Two Indian fugitives suspected of involvement in a €640 million fraud scandal used Henley and Partners to try to buy passports from at least three other countries, leaked documents in the Passport Papers cache indicate.
Chetankumar (Chetan) Sandesara and his brother Nitin Sandesara went on the run in 2017 after they were named as suspects in a large scale fraud and money laundering scandal in India, involving their company Sterling Biotech. Indian authorities accused them of taking out loans from local banks, defaulting on the payments, and pocketing the funds.
The Shift was able to access these documents, which formed a part of the cache of leaked Henley and Partners documents that was passed on to the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. The documents were processed and reported on by a consortium of journalists and published as The Passport Papers. Henley and Partners are the concessionaires for Malta’s controversial cash-for-passports scheme, introduced in 2013.
Documents seen by The Shift show that the brothers had a business relationship with Henley and Partners from at least November 2016, just before they were named as suspects in the fraud scandal, and continued to at least October 2017.
It appears that the pair expressed an interest in and applied for passports in Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, and Cyprus. Documents show that large sums of money were paid to Henley and Partners in exchange for various services.
Additional invoices show that Henley and Partners were on a retainer for at least some of the time the Sandesaras were fugitives and wanted internationally. The latest invoice seen is dated 18 October 2017.
In October 2017, Nitin underwent a background verification for the Antigua and Barbuda programme, paying Henley and Partners a fee for the service. Possibly indicating the outcome was negative for him, he then went on to be billed for various services under the Grenada programme as well.
Chetan underwent an extensive background check in November 2016 and then went on to apply for Cypriot citizenship in June and July 2017. He applied alongside an executive of one of his Nigerian companies, Deepak Barot.
It appears that the Sandesaras were unable to get citizenship in any of the countries where they applied.
A simple Google search of their names for the years 2016 and 2017, shows that they and their companies had issues with law enforcement as far back as 2010. They were also named as suspects in fraud and money laundering crimes in 2016 when their relationship with Henley and Partners was already established.
The Shift asked Henley and Partners if they were aware of the brothers’ legal difficulties at any point during their business relationship. They replied that “we do not comment on potential, past, or existing client relationships, but we are committed to complying with all applicable laws and regulations.”
They added that “we never obtained any citizenship for the individuals you are referring to.”
In early 2017, two Henley and Partners senior officials visited the Albanian capital of Tirana on two separate occasions. Steffen Juerg, the Group CEO, visited on 3 February, followed by Stefan Kraus the COO on 27 February.
The purpose of their visit is not known. A spokesperson for the Albanian government didn’t respond to questions on Henley and Partners’ visits, or whether the Sandesara brothers were discussed at any point.
But in 2018, the brothers were granted Albanian citizenship by President Ilir Meta based on them contributing at least $33 million in investment in real estate construction in Tirana and prime coastal locations like Dhermi in the south.
Like disgraced former Malta prime minister Joseph Muscat before him, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama appeared at a Henley and Partners event in London in November 2019 where he announced his plan to sell off citizenship in the European Union candidate country.
“I know there are controversies around this programme and when I get back home I will receive an alert from the European Union about this, but I believe this is something that we have to do,” he told the audience.
On this topic, Henley and Partners told The Shift that they are “unable to comment on business trips or interactions with governments, which senior people in our firm do regularly and all around the world.”
They added “please be aware, Albania does not have, and did not have in 2017 a citizenship-by-investment programme and as such could not recommend anyone to it as a possible option as such an option did not (and still does not) exist.”
Henley and Partners also said, “it’s well known and been public knowledge for many years that the Albanian government has been considering the launch of a citizenship-by-investment programme. This is why Mr Rama was invited to speak at our London conference, which is also well known.”
But in terms of the Sandesara brothers, how they managed to gain Albanian citizenship remains a mystery. A recent report from OCCRP’s correspondent in Tirana alleges that they enjoyed political protection and their applications were pushed through with political backing, foregoing proper procedure.
They were subsequently allowed to travel in and out of Albania via private jet, without being stopped, despite being wanted, and India has made an extradition request to Albania.
Albanian institutions have refused to provide information on how the brothers applied for citizenship and were approved. A former director of the Albanian border police told the OCCRP it was likely to have been politically motivated.
The Nigerian company executive Barot applied for Cypriot citizenship via Henley and Partners in 2017, then opened a company in Albania in December 2020. A former accountant for the Sandesaras, Hemant Nitin Sanmukhrai Hathi said that it was common for the family to set up accounts in the names of their inner circle, and then use them to facilitate fraud and launder money.
The Tirana prosecutor’s office said the Sandesaras are currently under investigation for money laundering. Unfortunately, Albania’s courts suffer from a high level of political influence and hopes are not high that justice will be attained.
As for the Sandesaras, it is thought that Chetankumar is potentially in Albania, while his brother Nitan is in Nigeria.
The pair claim innocence and say all allegations against them are politically motivated, and also related to the fact they are Muslim.
Henley and Partners told the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation that it was aware of possible risks in handling client applications and that it had invested “significant time and capital in recent years to create a governance structure that is committed to the highest of standards with due diligence at its heart.”
They added that their processes are well documented and are significantly more advanced than those of the majority of other investment migration industry participants.
When asked by The Shift specifically if they had introduced, either formally or informally, the Sandesara brothers to the Albanian government, they said they do not act “informally for anyone” and have “never introduced anyone to the Albanian government.”
This is a joint investigation by The Shift and other partners, coordinated by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.