AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes summoned by ED in PMLA case

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes. (Reuters Photo)

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes and top officials of the airline have been summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for questioning in connection with a money laundering case arising out of allegations that they attempted to illegally change rules to enable it to fly internationally.

The summons came on a case registered by the ED under Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) against the airline and its officials in May 2018. The ED case followed a CBI FIR against Fernandes, controversial aviation consultant Deepak Talwar, AirAsia (India) Director R Venkataramanan, AirAsia (Berhad) Deputy CEO Bo Lingam, HNR Trading Pte Ltd Director Rajender Dubey and Travel/Total Food Services Chairman Sunil Kapur among others.

Officials said Fernandes has been asked to appear before the investigators in January while other officials were served notices for appearance in the following days.

In its FIR, the CBI had accused the no-frills carrier AirAsia (India) of attempting to illegally change rules to enable it to fly internationally. AirAsia (India) had denied any wrongdoing and said it had in November 2016 initiated criminal civil proceedings against its former CEO for such irregularities. 

AirAsia Group was accused of transferring Rs 12.28 crore to a Singapore company HNR Trading Pte Ltd and another Rs 50 lakh in cash to a person for bribing officials to facilitate the removal of rules that did not allow new airlines to start international operations. Investigators had in May 2018 conducted searches in six locations in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai.

Fernandes wanted the airline to be able to fly internationally "from day one" and that Venkataramanan lobbied for government approvals for removing the (then) 5/20 Rule (completion of five years of domestic operations and a fleet of 20 aircraft for starting international services), the FIR had claimed.

Dubey is claimed to have acted as a liaison agent facilitating meetings with government officials and there were attempts to change the 5/20 Rule during the fag end of UPA-II. A Cabinet note moved on February 27, 2014, and Ministry of Civil Aviation gave further clarification on March 5. However, the Election Commission declared the Lok Sabha elections on the same day following which no progress could be made.

The FIR claimed Venkataramanan was involved in lobbying to get approvals, "some of them through non-transparent means, including the FIPB clearance, NOC and the attempt for removal/modification of 5/20 Rule." Fernandes also roped in Kapur as a lobbyist to whom on-board catering contract was given as a "quid pro quo without any negotiation". 

The FIR also said that in 2015-16, AirAsia India remitted Rs 12.28 crore to Dubey's firm for a "sham contract on the basis of a bogus agreement on plain papers", which was "utilised for paying bribe" to officials through Talwar and Kapur. "Talwar in his presentation mentioned about the strategy to engage officials", for which a payment of Rs 17.42 lakh was made to him.

According to the FIR, Bo Lingam and Kapur had handed over a packet containing Rs 50 lakh to one Sriram to facilitate the removal of 5/20 Rule during a meeting at a coffee shop in Four Season hotel in Mumbai.

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