Agusta middleman being pressured to implicate Sonia Gandhi, says lawyer

Investigators questioning a suspected middleman for the alleged VVIP chopper kickbacks are trying to extract a false confession from him that he personally knew UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi when the scandal-hit deal for AgustaWestland luxury helicopters was clinched, his lawyer besides his sister told India Today.

One of the middlemen named by the ED in its chargesheet to a UAE court, Christian Michel, has been under detention for over a month in Dubai, his counsel Rosemary Patrizi in Milan and sister Sasha Ozeman in the UK said in separate telephone interviews.

Michel, a British national, is accused of handling and routing over 60 million euros for AgustaWestland kickbacks. Investigators say that he made about 300 trips to India between 1997 and 2013.

According to the ED dossier, the suspect used Global Services FZE, a Dubai-based firm, to park and launder bribes. However, Michel has denied any wrongdoing.

"I can say that he had two meetings in May with Indian authorities and Emirates authorities. They tried to get from him a confession", Patrizi said.

"This year, they (investigators) went to Dubai to interview him. What they wanted really was a signature. They wanted that he corroborated telling (saying) things that were not true. He said no, I am not going to sign. After that the people went back to India and he was arrested," she alleged.

Patrizi insisted her client had been asked to sign some confession statements in exchange for his release. Michel, she alleged, was coerced to own up connections with Sonia Gandhi, which he had consistently denied.

'NEVER EVER MET MRS GANDHI'

"I have not done any bribery, I never saw, I never met Mrs Gandhi. That's what he is telling. This is true. It is possible that authorities are forcing him to say something which is not true, because they cannot find any evidence, because there is no evidence," the lawyer contended.

Asked again whether Michel had been guaranteed freedom from custody if he signed off the alleged confession documents, Patrizi replied in the affirmative.

"Yes, yes, they want him to tell (say) that," the Italian attorney remarked in her heavily-accented English.

"But he couldn't sign those documents because he never met Mrs Gandhi. And also, there is no evidence of bribery. So there is no bribery. No Mrs Gandhi. It doesn't exist.This is what they have said, if you tell us that you met Mrs Gandhi, you had something to do with her, you sign this paper, you will be free. That's what they want him to do but he didn't."

In her comments over the phone from the UK, Michel's sister Ozeman echoed Patrizi's accusations.

'THEY WANT HIM TO ADMIT HE KNOWS SONIA'

"They want him to admit that he knows Sonia Gandhi, but he doesn't. They want him to admit that he is helping these people, these very big politicians, but he's not. He is just trying to clear his own name," she alleged.

"They want him to confess to all those things, but it's not true. And he refuses to. So they are holding him in prison. And he said it is the Indians who were doing it. He didn't mention the UAE," Ozeman claimed. She alleged that her brother was taken into custody 40 days ago.

India is trying to secure Michel's extradition from the UAE for the past one year in connection with his role in the cancelled Rs 3,600-crore luxury helicopter contract.

On Wednesday, CBI sources confirmed that top officials from the investigating agency and from the ED visited the UAE earlier and that efforts were on for Michel's extradition.

India Today has also accessed a May 2017 order from the office of the Dubai attorney general which stayed the suspects extradition following "non-submission of required action". It also suspended Michel's search and arrest "unless he was wanted in any other case".

In its chargesheet, the ED has named 34 people and companies, including former IAF chief SP Tyagi and Giuseppe Orsi, former CEO of the Italian state-controlled defence group previously known as Finmeccanica, and Bruno Spagnolini, former head of its helicopter unit AgustaWestland.

"Investigation revealed that the kickbacks were paid by AgustaWestland through two different channels. One channel was handled by middleman Christian Michel James and the other channel was handled by Carlo Gerosa and Guido Haschke," said a highly-placed ED official familiar with the matter.

According to investigators, Gerosa and Haschke in collusion with cousins of the former IAF chief conspired with Gautam Khaitan of New Delhi's OP Khaitan And Company, Auditors and Solicitors in laundering bribes.

In January this year, an Italian appeals court acquitted Orsi and Spagnolini of corruption charges, citing insufficient evidence.

India had cancelled the helicopter contract in 2013.

CONGRESS TARGETS PM

In response to the India Today report, the Congress lashed out at the PM Modi-led Centre. The Congress, in a press conferrence shortly after India Today broke the story, said that the central government is misusing premier agencies such as the CBI.

Party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the party will raise the issue in Parliament and that PM Modi will have to personally address the matter. Surjewala also accused the Modi government of conspiring to let off criminals and harass innocent citizens.

"Never before in the history of India has a Prime Minister been found complicit in gaining 'false evidence' against opposition leaders to seek revenge," Surjewala said.

Also read | AgustaWestland scam: ED to seek middlemans extradition from Dubai

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