India says fugitive celebrity jeweller last seen in Britain

Indian jeweller Nirav Modi at the launch of his store in Mumbai, India, March 14, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Fugitive billionaire jeweller Nirav Modi was last seen in Britain in March, Indian federal investigators said on Monday (June 18).

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing a multi-billion dollar scam allegedly involving Modi, who is worth US$1.73 billion (S$2.34 billion), according to Forbes, placing him 85th on India's rich list.

"Request letters were written to six countries, namely USA, France, Singapore, Brussels, UAE and UK. Only UK replied to request letter stating Nirav Modi was last seen on March 31 there," CBI spokesman Abhishek Dayal told AFP.

Media reports in India and Britain in the last few days have said that the jeweller had sought asylum in Britain for what he called "political persecution".

Local reports said that Modi even managed to travel after his passport was revoked by the government.

Modi's high-end eponymous brand has stores in several major world cities and boasts celebrity customers including actresses Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet and Bollywood megastar Priyanka Chopra.

He fled India in February for an unknown location after he was accused of being at the centre of a US$1.8 billion fraud involving India's second-largest public lender, Punjab National Bank (PNB).

The 47-year-old and his uncle and business partner Mehul Choksi, also a diamond merchant, allegedly defrauded PNB out of 2.8 billion rupees (S$55.57 million).

This figure is said to be just a part of the total losses. Authorities say he diverted large sums of loaned money illegally to invest in foreign-based companies.

His escape had caused a massive public outcry, with opposition parties accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of helping him flee.

Several Indian courts have issued arrest warrants over his failure to appear before them since he fled.

The Enforcement Directorate, India's financial fraud investigating agency, unsuccessfully approached Interpol in March for an international arrest warrant.

Modi's reported attempt to seek asylum comes as India's government seeks the extradition from Britain of liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya.

Mallya is wanted in connection with allegedly unpaid loans to his beleaguered Kingfisher Airlines after he absconded to Britain in 2016. The case has soured British-Indian relations.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.