Gov’t expresses concern over Indian Finance Minister’s comments

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By Robert A. Emmanuel

The Government of Antigua and Barbuda has taken umbrage for recent comments made by the Finance Minister of India.

Speaking at G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Fukuoka, Japan over the weekend, India’s Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman called for the need to deal with countries that provide citizenship to fugitive economic offenders through investment-based schemes.

According to Indian media reports, the Finance Minister noted that many jurisdictions “allow economic offenders to use investment-based schemes to obtain residence or citizenship to escape from legal consequences and underlined the need to deal with such practices”.

She made pointed reference to the case of Mehul Choski, who became a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda under the Citizenship by Investment (CIP) programme, and who is currently wanted by Indian authorities for the Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam.

Choksi, represented by his lawyer, Dr. David Dorsett, is currently fighting an extradition request in Antiguan courts.

In a press release yesterday, the government, by diplomatic note, strongly refuted Minister Sitharaman’s claims, saying Choksi did not “surrender his Indian passport to become a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda under its Citizenship by Investment (CIP) scheme”. 

The government argued that Choksi “applied for Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship by investment and was subjected to vetting of his background by Interpol which was provided with written and official clearance from the Police authorities in India, attesting that he had no criminal record and was not wanted or being investigated for any crime.

“[He] was granted citizenship only after the competent police authorities in India gave him official clearance [and] he was under no obligation whatsoever to surrender his Indian passport to be become a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda under its investment programme. Any decision he made to surrender his Indian passport had nothing to do with the Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship Programme”.

Additionally, the Foreign Ministry stated that Choksi’s extradition was proceeding through the court system “as is the norm in all democratic countries” and “contrary to the claim that ‘residence or citizenship’ is used ‘to escape from legal consequences’, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, through the competent legal authorities and through diplomatic channels, has cooperated fully with the Indian law enforcement authorities in all matters related to a request for the extradition of Choksi to India.”  

The government further noted that it “values its relationship with the Government of India which has always been mutually supportive and beneficial in many international and intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations organisations and the Commonwealth”.

Further, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “its deep concern about the content and effect of the statement by the Honourable Minister of Finance of India” and requested that “a clarification be made to the media on the same scale of the misleading original remarks”.

This followed statements on the same matter from Prime Minister Gaston Browne during a farewell meeting with the Indian High Commissioner, Venkatachalam Mahalingam, yesterday.

As the High Commissioner’s tour of duty came to an end, Prime Minister Browne indicated his displeasure and disappointment over the “unfortunate remarks” made by the Finance Minister in regard to the CIP programme.

The High Commissioner, in closing, thanked Browne for his open communication on the Choksi matter and promised a response regarding India’s Foreign Minister’s statement.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister also hailed High Commissioner Mahalingam for his diligent work during his tenure in the region.
The Prime Minister stated that he was appreciative of India’s contribution to Antigua and Barbuda and the strengthening of diplomatic and friendly relations between the two nations.

“The shared Commonwealth heritage between Antigua and India has been a foundation for Antigua and Barbuda’s support of India in the International Fora, especially within the FAO and the WHO,” he said.
Browne also noted India’s efforts to assist Barbuda in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, where the nation pledged US $1.5 million to help.

Additionally, the Prime Minister announced the offer of a gift of land to India for a Permanent High Commission to be established in Antigua.
As part of the efforts to further cement the relationship between Antiua and Barbuda and India, the Prime Minister stated that, “this will be a great platform to further the relationship.”

The Indian High Commissioner to Antigua and Barbuda is currently based in Guyana and covers the Eastern Caribbean as well.  

In response, the High Commissioner thanked the government for their full cooperation over the last five years.

He thanked the government for their continuous support of India’s candidacies in the international fora and also thanked the Prime Minister for his offer of a gift of land.

He noted that the Indian government was planning on opening 35 new missions internationally with a focus on Latin America, and the government’s offer came with good timing.

“I will convey your offer and concerns to New Dehli and will present an official response before leaving my post,” His Excellency Mahalingam responded.   

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