A case of extortion

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

(The story has been updated to reflect subsequent developments, which have been mentioned at the end of the story.)

THE Mumbai police has registered a case of extortion against Rishi Chopra, 31, a Deputy Manager with The Economic Times, Mumbai, and his alleged accomplice, Thomas Joseph Priju, 28, a channel manager at Satyam Infoway Limited. They are accused of attempting to extort Rs.25 lakhs from a businessman.

The police said that Chopra and Priju were “caught red-handed” on February 17 while accepting Rs.7 lakhs as the first instalment of the extortion money in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Mumbai.

Pradip Sawant, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime), said: “This is perhaps the first time we have come across such a case, where a journalist from a reputable and large publishing house has been involved.” According to the police, Chopra and Priju had sent a threatening letter to Punamchand Prithviraj Malu, a share-trader, telling him that they had material that contained substantial evidence for his involvement in a racket in stolen shares. Chopra told him that if he did not reply to the letter, they would write against him and this would severely damage his reputation in the market, the police said. Malu told them that the letter, which he received on January 23, contained 25 questions along with a note setting January 30 as the deadline for Malu to answer. Otherwise they would run a story against him, in the paper, the note said, according to the police.

Malu realised that something was amiss when he went to the office of The Economic Times on January 28 to deliver his response. He found out that Rishi Chopra was not a journalist, but a Deputy Manager (Research) in the Economic Times Intelligence Bureau. The police said Malu realised that Chopra was posing as a journalist. “I knew he was doing this in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the newspaper,” says Malu in his complaint to the police. He immediately approached the police. The police, however, told Malu that they would require more evidence. Malu then recorded his telephone conversations with Chopra and also kept all the letters sent by him.

Meanwhile, Priju told Malu that the matter could be settled if Malu paid them Rs.1 crore, according to the complaint. Calling their bluff, Malu told them to publish whatever they wanted. On February 1, Chopra sent a message through Short Message Service (SMS) to Malu saying that they were not satisfied with his responses and that Chopra’s `senior’ had instructed him to run the story. But if Malu was prepared to negotiate with Priju, they would stop it, the message said, according to the police.

In order to set a trap, the police told Malu to negotiate and also set a place and time to hand over the money. The extortion amount came down to Rs.25 lakhs, which would be paid over three instalments. The police said that on February 17, Chopra and Priju were caught accepting the money. They were remanded until February 25. “There appears to be enough proof to book them,” said Sawant. Sawant told Frontline that the modus operandi was that of amateurs. “They left a solid trail of signed letters and phone calls which can be traced straight to them.” If convicted, Chopra and Priju could face up to three years of imprisonment.

In a press statement issued soon after the arrest of Chopra, Bhaskar Das, brand director, The Economic Times, said: “Rishi Chopra worked for three years with the company. If Chopra has exceeded his brief in a personal capacity, we condemn any such action. His past work stands up to scrutiny, and we feel this is one stray instance of a Machiavellian misadventure with the friend who is a coaccused.”

Update: In the court trials, the two accused were charged with extortion under Section 384 (read with Section 34) of the Indian Penal Code. Subsequently, the court of additional chief metropolitan magistrate, Mumbai, found them not guilty and issued an order to that effect on March 1, 2011, acquitting both the accused under Section 248 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
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