Vijay Mallya's last throw of the dice: Liquor baron's hopes of avoiding extradition in hands of UK appeals court

Sanjay Suri

London: The once "king of good times" is pinning his hopes on a last throw of the dice to save himself from doing time behind bars. Embattled liquor and aviation tycoon Vijay Mallya has chalked up plans to initiate a lengthy appeal process against the UK government's order to extradite him to face charges of fraud and money laundering amounting to nearly Rs 9,000 crore in India. The word of the appeals court would effectively be the last as the Supreme Court in Britain takes up only matters of law of wide public interest.

The plea is being filed against an extradition order by the UK home secretary that followed more or less automatically from the Westminster chief magistrate Emma Arbuthnot's order of 10 December last year.

"The home secretary has almost no discretion to refuse extradition once it has been approved by the court, so this decision is no surprise," says Nick Vamos, partner at the firm Peters and Peters, and former head for extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service. The fact appears to have been lost amid the BJP-Congress war of words ("but you gave the loans" versus "but you let him go") that gets renewed at every stage of this case with unwavering stamina.

"I expect his lawyers have had the papers ready for some time, and the appeal will be heard and decided upon in the next two to three months," says Vamos.

That sounds like election time in India. The defence for Dr Mallya €" he has an honorary degree of doctorate of philosophy in business administration from the Southern California University for Professional Studies €" is expected now to push its allegations of a political witch hunt after the Westminster chief magistrate dismissed that argument in her order. Lively developments within the CBI in Delhi (and later Kolkata) are certain to come up.

The Mallya team had pointed fingers at the CBI, particularly the prosecuting officer in this case, Rakesh Asthana, as a political tool of the government. The magistrate said in her order she "found no evidence that the prosecution was corrupt or politically-led" and found also "no evidence that Asthana has acted corruptly". But this is now an appeal against that judgment, and there have since been more developments around Asthana for the Mallya team to pick on.

The defence will hit at other weaknesses in the Indian government's case such as identical statements from supposedly independent witnesses that Magistrate Arbuthnot acknowledged but said she had disregarded for purpose of her decision. Mallya's lawyers may ask an appeals court now to consider what the magistrate said she had not needed to.

The reversal of a magistrate's orders by an appeals court is not uncommon. A magistrate had ordered the extradition of Lieutenant-Commander Ravi Shankaran (retired) in the naval war room leaks case, but he went in appeal and won. A magistrate had blocked extradition of bookie Sanjiv Chawla, and this time the Indian government went in appeal and won. In the appeal now, little by way of new evidence is likely to be raised in defence. The thrust of the Mallya team bid is likely to be a renewal of arguments to reject Indian government's evidence as inadmissible.

The threshold of evidence needed will remain just as low for the appeals court €" whether there is prima facie evidence of fraud sufficient for the court to order extradition for Mallya to face proper trial in India, and whether he will be detained in minimally humane conditions. Here again, the Mallya team is bound to argue, as it did before the magistrate earlier, that the word of the Indian government on detention conditions cannot be trusted. The experience of Christian Michel and others recently extradited to India will be crucial €" anything going wrong with their well-being through detention could bring the end of the Indian case against Mallya, and all others to come.

The Indian case of fraud and misrepresentation by Mallya appears to have been established clearly, though. The magistrate determined that the Kingfisher management faced a dismal picture of the company coming crashing down but presented a falsely bright picture to the banks. And that Mallya did not just know, but directed such misrepresentation of the true position of the company and of securities offered to the banks. The corresponding failures of the banks were either by design or for motives not presented to the court, the magistrate observed, or they were in the "thrall of this glamorous, flashy, famous, bejewelled, bodyguarded, ostensibly billionaire playboy".

Past the adjectives, the magistrate found that this "playboy" used much of the money taken from the banks for funding a company jet for his private use, and for his Formula 1 racing team when he should have been paying creditors. Over an Enforcement Directorate charge, the magistrate found a prima facie case that "Mallya was involved in a conspiracy to launder money". It would not appear very likely that an appeals court will suddenly find the position to be otherwise. As the case now stands, a confirmation of extradition from the appeals court looks most likely.

Unlike his outgoing flight, the return, if extradition is confirmed, will more likely be on a private jet. But that thought is unlikely to bring him any more solace than the promise of a 40-inch colour TV in a refurbished cell in Mumbai on which he could watch the news about himself after his jet lag has worn off. If that's where he does land up, Dr Mallya might just begin to take some of the philosophical view of which the Californian school had seen promise.

Also See: Vijay Mallya's extradition order a boost for Modi govt ahead of elections, but process likely to take 2-3 months

Vijay Mallya claims assets over Rs 13,000 crore have been attached towards debt recovery; where is the justice, asks fugitive liquor baron

Vijay Mallya to initiate appeal against UK govt's extradition order; lawyers say it may take months for case to be heard

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