Chopper deal: CBI, defence officials to go to Italy for probe

Moving swiftly, the government Saturday named a two-member CBI team and a senior defence ministry official who are to leave for Italy soon to probe the allegations of kickbacks in the VVIP chopper deal.

The move came a day after it put on hold the $750 million/Rs.3,600 crore deal for the 12 AgustaWestland 101 choppers and launched the process to cancel the deal with Italian firm Finmeccanica. The government has also issued a show cause notice to Britain-based AgustWestland asking why the contract should not be scrapped in view of the corruption allegations.

The defence ministry Saturday said it was sending Joint Secretary A.K. Bal to Italy to gather details on deal, while the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said it was sending a legal officer and another senior official to Rome to probe allegations of 51 million euro (approx $68 mn) kickbacks being paid by Finmeccanica to clinch the deal.
In a statement, the ministry said it was "deputing a senior joint secretary to Italy to gather as much evidence as possible relating to the allegations of corruption in the acquisition of 12 AW101 VVIP helicopters for the Indian Air Force".

Bal would be leaving for Rome by Monday.

"The (CBI) team will have a senior Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officer and a law officer. They are likely to go to Italy within a week," an agency official told IANS.
The CBI had received some documents pertaining to the case from the defence ministry Friday but was yet to register preliminary enquiry because it had to confirm the allegations of graft against Indian nationals and alleged kickbacks paid by the Italian firm, said CBI sources.

The CBI team had Thursday asked defence ministry officials to provide its files related to any sort of internal enquiry undertaken by it in connection with alleged corruption in the February 2010 deal to acquire 12 AW-101 helicopters from Finmeccanica's subsidiary AgustaWestland.

The helicopters were for IAF's elite Communication Squadron, which ferries the president, the prime minister and other VVIPs, they said.

Italian agencies Tuesday arrested Finmeccanica chief executive officer (CEO) Giuseppe Orsi for alleged corruption to seal the deal.

The Indian Air Force had sought the choppers as a replacement for its Mi-17 cargo helicopters that were modified for VVIP deployment. Three of the 12 helicopters have already been supplied.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demanded that the matter be fully probed by either a special team or under the monitoring of the Supreme Court.

"The information that has come out in the chopper scam is very serious. It reminds us of the Bofors gun scandal," BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi said in Kolkata.

"That (Bofors) also involved an Italian company, an Italian individual was associated with it. In this also, there is Italian association. That also related to defence, this one (chopper deal) also," he said, but evaded questions about whether he thought that the Gandhi family was involved.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid Saturday said the chopper deal should not be politicised and that all procedures were "strictly followed" in it.

On the names of top dignitaries cropping up in the case, he said: "We should not involve them."

Noting the case could come up for discussion during the upcoming visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Khurshid said the government tried to get details of the deal earlier but could not get much information.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony described as baseless allegations that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi was involved in the VVIP chopper deal.

"It is a baseless allegation. Let the CBI report come out. Whoever is guilty will be punished," he told media persons in Shillong.

BJP leader Kirit Somaiya Friday accused Rahul Gandhi's key political aide Kanishka Singh of making profits from the contract.

An Italian court, hearing the case, has rejected India's request for documents related to the investigations into the matter, maintaining that the "information is covered by secrecy".

AgustaWestland has said it was preparing to clarify the points raised by the Indian government.

"AgustaWestland clarifies that Indian authorities have not cancelled the contract but have requested some clarifications within seven days. AgustaWestland is preparing its answer to timely meet the Indian authorities' request," the firm said in a release.

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