LONDON (Reuters) - Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya should be extradited from Britain to India to face fraud charges resulting from the collapse of his defunct Kingfisher Airlines, a London court ruled on Monday.
India wants to bring criminal action against Mallya, 62, whose business interests have ranged from aviation to liquor, over $1.4 billion (1.1 billion pounds) in loans Kingfisher took out from Indian banks which the authorities argue he had no intention of repaying.
Mallya, who co-owned the Formula One motor racing team Force India which went into administration in July, has denied any wrongdoing and says the case against him is politically motivated. He said he would consider his next steps and whether to appeal.
Judge Emma Arbuthnot, England’s chief magistrate, told Westminster Magistrates’ Court false representations had been made to Indian banks, including state-owned IDBI, regarding what the loans would be used for and she ruled there was evidence of conspiracy to defraud the lenders and of money laundering.
She said the banks themselves had made a number of failings but said there was little evidence that senior IDBI officials had been involved in planning to defraud their own bank.
Arbuthnot said officials might have been in “the thrall of this glamorous, flashy, famous, bejewelled, bodyguarded, ostensibly billionaire playboy who charmed and cajoled” them into ignoring their own rules and regulations.
She said Mallya, nicknamed “the King of Good Times” after the slogan of one of his premium beers and his hard partying lifestyle, had used the loans, among other things, for “vanity projects” such as Force India which had received payments at a time when it was struggling in 2010.
“I have found that on the face of it, (Mallya) was doing everything he could by using honest or dishonest means to keep the company going,” she said.
Ordering his extradition, she said there was a prima facie case against the tycoon, who moved to Britain in March 2016. Her ruling must now be approved by Britain’s home secretary.
Mallya’s extradition would be a huge win for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi months before an election, after opposition parties said the government had given a “free passage” to Mallya to flee, an accusation it denies.
Modi has faced pressure from political opponents to bring to justice several people who have fled India in recent years to escape prosecution in an array of cases, many of them loan defaults.
“It’s a victory for ethics and probity. It’s also a signal to all that nobody can cheat India, its people, economy, and go hide somewhere in the world,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
Monday’s ruling is unlikely to be the end of the long-running case and Arbuthnot told Mallya, who was released on bail, that “you may have a long process ahead of you”.
He can appeal the decision within 14 days to London’s High Court. The home secretary’s decision can also be appealed to the High Court and ultimately the Supreme Court.
“The judge herself said it’s a lengthy process that I need to pursue here in the UK, which I will do,” Mallya said outside court. “My legal team over the next few days will review this judgement in detail and decide the way forward.”
The Indian government said Kingfisher took out a series of loans from Indian banks, in particular IDBI, with the aim of palming off huge losses which Mallya knew the failing airline was going to sustain.
It argued that Mallya had no intention of repaying money it borrowed from IDBI in 2009 and that the loans had been taken out under false pretences, on the basis of misleading securities and with the money spent differently to how the bank had been told.
Arbuthnot rejected his defence team’s argument that the case was motivated by political considerations, that he would not receive a fair trial in India or that extradition would infringe his human rights.
“A spell in custody is likely to help him cut down on alcohol,” she added.
Mark Summers, the lawyer acting for the Indian government, said they would seek 216,000 pounds ($274,924) in legal costs.
Additional reporting by Helena Williams and Malini Menon in New Delhi; Editing by Andrew MacAskill and Gareth Jones
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