EDITORIAL: We need to extensively vet our due diligence

Antigua and Barbuda is currently experiencing a deluge of free publicity in the international press. Unfortunately, it is not for our beautiful beaches or celebrity sightings but because we have welcomed an alleged fugitive from India. That’s right, our Citizenship by Investment Unit (CIU) has confirmed that Indian billionaire businessman Mehul Choksi was granted citizenship after complying with the requirements of the application process and undergoing “extensive vetting.” New citizen and new scandal, but we are told that he has committed to new projects and to be a model citizen in paradise.

If you had any hope that we had a sliver of a chance in getting back our visa-free status in Canada, we are fairly sure you can kiss that hope goodbye because our top-of-the-line, world-class vetting process has, once again, proven to be less than all that. In fact, the rumblings are that this latest incident could put our visa-free status in other countries in jeopardy.

Our path to this very sticky situation is foggy at the moment; however, in a press release, the CIU stated that “after extensive vetting, Mehul Choksi was granted citizenship by registration in November 2017.” Further, his application “was subject to robust due diligence international investigation … by reputable agencies, including the International Criminal Police Organization and the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS).” The result? “The 2017 investigation revealed no derogatory information about Mr. Choksi.”

The response by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in India, as reported by the Times of India, raises questions as to the effectiveness of the due diligence processes employed by our CIU and the process itself. The CBI, which is described as the premier investigative agency in India and operates as the nodal agency for Interpol, claimed that “no information regarding background check on Choski was sought from it by the international agency last year.” CBI spokesperson Abhishek Dayal apparently said, “The INTERPOL has not sought any information related to Choksi from the CBI in the last three four years.” Not only that, The Times of India reports that a non-bailable warrant was apparently issued by the Karnataka High Court against Chosksi in 2016 in a separate matter, and a CBI officer said that information about the non-bailable warrant would have been shared if the information would have been requested.

This latest information appears to be in direct conflict from what has been said by our CIU. India’s CBI says that there was no request for information on Choksi while Antigua’s CIU claims that INTERPOL had nothing derogatory to report. So is INTERPOL to blame?  Did they simply give thumbs up to Choksi without asking the CBI in India? It would stand to reason that if they made a request of the CBI, there would be a record, and if the CBI ignored the request, INTERPOL would make note of that in their report to Antigua’s CIU. So what is it? The alternative is not a good thought, but it is one that is making the rounds and it needs to be addressed.

There is a perception that the CIU’s due diligence is a farce and that CIP money trumps due diligence. This is a perception that cannot be allowed to linger because it will have damaging effects on our country’s reputation. The government must produce all the documentary evidence of the due diligence process so that the citizens of this country can have confidence that there is integrity to the process. Transparency is a rare commodity in Antigua and Barbuda, but in this case, it is a necessity. This is not the first time the due diligence process has failed, (think of the Chinese lady wanted by China and INTERPOL) so we must do everything to restore some level of comfort with the international community as it relates to our passport.

Beyond that, India is an ally. They have provided assistance to us in the past, and they have been tapped to provide assistance in the future. Most recently (as in April of this year), we sought their technical assistance in the areas of health and the management of public finance. Will we now turn our backs on them and give safe harbour to a fugitive from their justice system? 

We must note that Mr. Choksi has indicated that he is innocent of all allegations related to what has been referred to as the biggest banking scam in India’s history. We should also note that Choksi has reportedly said that he has been suffering from an illness and faces threats to his life. In an application to squash the non-bailable warrants against him, his lawyer pleaded that the threat of “mob lynching” has cause his client to flee India. Plus, a big stumbling block to his return is the fact that his passport has been revoked. Luckily, Antigua and Barbuda has granted Mr. Choksi a brand new one. Unfortunately, India is not on the list of countries that allow us visa-free travel. We doubt, however, that will be a problem.

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