Calls for criminal inquiry into Lib Dem donor over ‘links to Rolls-Royce scandal’

Holly Watt, Rob Evans and David Pegg

Sudhir Choudhrie, major party donor, and his son Bhanu were arrested in the UK in 2014 for allegedly acting as middlemen

Rolls-Royce agreed to pay £671m in penalties to settle long-running bribery investigations. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Anti-corruption campaigners have demanded a criminal investigation in India into a businessman and major Liberal Democrat donor over his alleged links to the Rolls-Royce bribery scandal.

In a letter to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, the lawyer and politician Prashant Bhushan asked that the country’s authorities launch an investigation into the role of Sudhir Choudhrie and other middlemen for the British engineering giant.

Bhushan wrote: “As per the British media reports, one Sudhir Choudhrie, who figures in the list of Undesirable Contact Men prepared by your department, and his son Bhanu were arrested by the Serious Fraud Office [SFO], UK in February 2014 for their alleged involvement as middlemen for Rolls-Royce in various contracts for procurement by Indian defence forces.”

He also noted: “Rolls-Royce has apparently paid over £10m to Sudhir Choudhrie for securing the Hawk contract.”

In January, Rolls-Royce agreed to pay £671m in penalties to settle long-running bribery investigations by the SFO and overseas prosecutors, but separate criminal inquiries may follow in countries around the world where the company has admitted corruption.

The Guardian and the BBC’s Panorama have previously revealed that Choudhrie family companies were paid millions by Rolls-Royce for their work in India.

Since leaving India and moving to London, Sudhir and Bhanu have become major supporters of the Lib Dems, with family members and companies giving the party more than £1.6m over the years, according to figures released by the Electoral Commission. Sudhir Choudhrie gave £200,000 last year alone, including £50,000 in December.

He also financed Tim Farron’s leadership bid in 2015 and has since been nominated as the party’s adviser on India.

Bhushan’s letter added that if the Central Bureau of Investigation did not start an investigation, he and other activists would begin public interest litigation, a form of civil legal proceedings designed to address issues of broad public concern.

Lawyers for Sudhir and Bhanu Choudhrie declined to comment. Neither of them have been charged since the 2014 arrest.

They have previously stated: “The allegation that Rolls-Royce paid Mr Choudhrie and his son to secure deals for Rolls-Royce in India, including the sale of Hawk jets to the Indian government is false.”

In a letter, the Choudhries’ lawyers had said: “Mr Choudhrie has never paid bribes to government officials or acted as an illegal ‘middleman’ in defence deals.”

Sudhir Choudhrie has challenged the authenticity of the “Undesirable Contact Men” list.

According to rules in India, foreign defence contractors are barred from paying middlemen for certain work. If a company is found to have breached the rules, it can be barred from working in India for at least five years and hit with fines.

Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, recently told parliament that the SFO would cooperate with “trusted partners” in overseas investigations into Rolls-Royce.

He said: “The SFO will continue to treat any requests for mutual legal assistance from overseas authorities that may be connected to this investigation, in line with UK government policy and international convention.”

Bhushan said: “I hope that the Serious Fraud Office will share their information with police forces around the world. I think that everywhere that they found corruption, they should assist the investigations into crime so that people can be brought to justice.”

When asked about Sudhir and Bhanu Choudhrie, a spokesman for the Lib Dems said: “When carrying out due diligence on potential and current donors the party goes beyond what is asked of it by the Electoral Commission. As much as is reasonably possible we review the business and public activities of potential and current donors to ensure they are in keeping with the values of the Liberal Democrats.”

Sue Hawley, of the UK-based anti-bribery campaign Corruption Watch, supported the demand for a criminal investigation in India. She said: “It is essential that the intermediaries who played a role in Rolls-Royce’s vast web of bribery are properly investigated and brought to book. Only then will the full details of this scandal emerge and justice be done.”

The Guardian has previously revealed that Rolls-Royce had hired a network of agents to help it land contracts in at least 12 countries. Labour and Conservative administrations have forged close relations with Rolls-Royce and have often lobbied foreign governments to give large export contracts to the manufacturer.

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