New Delhi: The ordeal of a retired brigadier general ended after seven years when the CBI finally closed an offshoot of AgustaWestland VVIP chopper corruption case against him after finding no incriminating evidence to support bribery allegations. For Army Aviation Brigadier VS Saini (retired), the moment brought a smile to his face after being rigorously questioned by the agency for allegedly favoring the UK-based company during field trials with Light Utility Helicopters in 2010.
Saini was accused of soliciting bribes from Christian Michel James, an alleged middleman, to favor the company during field evaluation trials held in 2010, officials said.
When contacted, Saini declined to comment, saying he just wanted positive thoughts around him. The case concerned Army Aviation’s requirement of 197 Light Utility Helicopters for reconnaissance and surveillance operations to replace the decades-old fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, officials said.
Army Aviation submitted a Request for Proposal (RFP) on 24 July 2008 to which three companies – UK-based AgustaWestland, France-based Eurocopter and Russia-based Rosoboronoexports – responded and submitted technical and commercial proposals.
It was alleged that as an officer in charge of the pilot team, Brigadier Saini had allowed the participation of a different variety of AgustaWestland helicopters than what the company had mentioned in the RFP, and he had also written a letter dated February 3, 2010. , addressed to the Weapons Equipment Directorate (WE) in favor of AgustaWestland.
The letter stated that the decision-making process could take some time, which could delay the evaluation of the AgustaWestland helicopter.
It would mean that the opportunity to conduct crucial winter trials at high altitudes would be lost and the pilot team would proceed with resupply trials with AgustaWestland’s agreement, the letter had said.
With no response from the WE Directorate, the entire investigative team had unanimously decided to proceed with the trial and it was not Brigadier Saini’s independent decision, the officials said.
The AgustaWestland helicopter deployed during the trials was rejected in the first phase and no deal was signed. The choppers were also tested under a ‘no cost no commitment’ stipulation, so no costs were borne by India.
The bribe allegations against Saini emerged from an “unsigned and unmarked memorandum” recovered two years later by the Swiss authorities at the residence of the Errera Irma, the mother of Guido Haschke, an alleged intermediary alleged by the Italian authorities. was under investigation for alleged corruption in AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal.
The memorandum found in Irma’s residence on April 23, 2012 by Swiss authorities at a court request from the Italian prosecutor, contained an alleged bribe demand by Saini of an AgustaWestland agent to favor the company during Field Evaluation. Trial (FET).
During his statement before a court in Milan, Haschke had claimed that he received the information regarding the bribe demand from Michel and that the memorandum was written in India and typed on a laptop.
The CBI had registered a preliminary investigation on June 12, 2013, based on a letter from a director of the Ministry of Defense, and converted it into an FIR on January 3, 2014 after almost seven months.
The said memorandum and the reports of the impeachment by Haschke were provided to India on a judicial request sent by a special court here to Switzerland and Italy.
Michel, who was expelled from the UAE in connection with a separate corruption case of a VVIP helicopter deal investigated by the CBI, denied any knowledge of alleged bribes demanded by Saini during his interrogation by the central agency.
He said Haschke treated him as an enemy and agreed with Italian prosecutors to testify against him. Michel said Haschke tried to implicate him before Italian prosecutors by stating that the contents of the memorandum in his mother’s home were the information collected by him and dictated to Haschke.
He had stated that he was never aware of such information about the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter Agreement and he never gave such a dictate to Haschke.
The CBI has found no other documentary or oral evidence to corroborate the bribe claim mentioned in the said memorandum, which resulted in the case being closed last year, the officials said, adding that the court has also accepted the findings.