A prize catch

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

The arrest of Ottavio Quattrocchi in Kuala Lumpur is a landmark in the CBI's effort to bring the Bofors case to conclusion.

JANUARY 22, 2001 when some of the biggest players in the Bofors payoffs scandal are scheduled to appear in courts of law in locales as far apart as Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi, will be a big day in the annals of corruption investigations. The three Hinduja brothers, all recently naturalised citizens of foreign lands, sought in vain to obtain a hearing, in a move unprecedented in criminal proceedings, at the stage of admission of charge-sheets against them. They will now have to appear before Special Judge Ajit Bharihoke on January 22 when charges are expected to be framed.

The same day, another key protagonist in the scandal, the fugitive Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, will fulfil his tryst with a sessions court in the Malaysian capital. While the Hindujas have the option of evading the summons, Quattrocchi will have by compulsion to make an appearance in court. He was arrested from his office in one of Kuala Lumpur's most exclusive locations on December 20 and produced before the court of a city magistrate. He was then taken to a sessions court where he was granted bail on the fulfilment of certain stringent conditions, including a personal surety of Malaysian ringgit 400,000 (the equivalent of approximately Rs.40 lakhs). His passport was impounded by the police authorities and a commitment obtained that he has no other travel documents. Effectively, Quattrocchi has been bound down in Malaysia and will now have to wait out the full judicial process, though he does have recourse to the full range of appeals.

Sources in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) believe that Quattrocchi's arrest is a milestone in their effort to bring the Bofors trial to conclusion. A request for extraditing the former agent of the Italian petrochemicals and fertilizer corporation, Snamprogetti, was made in October 1999, soon after the first charge-sheet in the Bofors case was filed. The CBI had tried in vain to gain access to Quattrocchi for the purpose of interrogation, ever since the first set of incriminating bank documents was received from Switzerland in early 1997. The formal indictment of the Italian fugitive though, made a substantive difference to the attitude of the Malaysian authorities.

CBI officials are unwilling to hazard a time-frame for the completion of the judicial process. But they are hopeful that the matter will be efficiently pursued with the active involvement of India's High Commissioner in Malaysia, Veena Sikri, and the experienced counsel Cyrus Das whom they have retained. CBI Director R.K. Raghavan says Quattrocchi's arrest is a tacit acknowledgment by the Malaysian authorities of the reasonableness of the Indian request.

At the hearing in the Kuala Lumpur court, counsel for Quattrocchi reportedly raised two substantive objections: neither, he said, had the nature of the charges against his client been specified, nor was there any mention that his alleged transgressions constituted an offence that could attract extradition proceedings. The deputy public prosecutor, however, was definitive in informing the court that the grounds for arrest were adequately spelt out.

Sources in the CBI believe that their diligence, particularly over the last year, has resolved all areas of ambiguity. Two teams of investigators led by P.C. Sharma, CBI Special Director, have visited Malaysia during the period. Sharma has, by all accounts, spent his time in Malaysia well. He sought first to understand the detailed provisions of the Malaysian criminal code and to find areas of congruence with Indian law. He then sought to establish that two important criteria for extradition were fulfilled. The first task was to satisfy the Malaysian side that the charges against Quattrocchi amounted to cognisable offences in that country too, that is that the condition of dual criminality was fulfilled. The second task was to establish that these charges were extraditable offences under international conventions.

India and Malaysia do not have a formal extradition treaty, though an area of possible cooperation exists in their shared adherence to the Commonwealth Code on mutual assistance in criminal matters.

If anything, there was an element of surprise in Quattrocchi's arrest because it marked a seeming departure from an earlier pattern of behaviour by the Malaysian authorities. The CBI made its first attempt to detain him in February 1997. They were armed with a non-bailable warrant for his arrest issued by Judge Bharihoke on February 6 and the Interpol red corner notice that followed, to facilitate his detention for purposes of interrogation. Although as a member of the Interpol, Malaysia was expected to recognise the legal force of the red corner notice, the CBI expedition of 1997 returned empty-handed.

CBI sources believe that there is a discretionary component inherent in the execution of red corner notices, which could have been used by the Malaysian authorities as a measure of extreme caution. But the charge-sheet that was filed in October 1999, implicating among others Quattrocchi and the former Prime Minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, obviously engendered a change in attitudes in Malaysia.

Although he can still play for time, Quattrocchi's legal options seem to be narrowing rapidly. In March 1997, he had filed an application before the Interpol challenging the basis on which the red corner notice against him had been issued. At a meeting in September that year, the Supervisory Board for Internal Control of the Interpol rejected this request. He then sought a quashing of the warrant issued against him through the Indian legal system. In a ruling of August 1998, the Delhi High Court dismissed this petition. After studying all the evidence that had been put together by the CBI, the High Court found the warrant to be justified. A subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court also failed to bring the necessary succour for Quattrocchi.

In comments to the media shortly after his appearance in the Kuala Lumpur court, Quattrocchi denounced the legal proceedings against him as being politically motivated. The whole idea, he charged, was to compromise the political career of his one-time friend, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. Indeed, Quattrocchi's arrest came just when Sonia Gandhi was taking an uncharacteristic initiative to gear up her party machinery for a substantive challenge to the authority of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. She may have been forced momentarily onto the backfoot by the detention of her one-time family intimate. But the legal soundness of the case against the Italian businessman is in no way diminished by extraneous political concerns.

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