09 Jun 2021
By Lindita Çela and Ushinor Majumdar, OCCRP, 8 June 2021
OCCRP — On a mild afternoon in March 2019, one of India’s most ostentatiously wealthy families prepared to board their private jet at Albania’s Tirana International Airport.
The Sandesaras had been on the run since 2017, when authorities in their home country accused them of defrauding local banks out of loans worth over $700 million.
That morning, the family’s troubles deepened when Albanian media broke the news that, despite their fugitive status, they had been allowed to invest large sums of money in construction projects across the country.
But none of this kept them from breezing through customs. Brandishing fresh Albanian passports they had been awarded by President Ilir Meta, three members of the family — Chetankumar Sandesara, his wife Diptiben, and his older brother Nitin — boarded their jet at about 5:00 pm.
Only Diptiben’s brother Hiteshkumar Patel, who was traveling on an Indian passport, was held back, although Interpol “red notices” had been issued for all four travellers.
The other fugitive Sandesaras didn’t stick around to find out what happened next. Shortly after Patel’s detention, their plane’s tracker was briefly spotted, showing they were flying over Sicily. While their final destination is unknown, the direction suggested they could be heading toward Nigeria, where the family also has citizenship and political ties, and where they are widely believed to be hiding now.
Patel, a key figure in overseeing the sprawling Sandesara business empire, faced only moderately worse troubles in the end: Albania granted him asylum in November 2019, and he was never charged or extradited. Over two years later, he still lives freely in the country.
Long a subject of tabloid fascination, the saga of how the Sandesaras evaded justice has grabbed headlines in India for years.
An OCCRP investigation has now found that high-ranking Albanian and Nigerian officials helped the family evade repeated attempts to extradite them to India. Police reports, court documents, interviews, and flight data obtained by reporters show how these officials allowed the family to move freely and continue to run their businesses while at large.
In Albania, where the Sandesaras and their local partner planned to pour over $33 million into construction projects, not only were some members of the family granted citizenship, but one brother was even made an honorary consul. Border data shows they have continued to visit the country freely, despite requests from India for their extradition and an ongoing money laundering investigation into their Albanian investments.
Nigeria’s attorney general has rebuffed an Indian request for their extradition, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated. This opinion, which prominent Indian lawyer Prashant Bhushan described as “laughable,” was also among the arguments an Albanian judge used to reject Patel’s extradition after his detention in 2019.
Documents obtained by OCCRP also show that Indian state companies continued to buy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil sourced from the Sandesaras’ Nigerian firm after the family went on the run.
Zef Preçi, executive director of the Albanian Center for Economic Research (ACER), said it was clear the family had benefited from political protection in Albania. “The fact that no one has been punished for all the advantages given to them implicates senior officials,” he said.
An Albanian police spokesperson insisted the Sandesaras were not wanted in the country or internationally and so could not be arrested. The spokesperson confirmed they were being investigated for laundering the proceeds of crime, but referred reporters to the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office.
The Prosecutor’s Office contradicted the police statement, confirming that a request to extradite the two brothers, at least, had been made. The case is still under investigation, a spokesperson said.
In a 2019 interview, Patel confirmed he was arrested because of an Interpol notice, but said it was issued for “political” reasons. Other members of the family could not be reached, and a representative did not respond to requests for comment.
A Life of Luxury
Nitin Sandesara and his brother Chetankumar got their start producing and trading tea before moving into the manufacture of gelatin, a product widely used in India’s generic pharmaceuticals industry.
The brothers eventually came to control some 340 companies, including 92 outside India, as they expanded into sectors as wide-ranging as energy, construction, and healthcare. Their conglomerate has claimed to be worth nearly $7 billion.
As their wealth grew, the family became a staple of the Indian tabloids, which gushed about their extravagant properties, lavish parties, and appearances with Bollywood stars. In one anecdote, Chetankumar reportedly complained to journalists when a media portal underestimated the cost of the family’s new jet.
