A British arms consultant at the centre of a bribery scandal over a helicopter deal in India was exchanged for a runaway Dubai princes in an extraordinary quid pro quo extradition, sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.
Christian Michel, 57, described as a “smooth” business dealer by detectives from the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), was extradited from the United Arab Emirates last month to face police over a deal that has sent shockwaves across the political and military spheres of New Delhi.
He was handed over to India in an exchange for Princess Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, daughter of Dubai’s ruler, who was intercepted by the India Navy during her attempt to flee the UAE last year.
The princess’s capture off the coast of Goa drew global attention for her dramatic escape from Dubai in a yacht with the aid of a French spy as she allegedly sought asylum for mistreatment by the royal family.
European and Asian diplomatic sources in New Delhi told The Sunday Telegraph they believe India struck a deal to swap Ms Latifa with Mr Michel, who owns a residence and company in Dubai but has long been wanted by Indian authorities.
Mr Michel is being questioned over a deal for 12 helicopters for VIPs, for the firm AugustaWestland, the British arm of the Italian aviation company Leonardo, that dates back to the Congress Party-led Indian government of 2004 – 2014.
Mr Michel, who is said to have widespread contacts in the Indian military and political worlds, was allegedly hired by AgustaWestland to influence top officials in the air force and the government led by Manmohan Singh to help secure the Rs 3,600 crore (£400 million) deal for the company.
His diaries, seized by Italian police and later handed to the CBI, show he paid €6 million to Indian Air Force officers, €8.4 million to bureaucrats and €15 – €16 million to an unidentified political family, according to investigators. So far Mr Michel has said nothing, say CBI detectives.
After his arrest, Mr Michel made a sensational claim that the CBI had put pressure on him to sign a confession that he had met the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was a close aide of Mr Singh in the 2004-2014 government, when the deal was being negotiated in 2010.
Mr Michel said he refused to sign as he had never met Sonia Gandhi in his life. He also alleged that the CBI had promised him a waiver in the case if he signed. The CBI denies the allegations.
Observers have asked why it has taken this long for the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his government to instigate proceedings, suggesting that part of the reason is to deflect attention away from current allegations that Mr Modi himself was part of a suspicious deal for Rafale fighter jets from a French company in 2016.
“Isn’t it coincidental that this Michel guy suddenly appears on the scene during the Rafale scandal, and close to an election?”, said Maroof Raza, a defence analyst and former army officer.
“This could be a huge scandal yes, depending on what Michel is prepared to say, but it could also be a shrewd move by Modi.”
Asked about the alleged extradition swap, a member of Mr Michel’s legal team, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Sunday Telegraph: “That there was a swap deal is my understanding too.”
India and the UAE have a treaty dating back to 2011 but it generally covers citizens of the two countries, so the extradition of a third party national is very unusual. “It enters a murky part of international law”, said one diplomatic source.
In addition, any quid pro quo would mean India intervened to detain Princess Latifa while she was en route to seek political asylum in Goa, as she claimed, which technically should have at least granted her a hearing.
The apparent swap took place within the context of the deepening ties between the two countries. Radha Stirling of Detained in Dubai, a criminal justice NGO in the UAE, accused both countries of “bilateral disregard for standard norms of diplomatic relations”.
She added: “The capture of Latifa was reportedly arranged over a phone call between Sheikh Mohammed and Prime Minister Modi; and the extradition of Christian Michel was fast-tracked shortly thereafter.
Little is known about Mr Michel, who took over from his father, Wolfgang Max Richard Michel, other than he is from London and his company is called Jomar Investments, and he is believed to be worth around $8m.
Mr Michel’s lawyers claim he is being treated like a “terrorist” by Indian authorities, who on Thursday granted him access to the British High Commission for the first time since being detained at the beginning of December.
A source in his legal team said he believed he was involved in the swap deal, but added: “The bigger question is over why the British government took so long to speak to one of its citizens who is being treated like a terrorist. He has been interrogated for 36 hours at a time for over four weeks and he has not even been charged.”
The British High Commission in Delhi said it had sought consular access to Mr Michel from day one, but was only given permission on Thursday.
The UAE did not respond to requests for a comment from The Sunday Telegraph.