Probe gifts Roman holiday to officers

New Delhi, Feb. 16: Defence minister A.K. Antony's probe into reports of bribery in the VVIP chopper deal has opened a Roman holiday season for Indian investigators.

Officials of the ministry and the CBI are leaving for Italy on Monday even though the Italian court has said it cannot hand over the report of its preliminary judicial investigation because the case against the company, Finmeccanica, is still in its early stages. The evidence can be given only to the accused.

Though the court in Busto Azizio has admissions from Finmeccanica executives and associates that bribes were routed to the former IAF chief, S.P. Tyagi, no Indian is an accused in the case as yet.

Finmeccanica subsidiary AgustaWestland, which sold the AW-101 "Skyfall" helicopters to India, has also said in a statement that it is confident that it has complied fully with Indian law and that "the conduct of its past and present senior executives and managers will be demonstrated soon".

The statement also said it does not believe the Indian defence ministry has initiated steps to cancel the Rs 3,550-crore contract for 12 helicopters.

"AgustaWestland clarifies that the Indian authorities have not cancelled the contract but have requested some clarifications within seven days. AgustaWestland is preparing its answer to timely meet the Indian authorities' request," the statement said.

The decision to send the CBI team and a senior defence ministry officer, joint secretary (air) A.K. Bal, to Italy on Monday comes after a year in which the ministry failed to get information on the Italian probe. There are doubts on whether it has done its homework. The team is preparing to be in Italy for a fortnight.

The team will investigate the alleged kickbacks in the AgustaWestland chopper deal, said a senior CBI official.

"The two-member team from the agency will comprise a senior official from the anti-corruption branch and a law officer," the CBI official added.

The Italian Corriere dela Sera newspaper reported a statement from the defence ministry in Rome that: "The Italian judiciary is conducting a 'preliminary investigation' on allegations about alleged financial irregularities involving Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries in general, and there is no specific investigation of transactions related to 'India'".

Thus, in a statement, the minister of defence denies the "investigation against AgustaWestland and Finmeccanica on the sale of 12 helicopters in India", the newspaper said.

The CBI official in Delhi said: "Our team is going to Italy to meet the prosecutors and seek key technical details pertaining to the controversial deal. They have planned to stay there for at least two weeks and try to get as much details as they can."

But the request by the Indian investigators has not yet been formalised with a "letter rogatory".

"We need some key information before registering a preliminary inquiry into the case. The information is very crucial and we are quite hopeful that they would provide all the help. What is the harm in trying than sitting here and waiting for details? We have to be proactive," the official added.

Such statements are being made despite Antony having said that the defence ministry has done its internal probe.

A letter rogatory is a request from a court in India to a foreign court for documentary or other evidence, and judicial help in connection with a registered case here.

Another CBI official today said the agency contacted the Interpol but they could not provide any help.

"They expressed their helplessness for not providing help as we are yet to register a case in the alleged kickbacks in the chopper deal," rued another official.

Ajay Agarwal, Supreme Court lawyer who has filed the PIL for Ottavio Quattrochi's prosecution in the Bofors scandal, termed the CBI's proposed visit to Italy as a "holiday plan" and a "futile exercise" aimed at diverting the public outrage over the scam.

"It's both shocking and surprising that the country's premier investigative agency is leaving for Italy without a letter rogatory. It will be a futile exercise and nothing will emerge from it. The Italian court or prosecutors are not obliged to share any information without the letter rogatory.

"The entire process is nothing but waste of time and public money. We have already seen the CBI's poor track record in gathering evidence in the Bofors case, which is littered with tales of failure. This is yet another gimmick by the government to subside the issue," he said.