A top Caribbean court on Wednesday ordered fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi to face charges of illegally entering Dominica, and adjourned till Thursday a petition filed by the businessman’s lawyers challenging his detention in the island.
The Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court said that Choksi — who mysteriously vanished from Antigua on May 23 before being detained three days later in Dominica, roughly 100 nautical miles away – should be brought from jail to a Dominican magistrate court to respond to the charges by the Dominica government.
The court was hearing a habeas corpus petition by Choksi’s lawyers, who argued that he was illegally abducted from Antigua, where he is a citizen, and physically tortured.
The lawyers told the court that Choksi was a citizen of Antigua, had family there, and was currently fighting two cases pertaining to his extradition and revocation of citizenship, so he should be repatriated to the island.
Judge Bernie Stephenson heard the matter through video-conferencing with the 62-year-old businessman attending virtually from the hospital where he was admitted recently.
During the roughly three-hour hearing, Choksi’s lawyers said that Dominica Police violated the island’s law of producing a person in court within 72 hours of charging them with a crime.
The court ordered Choksi be immediately produced before a magistrate’s court, where a separate trial is likely to commence if he doesn’t plead guilty to the charges. The Dominican magistrate is expected to hear the matter in the early hours of Thursday, India time.
People familiar with developments said the government of India was not mentioned in court on Wednesday.
“Our stand that Mehul Choksi was in illegal detention as he was required to be produced within 72 hours before the magistrate and was not so produced, has been vindicated; in order to remedy this, he has been asked to be produced before the magistrate,” said Choksi’s lawyer Vijay Aggarwal.
“This establishes illegal detention of Mehul Choksi as pleaded by the defence. Contrary to numerous media reports, there was no discussion regarding government of India,” he added.
In the hearing, the prosecution rejected Choksi’s submissions and argued the habeas corpus petition did not stand as he had illegally entered the country and was subsequently detained.
The Indian government has been pushing to deport Choksi, wanted on ₹13,500 crore bank fraud case, to India because he doesn’t enjoy citizenship privileges in Dominica. An Indian team, including two officers from Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has reached the island to apprise local authorities of the “strong evidence” against Choksi and the need for him to face trial in India.
But legal experts say the repatriation process could be long and legally complicated.
They said that before any deportation plea to India was decided, Dominican authorities will have to present their view. Last week, the Dominican interior ministry had said that Choksi will be sent back to Antigua after ascertaining his citizenship details.
For India to seek direct deportation, documents will have to be filed separately through a local counsel, possibly leading to long hearings as Choksi’s legal team will be given time to respond, the experts said. This, they added, might mean that Choksi’s stay in Dominica could be extended by few weeks.
The controversy around Choksi’s deportation also triggered a political row in the neighbouring island nations.
Antigua & Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne on Tuesday denied his government’s involvement in Choksi’s disappearance and alleged that the opposition party United Progressive Party (UPP) was funded by the India-born businessman. UPP accused Browne of disregarding the law and Choksi’s constitutional and legal protection in Antigua.
In Dominica, leader of opposition Lennox Linton said his party sought a probe and alleged that Choksi was abducted at the behest of PM Roosevelt Skerrit. A day later, local media alleged that Linton had received a bribe from Choksi’s brother Chetan, a charge denied by the Opposition leader on Wednesday.
But the businessman’s wife, Priti Choksi, rejected the charges being hurled at her husband and said he was treated as a criminal in Antigua because of statements by Browne.
“After seeing the pictures of his torture, don’t you think we have every right to fear for his life if he is sent to India?” she asked.