A panel of UN experts has called on the Indian government to immediately release Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal, as his detention was arbitrary and violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The findings of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which operates under the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights, formally released its findings in Michel’s case late on Friday in Geneva.
Michel, a British national, has been held in India since December 2018 after being extradited from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The WGAD was very critical in its evaluation of the handling of Michel’s case by the governments of the UAE and India and said both countries should “accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law”.
Even before the formal release of WGAD’s opinion, the external affairs ministry had last month rejected the group’s reported findings and said the conclusions were based on “limited information, biased allegations from an unidentified source and on an inaccurate understanding of India’s criminal justice system”.
There was no immediate response from Indian officials to WGAD’s report and this report will be updated when there is one.
The WGAD said that, “taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be for the Government of India to release Mr Michel immediately”.
It added, “In the current context of the global Covid-19 pandemic and the threat that it poses in places of detention, the Working Group calls upon the Government of India to take urgent action to ensure the immediate release of Mr Michel.”
The WGAD also urged the governments of India and the UAE to “ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Mr Michel and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights”.
The group concluded that Michel’s detention violated both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and referred his case to the UN “Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health for appropriate action”.
Michel is currently being held in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. He was living in Dubai when India sought his extradition for involvement in alleged irregularities in the 2010 deal to acquire 12 AgustaWestland helicopters worth 556.2 million euros for the transportation of VVIPs. At the time, Michel was a middleman and an external consultant for a subsidiary of AgustaWestland.
The chairman of Finmeccanica, the previous owner of AgustaWestland, and the chief executive officer of AgustaWestland were acquitted of charges of corruption in the helicopter deal by courts in Italy in 2019. Michel has denied involvement in wrong-doing and also pointed to the acquittal in Italy of the two others as proof that there was no corruption in the deal.
The WGAD report cited a source as saying that there were several lapses in the handling of Michel’s case after he was arrested in Dubai in 2017 following an extradition request in connection with allegedly organising the payment of bribes to Indian politicians and officials for the helicopter deal.
The source told WGAD that “Indian authorities visited Mr Michel in Dubai on several occasions, in the presence of local officials, and interrogated him for hours before getting him to sign statements implicating the Gandhi family, under threat of further prosecution”.
After being out on bail, Michel was arrested again by Dubai authorities in June 2018 and detained without charge, the source said. After again being granted bail in July 2018, the Dubai Court of Appeal authorised India’s extradition request on September 2, 2018.
“Mr Michel was told that his extradition had been granted in exchange for the earlier seizure and return of a high-profile detainee to Dubai despite the detainee’s plea for asylum. The detainee was extradited by the Indian forces, which had intercepted his yacht in international waters off the coast of Goa in March 2018, after the Prime Minister of India had made a personal telephone call to the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai,” the WGAD report said.
The source told WGAD that on December 4, 2018, Michel was “reportedly handcuffed, blindfolded and transported by private jet to India, in a hurried and unlawful manner that prevented him from challenging any decision”.
In reply to communications from WGAD, the Indian government submitted a response on Michel’s case in June last year, disputing the “allegation that due process was not followed in Mr Michel’s extradition”. The government denied “any procedural deficiencies” in the extradition request.
The response from the UAE government was submitted after the deadline set by WGAD and was “therefore considered late and the Working Group cannot accept the response”, the report said.
The WGAd further said “the burden of proof should be understood to rest upon the Government [of India] if it wishes to refute the allegations. Mere assertions by the Government that lawful procedures have been followed are not sufficient to rebut the source’s allegations.”