AgustaWestland case: Relief to ex-brigadier as CBI closes probe against him

A retired brigadier’s ordeal ended after seven years as the Central Burau of Investigation finally closed an offshoot of AgustaWestland VVIP chopper corruption case against him following no incriminating evidence supporting bribery allegations was found.

For Brigadier VS Saini (retired) of Army Aviation, the moment brought some smiles on his face after facing rigourous questioning from the agency for allegedly favouring the UK-based company during field trials of light utility helicopters in 2010.

Saini was accused of demanding bribes from Christian Michel James, an alleged middleman, to favour the company during field evaluation trials held in 2010, officials said.

When contacted, Saini refused to offer any comments saying he just wants positive thoughts around him.

The case pertained to the requirement of 197 light utility helicopters by Army Aviation for reconnaissance and surveillance operations to replace decades-old fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, the officials said.

Army Aviation had floated a request for proposal on July 24, 2008 to which three companies — UK-based AgustaWestland, France-based Eurocopter and Russia-based Rosoboronoexports had responded and submitted technical and commercial proposals.

It was alleged that Brigadier Saini as officer-in charge of the trial team had allowed participation of a different variety of AgustaWestland chopper than what the company had mentioned in the RFP and he had also written a letter dated February 3, 2010, addressed to the weapon equipment directorate in favour of AgustaWestland.

The letter had mentioned that as decision making process can take some time which may delay the evaluation of the AgustaWestland helicopter.

It would mean that the opportunity to carry out crucial winter trials at high altitude would be lost and intimated that the trial team would proceed with provision trials with concurrence from AgustaWestland, the letter had said.

Not getting any response from the WE Directorate, the entire trial team had unanimously decided to proceed with the trial and it was not the independent decision of Brigadier Saini, the officials said.

The AgustaWestland chopper fielded during the trials was rejected in the first phase and no deal was signed. The choppers were also tested under ‘no cost no commitment’ provision so no costs were borne by India.

The allegations of bribe demand against Saini surfaced from an “unsigned and unmarked memorandum” recovered by Swiss authorities two years later from the residence of the Errera Irma, the mother of Guido Haschke, an alleged middleman who was under probe by Italian authorities for alleged corruption in AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal.

The memorandum found at the residence of Irma on April 23, 2012 by Swiss authorities on a judicial request sent by Italian prosecutor contained alleged demand of bribe by Saini from an agent of AgustaWestland to favour the company during Field Evaluation Trials.

During his deposition before a Milan court, Haschke had claimed that he had got the information related to demand of bribe from Michel and that the memorandum was
written in India and typed on a laptop.

The CBI had registered a preliminary inquiry on June 12, 2013 on the basis of a letter from a director in the Defence Ministry and converted it into an FIR after almost seven months on January 3, 2014.

The said memorandum and records of Haschke deposition was provided to India under a judicial request sent by a special court here to Switzerland and Italy.

Michel who was brought from the UAE in connection with a separate corruption case of VVIP chopper deal probed by the CBI denied any knowledge about alleged bribe demanded by Saini during his interrogation by the central agency.

He said Haschke treated him as enemy and agreed with the Italian prosecutors to give evidence against him.

Michel said Haschke tried to implicate him before the Italian prosecutors by deposing that the contents of the memorandum at his mother’s residence was the information collected and dictated to Haschke by him.

He had stated that he was never privy to any such information regarding the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter deal and he has never given any such dictation to Haschke.

The CBI did not find any other documentary or oral evidence to corroborate the demand of bribe mentioned in the said memorandum, resulting in the closure of the case last year, the officials said, adding that the court has also accepted the findings.

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