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Founder of Gupta wedding airline probed for R37bn fraud

Jul 09 2019 13:47
Upmanyu Trivedi with Fin24

An Indian court has denied Naresh Goyal, founder of India’s once largest airline by market value, permission to fly overseas after the government told the court a $2.6bn fraud investigation involving Jet Airways India is underway.

The Delhi High Court’s single-judge bench of Justice SK Kait expressed apprehension Goyal may not return like others facing allegations of fraud.

"I won’t name, but some people are sitting outside the country, and India is not able to bring them back," Kait said. The court sought government’s written response and said it will hear the case again on August 23.

Jet Airways owes at least $1.1bn to banks, and is undergoing bankruptcy resolution after it defaulted on loans that were due by December 31. The carrier is a casualty of cut-throat price war in India’s tough aviation market seven years after Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines shut down.

The government is trying to extradite Mallya from London. Mallya is among several fraud accused, including diamond tycoon Nirav Modi, who fled the country in recent years.

Gupta links

In 2013, a chartered Jet Airways Airbus A330-200 landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base with several hundred guests set to attend the Gupta family wedding at Sun City. 

How the private airplane was given permission to land at the military base is currently being probed at the ongoing judicial commission of inquiry into state capture. 

In 2015, state flag carrier SAA cancelled its route between Johannesburg and Mumbai. The route was taken over by Jet Airways. 

Former South African Airways CEO, Sizakele Mzimela, told the commission of inquiry in late June that SAA's board had been put under pressure to cancel its Mumbai-Johannesburg route even though it made no sense to do so.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, meanwhile, has said that SAA's flight to Mumbai had been "consistently under attack to be taken from SAA," adding it would be brought back.

Lookout notice 

Goyal on May 25 was made to disembark from flight to Dubai and London at Mumbai airport after India’s Serious Fraud Investigation Office had issued a lookout notice for him. Goyal’s lawyer Maninder Singh said the lookout circular was illegal and curtailed his fundamental right to life and liberty. The founder of the airline needs to travel overseas to explore funding for the carrier, Singh told the court.

The government has opposed Goyal’s petition. "It is a serious investigation of 18 000 crore-rupee ($2.6bn or around R36bn) fraud. He must cooperate in the investigation," the government’s lawyer Additional Solicitor General Maninder Acharya said. Goyal has been summoned by the investigator to depose on July 10.

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