Members of famous Indian family the Sandesaras, indicted or on the run for tax evasion, loan fraud, and other alleged offences enjoy state protection from Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria, a report says.
The report is according to an investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
The Sandesaras — Chetankumar, his wife Diptiben, and elder brother Nitin — had been on the run since 2017, when authorities in India accused them of defrauding local banks out of loans worth over $700 million at the time.
Despite the allegations and their fugitive status, the family had been allowed to invest in projects in Albania, Kosovo, and Nigeria. In fact, they hold Albanian and Nigerian passports.
The OCCRP investigation says 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.
Nigeria’s Attorney-General rebuffed an Indian request for their extradition, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated.
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 – implying that the family yet maintains ties with some state authorities in India.
The family owns Nigeria-based Sterling Oil Exploration and Energy Production Company (SEEPCO).
The brothers—Nitin Sandesara and Chetankumar Sandesara—control some 340 companies, including 92 outside India in 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. In 2019, the amount those banks declared as fraudulent had risen to over $1.1 billion (about N600 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.
The Sandesaras also appear to have played politics in Kosovo. In February 2019, Kosovo’s then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj posted on Facebook that he had met with Chetankumar Sandesara, describing him as a “representative of ‘Sandesara Group’ from Nigeria,” to discuss investments in tourism and agriculture.
They have found shelter in Nigeria, along with lucrative business opportunities.
In 2011, SEEPCO partnered with Nigerian-owned Allenne Energy Ltd. on a concession licence to exploit an oil field worth over $3 billion. Nigeria’s then-president Goodluck Jonathan named Sterling as one of the country’s top 100 businesses in 2014.
The accusations against them back home do not seem to have troubled Nigerian officials. A month after they were charged in India, Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim, who was Nigeria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs between 2016 and 2018, wrote to the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking for Nitin Sandesara to be appointed honorary consul to Nigeria. She cited Nitin’s “effort to expand the friendship” between Nigeria and Albania and “the need to provide [an] avenue for boosting trade and investment relations between the two countries.”
Albanian authorities immediately began the process, and Nitin received the position in January 2019, a year after he and his brother received their Albanian citizenship.
In June 2018, Nigeria’s judiciary also handed down a ruling that reinforced the narrative that the Sandesaras had faced persecution by Indian authorities. The decision was made as part of a suit filed by Allenne Energy to prevent information about the Nigerian oil concession from being shared with any law enforcement agencies or banks in India or Nigeria.
Allenne’s suit alleged that the Indian banks were acting with “ulterior motives” and asked the court for a declaration that the “change of government in India as well as the government policies and political and religious victimization and persecution of [SEEPCO] constitute force majeure capable of raising concerns by [Allenne Energy] in protecting its interest.”
A judge in Nigeria’s Federal High Court agreed, writing that the Sandesara brothers and their families were being “targeted by Indian government agencies” for their political and religious beliefs.
“It would be inappropriate for this court to allow any Nigerian company to be economically imperiled, because of political vendetta of Indian Government and banks,” the judge’s statement read. “Nigeria is keen on keeping and protecting the present legitimate investors and to even encourage more to come into the economy.”
Later, in 2019, Nigeria’s justice ministry made a similar argument when it rejected a request from India to extradite members of the Sandesara family, citing its power to refuse requests if it believes that the offence is “political in nature.”
Prashant Bhushan, the prominent public interest lawyer in India, called the High Court’s decision “laughable,” and pointed out that the Sandesaras are close to a former top Central Bureau of Investigation officer, R.K. Asthana, whose daughter’s wedding was held in their farmhouse.
“Someone who is so close to Asthana cannot fear persecution by the Indian government,” said Bhushan, who in late 2017 made public a diary belonging to the Sandesaras that allegedly detailed kickbacks to top Indian officials. “A sham show is being put on to show that an attempt to extradite them is being made.”
Whether or to what extent the Sandesaras have been protected in India is a matter of debate. Indian authorities have reportedly sought to freeze over $2 billion worth of Sandesara assets as part of their investigation.
But oil shipping data provided to OCCRP also shows that state-run Indian companies continued buying Nigerian crude sourced from SEEPCO even after the money laundering charges against the Sandesaras, raising questions about how hard the Indian state and the defrauded banks are working to reclaim the money they allege the family stole.
The Nigerian court decision in the case filed by Allenne, handed down on June 8, 2018, ultimately helped the Sandesaras avoid extradition from Albania as well. A copy of both this case and the decision by Nigeria not to extradite the four family members were given to the Tirana District Court by a special envoy of the Nigerian government.
Rejecting to order extradition, an Albanian judge argued that Nigeria’s High Court had shown the Sandesara family were being targeted because of their “political and religious beliefs.”