Suspected Indian fraudsters on the run used Henley and Partners to obtain foreign passports
Two Indian fugitives suspected of being involved in a € 640 million fraud scandal used Henley and Partners to attempt to buy passports from at least three other countries, documents leaked in the Passport Papers cache say.
Chetankumar (Chetan) Sandesara and her brother Nitin Sandesara fled in 2017 after being named suspects in a large-scale fraud and money laundering scandal in India involving their company Sterling Biotech. Indian authorities accused them of borrowing from local banks, defaulting on payments and pocketing the funds.
The Shift was able to access these documents, which were part of the cache of leaked Henley and Partners documents that were passed on to the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. The documents were processed and reported by a consortium of journalists and published as Passport Papers. Henley and Partners are the concessionaires of Malta’s controversial Money-for-Passport program, introduced in 2013.
Documents seen by The Shift show the brothers had a business relationship with Henley and Partners since at least November 2016, just before they were named suspects in the fraud scandal, and continued until October 2017. at least.
It appears the couple have expressed interest and applied for passports in Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Cyprus. Documents show that large sums of money were paid to Henley and Partners in exchange for various services.
Additional invoices show Henley and Partners were on a supply for at least part of the time the Sandesaras were fugitives and wanted internationally. The last invoice seen is dated October 18, 2017.
In October 2017, Nitin underwent a background check for the Antigua and Barbuda program, paying a fee to Henley and Partners for the service. Perhaps indicating that the result was negative for him, he was then billed for various services under the Grenada program.
Chetan underwent a thorough background check in November 2016, then applied for Cypriot citizenship in June and July 2017. He applied alongside an executive from one of his Nigerian companies, Deepak Barot.
It appears that the Sandesaras were unable to obtain citizenship in any of the countries they applied to.
A simple Google search of their names for the years 2016 and 2017, shows that they and their companies had problems with law enforcement as early as 2010. They were also named suspects of fraud and money laundering in 2016 when their relationship with Henley and Partners was already established.
The Shift asked Henley and Partners if they were aware of the brothers’ legal difficulties at any point in their business relationship. They responded that “we do not comment on potential customer relationships, past or existing, but we are committed to complying with all applicable laws and regulations.”
They added that “we never got citizenship for the people you are referring to.”
In early 2017, two senior officials from Henley and Partners visited the Albanian capital of Tirana twice. Group CEO Steffen Juerg visited on February 3, followed by COO Stefan Kraus on February 27.
The purpose of their visit is not known. An Albanian government spokesperson did not answer questions about the visits from Henley and Partners, or whether the Sandesara brothers were discussed at any point.
But in 2018, the brothers were granted Albanian citizenship from President Ilir Meta on the basis of a contribution of at least $ 33 million in investments in real estate construction in Tirana and in prime coastal locations like Dhermi in the South.
Like disgraced former Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat before him, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama appeared at a Henley and Partners event in London in November 2019 where he announced his intention to sell citizenship in the candidate country to the European Union.
“I know there are controversies around this program and when I get home I will get an alert from the European Union about it, but I think it’s something we need to do,” he said. he declared to the public.
The plan appears to have been scrapped following outrage from the European Union delegation in Tirana, Dutch politician Pieter Omtzigt and EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova.
Regarding this, Henley and its partners told The Shift that they are “not in a position to comment on business travel or interactions with governments, which is what senior executives at our company do regularly and across the board. world ”.
They added “please know that Albania did not and did not in 2017 have a citizenship by investment program and as such could not recommend anyone as a possible option because such an option did not (and still does not) exist. “
Henley and Partners also said: “It has been well known and public knowledge for many years that the Albanian government is considering launching a citizenship by investment program. That is why Mr Rama has been invited to speak at our London conference, which is also well known.
But when it comes to the Sandesara brothers, how they managed to obtain Albanian citizenship remains a mystery. A recent report by the OCCRP correspondent in Tirana alleges that they enjoyed political protection and that their requests were accepted with political support, beyond due process.
They were then allowed in and out of Albania by private jet, without being arrested, although they are wanted, and India filed for extradition to Albania.
Albanian institutions refused to provide information on how the brothers applied for citizenship and were approved. A former director of the Albanian border police told OCCRP that it was probably a political motive.
Nigerian business executive Barot applied for Cypriot citizenship through Henley and Partners in 2017, then opened a business in Albania in December 2020. A former Sandesaras accountant, Hemant Nitin Sanmukhrai Hathi said it was common for the family open accounts in the names of their loved ones, then use them to facilitate fraud and money laundering.
The Tirana prosecutor’s office said the Sandesara were currently under investigation for money laundering. Unfortunately, Albanian courts suffer from a high level of political influence and hopes are low that justice will be done.
As for the Sandesaras, Chetankumar is believed to be potentially in Albania, while his brother Nitan is in Nigeria.
The couple claim their innocence and claim that all the allegations against them are politically motivated and also linked to the fact that they are Muslims.
Henley and Partners told the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation that it is aware of the possible risks in handling client inquiries and that it has invested “considerable time and capital in recent years to create a governance structure that s ‘is committed to the highest standards with due diligence at its heart.
They added that their processes are well documented and are significantly more advanced than those of the majority of other participants in the investment migration industry.
When asked specifically by The Shift if they had introduced, formally or informally, the Sandesara brothers to the Albanian government, they said they did not act “informally for anyone” and had “never introduced anyone. to the Albanian government “.
This is a joint investigation by The Shift and other partners, coordinated by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. The production of this survey was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.
Investigation for The Shift by Alice Taylor and Caroline Muscat.