finmeccanica chief Giuseppe Orsi was acquited by The Court of Appeal of Milan for false accounting and corruption in the helicopter deal case. Orsi was arrested in 2014 and resigned as the chief executive of the firm which was later renamed as Leonardo. He was at the helm of AgustaWestland when the deal was struck and was suspected of involvement in the payment of bribes. Orsi was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail.
Meanwhile, Bruno Spagnolini — who headed the chopper division of AgustaWestland — and was also handed a four-year jail term too was acquitted along with Orsi.
SP Tyagi's involvement
On 9 December 2016, the CBI arrested former Indian Air Force Chief SP Tyagi along with his cousin Sanjeev Tyagi and lawyer Gautam Khaitan. In September 2017, the CBI filed a formal charge sheet against SP Tyagi and nine others.
The FIR named 13 persons including Tyagi, his three brothers: Juli, Docsa and Sandeep, the brother of former Union minister Santosh Bagrodia, Satish Bagrodia, and Pratap Aggarwal (chairman and managing director of IDS Infotech). The FIR also named four companies - Italy-based Finmeccanica, UK-based AgustaWestland and Chandigarh-based IDS Infotech and Aeromatrix.
Initial investigations by the Italian prosecutor said that Tyagi had personally met Haschke before and that the bribery took place via Tyagi's cousins Julie, Sandeep and Dosca. Tyagi, however, has denied any claims of having met Haschke.
Sonia Gandhi, Congress leaders' names also crop in
Sonia's name was dragged into the deal when a Milan court mentioned the conversations between the three middlemen mentioning a 'Mrs Gandhi'. The middlemen had allegedly referred to a 'Mrs Gandhi' as being the driving force behind the deal. They also mentioned names of her close aides Ahmed Patel and Pranab Mukherjee.
In a letter dated 15 March, 2008, Christian Michel wrote to Peter Hulet, the then head of India region sales and liaison for AgustaWestland, saying, "Dear Peter, since Mrs Gandhi is the driving force behind the VIP, she will no longer fly with MI8. Mrs Gandhi and her closest advisers are the aim of the High Commissioner, senior adviser Prime Minister Manmohan Singh obviously the main figure, then there's Ahmed Patel Secretary."
However, Congress vehemently denied these charges. In July 2018, after he was granted bail in Dubai, Michel retracted his statement against the Congress leader and said that he had named Sonia and senior Congress leaders on the behest of the CBI. He had accused Indian investigators of pressuring him to frame the Congress leaders in return for a clean chit in the multi-crore scam — a charge the CBI has refuted. The investigative agency claims that it has never examined Michel as a witness and hence, could not have manipulated or pressurised Michel.
Apart from Sonia, her political secretary Ahmed Patel and other Congress leaders Pranab Mukherjee M Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes, MK Narayanan, Vinay Singh and former president Pranab Mukherjee's name also featured in the 15 March letter.
Also, senior officials involved in the decision-making process that led to the selection of the AgustaWestland helicopters for VIP use were MK Narayanan (Indian Police Service (IPS), former Director Intelligence Bureau (India) and NSA); BV Wanchoo (IPS, and Chief of Special Protection Group); and Shashi Kant Sharma, IAS, and former defence secretary.
In 2013, billionaire Indian arms dealer Abhishek Verma and his Romanian born wife Anca Neacsu were also named suspects in this scandal. The Indian Express's report suggested that Abhishek had played the role of a middleman in the deal and had interfaced with the politicians in securing CCS clearance from the Cabinet Committee.
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