Christian Michel James, the alleged middleman in politically-sensitive Rs 3,600-crore AgustaWestland chopper deal, was extradited to India from UAE late Tuesday night.
He was produced before a Delhi court on Wednesday and sent to five-day CBI custody.
The operation code-named 'Unicorn' was carried out under the guidance of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and being coordinated by interim CBI Director M Nageswar Rao, the CBI spokesperson said.
The UAE government had cleared the extradition of 57-year-old Michel after his appeal against the move was turned down by a court there.
How is he involved?
His alleged involvement in the chopper deal surfaced in 2012 as a middleman for swinging the deal in favour of AgustaWestland and for making illegal payment of commissions or kickbacks to the Indian authorities, CBI spokesperson Abhishek Dayal said.
Michel was wanted for investigation but he escaped and had avoided joining the probe, he said.
A charge sheet was filed against him in September 2017. "An open non-bailable arrest warrant dated September 24, 2015, was issued by the special judge, CBI cases, Patiala House Courts, New Delhi," he added.
On the basis of this warrant, a Red Corner Notice was issued by the Interpol which led to his arrest in Dubai in February 2017. Michel was behind bars in Dubai since he was arrested and sent to custody pending the legal and judicial procedure in the UAE.
The Dubai Court of Cassation had earlier dismissed the two objections filed by Michel's lawyers and upheld the appellate court's decision to consider the possibility of extraditing him to the competent Indian authorities.
What is the charge?
It was alleged that he had entered into a criminal conspiracy with co-accused that included the then IAF chief SP Tyagi and his family members, and the public servants had abused their official positions by reducing service ceiling of the VVIPs helicopter from 6,000 metres to 4,500 metres.
The reduction in ceiling made AgustaWestland eligible for contract worth 556.262 million Euros, which was awarded to it by the Defence Ministry on February 08, 2010, for procurement of 12 VVIP helicopters.
He has been alleged to be a "historical consultant" of the AgustaWestland helicopters in the UK with technical operational knowledge of the aircraft, the military bases and the pilots, the CBI spokesperson said in a statement.
Michel worked with the company since the 1980s and before that his father had also been a consultant of the company for the Indian territory, the statement said.
He was allegedly a frequent visitor to India and was operating as a middleman for defence procurement through a wide network of sources cultivated in the IAF and the Defence Ministry at different levels, including retired and serving IAF officials, the agency said.
Michel allegedly shared the information collected from the IAF and the ministry with his associates, who used to transmit the despatches through fax to other counterparts sitting in Italy and Switzerland, the CBI said.
"...He was updating and informing the management of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland, namely Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini and others, about his efforts in India for securing supply contract of VVIP Helicopters," the statement said.
In July 2006, AgustaWestland's commercial manager Renzo Lunardi had proposed that Michel will join other middlemen Ralph Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa in carrying out "scouting and monitoring activities" with regard to the acquisition of helicopters in India, keeping in view his "knowledge of Indian military operational mechanism", it said.
During that meeting in Italy, they had negotiated a comprehensive fee equal to 7 per cent of the supply contract amount to cover the expenses and their payments.
Michel allegedly entered into 12 contracts through two of his firms -- London-based Global Trade and Commerce and Dubai-based Global Services FZE -- with Finmeccanica to camouflage and legitimise the alleged bribe received by him for clinching the deal, the CBI said.
Political significance of the case
The ruling BJP said the extradition in the case from the UPA era is a diplomatic victory for India and could spell "serious trouble" for the Congress's "first family", referring to the Gandhis.
It also asserted that the development was an unequivocal affirmation of the Narendra Modi government's "seriousness in fighting corruption".
Michel has contested the authenticity of the note, alleging that it is fake and accused the Modi government of “targetting the Gandhis and tarnish the image of the opposition”.
Gandhis were brought into the case after a handwritten note was recovered from the possession of the other middleman Guido Haschke, where certain payment was mentioned against the word “family”.
Michel has termed this note to be fake and Congress blamed the BJP-led central government of using the central probe agencies to “target the Gandhis and tarnish the image of the opposition”.
Michel had stated that he was pressurised by the CBI who wanted him to sign a confession stating that he had met UPA chairperson and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi in 2010 when the deal in question was being negotiated.
Claiming that he had refused to sign the confession even as the CBI had promised him a clean cheat in the case if he did, Michel also contended that he had never met Sonia Gandhi in his life.
While the government's serious anti-corruption image was dented by regular scoot and loot affairs of fugitive industrialists like Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya, the AgustaWestland saga provides an opportunity for the Modi government to capture the narrative and mould it according to its political necessity, especially ahead of the 2019 general elections and the ongoing Assembly elections in several states.
(with PTI inputs)