The celebrity jeweller at the centre of an alleged $2bn fraud that rocked Punjab National Bank three years ago can be extradited to stand trial in India, a London court ruled on Thursday.
The judge at Westminster magistrates court ruled that Nirav Modi had a case to answer in connection with alleged bank fraud, money laundering and allegedly attempting to subvert the criminal investigation by threatening to kill a witness.
Modi, who has been held in a London prison for almost two years, can appeal against extradition. He has denied wrongdoing and claims the charges against him are politically motivated.
A celebrity jeweller whose elaborate pieces adorned Hollywood and Bollywood stars, Modi fell from public grace in 2018, when PNB, India’s second largest state-owned bank, announced it had uncovered a massive bank fraud.
It claimed that the beneficiaries of the fraud were Modi — who in the preceding years had set up luxury boutiques in the world’s most prestigious retail locations — and his uncle, Mehul Choksi, the owner of one of India’s largest mass market jewellery chains.
By the time the fraud was detected — after the retirement of a PNB official who allegedly aided the scam — both men had left India.
Choksi, who denies wrongdoing, later surfaced in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, where he had taken citizenship. But Modi’s whereabouts remained unknown until March 2019, when he was recognised by a clerk at a central London bank, where he had gone to open an account.
Shortly before he was found, Modi was filmed walking around Oxford Street in a distinctive ostrich-leather coat, near a rented London apartment where his lawyers said he had been living and working.
After his arrest, Modi was denied bail as barristers for the Indian government alleged that he had threatened to kill a witness.
Ashish Lad, a director of one of Modi’s companies, gave a statement to the extradition hearing saying the jeweller had threatened him in 2018, after the criminal investigation had already begun.
Modi “told me that he will get me killed if I do not follow his instructions . . . I was so scared. I was not expecting such type of response from Nirav Modi,” Lad said in his testimony.
Modi has claimed his human rights would be breached by his extradition to India, where the case has been the focus of intense media attention. But the judge on Thursday said he was confident Modi could get a fair trial.
“Sensationalist media reporting in high profile criminal cases is not unique to India,” he wrote.
India has had little luck securing the extradition of disgraced businessmen from the UK. It has been seeking the extradition of erstwhile liquor baron and airline owner Vijay Mallya since 2017 to stand trial on charges of financial misconduct following his airline’s bankruptcy.
But though Mallya lost his last appeal last year, the British government has so far declined to extradite him, citing ongoing confidential, judicial proceedings in the matter. A UK court even released about £1.1m of court-held funds to help the tycoon meet his living expenses in the UK.