The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is likely to let British high commission officials meet Christian Michel soon, Indian officials said on Thursday. The British request for consular access to Michel, the alleged middleman in the AugustaWestland helicopter deal,is being considered, CBI officers said.
Michel, 57, arrived in New Delhi shortly before midnight on Tuesday following his extradition from the United Arab Emirates, renewing the focus on the alleged ₹3,600-crore deal for 12 AgustaWestland helicopters signed and scrapped by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The deal has now turned into the subject of a political fight between the opposition party and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“We have received a request for consular access to Michel sought by the British high commission here. Depending upon his interrogation schedule, we will work out a date and time for it,” said an agency official who asked not to be named.
A CBI spokesperson confirmed that the request for consular access was being examined. A foreign ministry spokesperson said India will respond to the British request “very soon”.
Michel was questioned for the second day on Thursday, and the CBI has his custody until at least December 10 before the court looks at its possible extension.
Countries routinely seek consular access to their citizens accused of crimes on foreign land under international law, usually to enquire into the well-being of the individuals or if they need legal assistance.
According to experts, the consular access and the treatment provided to Michel are likely to have a bearing on India’s pending requests to the UK for extradition of fugitives like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi.
“Michel is an accused and not a convict. He should be treated with all the sensitivity required in this kind of matter and keeping in mind that he is only an accused… The treatment provided to him will impact India’s extradition requests pending in the UK and other countries too,” said lawyer AK Wali, who has handled several extradition cases on behalf of the government.
A senior advocate said consular access is normally provided unless there is an “overweening state interest”.
“It’s similar to India asking Pakistan for consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav,” said lawyer Sanjay Hegde, referring to the Indian national sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court n March 2016 on charges of espionage and subversive activities.
People familiar with the developments around Michel’s extradition said the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations did not stipulate a time frame for granting consular access, which would be offered in the case of Michel after the necessary formalities are completed.
“The paperwork will be examined and Michel’s consent will also be sought since he must consent to the consular access,” said one person, requesting anonymity.
Spokespersons for the ruling BJP and the Congress traded allegations over the purported scam for which Michel is being probed.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra said all three lawyers, including Youth Congress functionary Aljo K Joseph, who appeared for Michel in court on Wednesday, had links with the Congress.
“Isn’t this too much of a coincidence,” Patra asked on Thursday.
The Congress said the allegation was a case of the “pot calling the kettle black”. Spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill said that if “the BJP can link his party to Michel on the basis of a lawyer,” the ruling party should answer for instances in which, he alleged, BJP functionaries and family members had acted on behalf of people accused of wrongdoing.
Michel is accused of being one of three middlemen who allegedly brokered bribes to help Italy-based Finmeccanica (now Leonardo Group) win the contract for 12 helicopters primarily meant to transport VVIPs. Several parameters in the original tender were allegedly tweaked to swing the deal in favour of Finmeccanica, and several Indians, including former air force chief Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, have been accused of being a part of the conspiracy.
All of the accused, including Michel and Tyagi, have denied the allegations.
The question of consular access also assumes significance since Michel and his lawyer have alleged that Indian officials wanted him to implicate UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. In an interview with NDTV on Wed–nesday, Michel’s Italy-based ad–vocate Rosemary Patrizi said she feared her client could be coerced into delivering a confession.