But the Sandesaras’ fortunes shifted in the fall of 2017 when the Central Bureau of Investigation in New Delhi accused them and their company of cheating and criminal conspiracy. A subsequent investigation by the Indian government’s Enforcement Directorate claimed that their Sterling Biotech group had criminally acquired and laundered over $700 million for the benefit of its “promoters,” including the Sandesara brothers and Diptiben.
Investigators claimed that the family’s companies had obtained the money by fraudulently obtaining loans from various Indian banks. By the time Patel was detained in Albania in 2019, the amount those banks declared as fraudulent had risen to over $1.1 billion.
Much of this money was allegedly siphoned off using shell companies which listed employees and associates of Sterling Biotech as their shareholders and directors. Prosecutors say the money was transferred under the guise of asset purchases and property transactions. These transactions were also allegedly used to inflate the balance sheets of the shell companies, which then borrowed even more money from the banks and diverted those funds as well.
“Mr. Nitin Jayantilal Sandesara and Mr. Chetan Jayantilal Sandesara appointed and used employees and other associated persons of the SBL group as directors in the various shell companies to launder the tainted money,” reads a file on the investigation from the Indian government. “The effective management and control of all the shell companies were in the hands of the actual beneficial owners,” Nitin, Chetan, and Dipti Sandesara.
Chartered accountant Hemant Sanmukhrai Hathi, one of dozens of Sandesara employees who spoke to investigators, claimed that as many as 311 out of 339 Sandesara-controlled firms were so-called “benami companies,” held in other peoples’ names but ultimately run by the family’s inner circle.
The Sandesaras are accused of using some of the stolen money to buy flashy cars and expensive properties, including a $5 million property in Hyde Park, a manor on a 10-acre plot in North London, and an apartment in Dubai Marina worth some $2 million. More funds, investigators say, were diverted to the Sandesaras’ oil business in Nigeria while the family defaulted on their loans in India.
The Sandesaras fled India before officials could arrest them. The Central Bureau of Investigation and India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to requests for comment. When contacted by reporters, the ED simply shared a copy of a court order declaring the Sandesaras to be “fugitive economic offenders.”
The Albanian Connection
It didn’t take long for the Sandesaras to find friends outside India.
Despite the family’s wanted status, they were swiftly granted Albanian citizenship and received their new passports in February 2018.
Then in January 2019, Albania appointed Nitin Sandesara as an honorary consul to Nigeria. (He was reported to have lost this title three months later, around the time of Patel’s detention.)
Albania’s Ministry of Tourism and Environment, led by Blendi Klosi, referenced the Sandesaras’ investments when nominating them for citizenship, citing their “commitment to the realization of important elite investments in our country.” Along with a local partner, the controversial businessman Juljan “Lul” Morina, the Sandesaras are estimated to have committed over $33 million to construction projects in Albania, including a tourist resort on the country’s most coveted coastline.
Four Albanian state institutions, including the tourism ministry, refused to respond to OCCRP’s questions about why the Sandesaras were cleared to become citizens, saying the information was confidential. The president’s office said that the files “contain personal documents and classified documents, information that cannot be made available,” without offering further explanation.
Pëllumb Nako, former director of Albania’s Border Police, said the speed with which the Sandesaras were approved suggested they had benefited from political protection.
“It seems to me not only hasty but also abusive that all institutions have given their approval,” he told OCCRP. “It would take major power to make things move so fast, it’s not the usual procedure.”
Despite their wanted status, the Sandesaras appear to have visited Albania without any problems. A March 2019 police report obtained by OCCRP notes that officers emailed Interpol twice about Patel before he was arrested, but the family was nevertheless given clearance to enter the country. That same month, India lodged a request in Tirana for the Sandesara brothers to be extradited — again, leading to no apparent attempts to do so.
Read more at OCCRP
RiskScreen: Eliminating Financial Crime with Smart Technology
You can claim CPD minutes for this content, by signing up to our CPD WalletFREE CPD Wallet