Met FM before leaving India; offered to settle matters with banks: Mallya

Liquor baron Vijay Mallya arrives to attend a hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Wednesday | Photo: AP/PTI
In a dramatic disclosure, businessman Vijay Mallya, wanted in India for alleged fraud and money laundering, said on Wednesday that he met Finance Minister Arun Jaitley before leaving the country in 2016 in an effort to liquidate his Kingfisher Airlines’ debt.

“To settle matters with banks” is how Mallya put it while talking to journalists outside the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where his extradition hearing is taking place. He later clarified it was an informal meeting. A source close to Mallya told Business Standard he had the date and place of the claimed meeting.

Mallya also cited his application to the Karnataka High Court to take control of and auction his assets —said to be worth Rs 130 billion — to repay the bank loans. If this court, which will next hear the matter on September 18, proceeds with an auction and the banks concerned get their money back, this could render the extradition case in London almost redundant. 

Meanwhile, at the end of what was the final day’s hearing in London, the chief magistrate, Emma Arbuthnot, set December 10 as the date of her judgment. 

The Narendra Modi government has bent over backwards to appease the court in its bid to bring back Mallya, who is labelled as having conspired to defraud IDBI Bank to the tune of Rs 7.50 billion and illegally siphoned off money abroad. It has attempted to assure the court that the alleged fugitive will receive treatment far more comfortable and humane than generally extended to other detainees in Indian prisons, if it sends him back. India is looked upon less leniently internationally, as it is not a signatory to the United Nations treaty on torture.

Arbuthnot confirmed on Wednesday she had received video of the barracks at Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison, where Mallya will reportedly be kept in the event he is returned to India. She remarked: “I have seen it (the video) three times.” She did not, however, disclose what she thought of it.

There was expectation among the media and attendees in the public gallery that the video would be screened in the court, but it was not.

Referring to photographic evidence submitted earlier, Clare Montgomery, a Queen’s counsel appearing for Mallya, alleged that there had been “a hasty clean-up job” and that there had been “a new lavatory put in”. She pleaded for “an expert opinion” which was “unvarnished”. 

British Crown Prosecution Service barrister Mark Summers, presenting his case on behalf of the Government of India, was curtly told by Arbuthnot: “I don't want to hear about the prison (meaning Arthur Road).”

Otherwise the two lawyers in their closing submissions either reiterated their earlier arguments or expanded on them. Montgomery asserted: “The Indian government’s case is not only unsubstantiated, but undermined by their own evidence.” She added the charge that KFA had not fully disclosed its losses to IDBI Bank was “utterly unfounded”. Summers responded by saying KFA’s projection that it would be profitable did not happen and that a jury could take the view Mallya had no intention to return the money, adding: “There’s a prima facie case to be answered.” Montgomery retaliated, “the government case has shrunk and shifted” from where it began.

The government’s hopes of dragging Mallya back to India before the next general election, however, look bleak. Even if Mallya loses the first round, he can appeal to the high court and the Supreme Court in Britain, which would be time consuming. The saga has stretched to 18 months already since the charges were levelled against Mallya.

Mallya has been held liable for Rs 90 billion (with interest charges, penalties and surcharges) owed by KFA to Indian banks. He is being pursued by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate.