In a setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a French judge has been appointed to lead a judicial investigation into alleged corruption and favouritism in the controversial Rafale deal.
The judge will investigate the irregularities in the 7.8 billion euro sale to India of 36 fighter aircraft, the French website Mediapart reported on Friday night.
Yann Philippin of Mediapart said that the “highly sensitive probe” into the 2016 inter-governmental deal was formally opened on June 14 following a decision by the financial crimes branch of the French public prosecution services, the PNF.
The probe has been launched in the wake of a series of investigative reports published by Mediapart in April 2021 about the deal, including the role of a middleman whose disclosures India’s Enforcement Directorate is reportedly aware of but has not bothered to investigate so far.
Following the exposé, the French anti-corruption NGO Sherpa filed a complaint with the tribunal of Paris, citing “corruption”, “influence peddling”, “money laundering”, “favouritism” and undue tax waivers surrounding the deal.
According to Mediapart, the PNF has confirmed that the newly opened investigation will focus on all four of the alleged crimes.
The PNF’s decision to seek a formal probe represents a U-turn from the stand it took in 2019. At that time, its head, Eliane Houlette, going against the advice of one of her staff and without carrying out any investigations, dismissed an initial complaint filed by Sherpa. The reason she cited to justify her decision was “to preserve the interests of France”.
Now, two years later, writes Phillipin, “her successor as head of the PNF, Jean-François Bohnert, has decided to support the opening of a probe, after the complaint was updated with details from Mediapart’s recent series of investigations.”
Besides other aspects, the criminal investigation will examine questions surrounding the actions of former French president François Hollande, who was in office when the Rafale deal was signed, and the current French president Emmanuel Macron, who was Holllande’s economy and finance minister at the time, as well as the then defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, now Macron’s minister for foreign affairs.
The investigation will be led by an independent magistrate, an investigating judge.
In a statement to Mediapart, Sherpa’s lawyers William Bourdon (founder of the NGO) and Vincent Brengarth said the launch of the probe “will necessarily favour the emergence of the truth and the identification of those responsible in what increasingly resembles a state scandal”.
While Dassault Aviation has yet to react to the latest developments, the company has consistently denied any wrongdoing and maintained that it “acts in strict compliance with the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention and national laws”.
The probe is likely to also examine the nature of the association between Anil Ambani’s Reliance group and Dassault aviation.
Dassault Aviation is the Indian partner in the Rafale deal for the 36 aircraft.
The Supreme Court had on December 14, 2018, dismissed a batch of PILs filed by ML Sharma, Prashant Bhushan, Arun Shourie, Yashwant Singh and Vineet Dhanda that sought an independent probe into the 2015 Rafale deal.
The PIL has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi Respondent No. 1. Union of India and CBI are respondents No.2 and 3.
The PIL entirely based on new revelations by the French portal urges the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the news report.