Sterling Biotech’s Sandesaras claim fear of religious persecution in India to evade the law

The fugitive family faces charges in a $700 million fraud and money laundering case in India, but is protected by Albania and Nigeria.

WrittenBy:Lindita Çela and Ushinor Majumdar
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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 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.

Chetankumar Sandesara meets Kosovo’s then prime minister Ramush Haradinaj in February 2019. Credit: Facebook

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, or 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.

The Sandesara Group’s Gulfstream jet. Credit: Nishant Deshpande

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 firms controlled by the Sandesaras 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 external affairs ministry 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 Sandesaras are accused of using embezzled money to buy a $2 million apartment in Dubai Marina. Credit: Norlando Pobre

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 the 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.”


A Local Friend

It’s unclear why exactly the Sandesara family has been so favored by Albanian authorities. One reason may be their local representative, Juljan “Lul” Morina.

Morina is one of the rare Albanian businessmen who likes to display his wealth on social media, posting photos of his travels, expensive cars, and yacht (named after himself). His guests there, and at his luxurious hotel on Albania’s southern coast, include powerful politicians like Ramush Haradinaj, the former prime minister of Kosovo.

Morina swiftly rose to prominence after opening a construction company in 2005. His business grew rapidly and by 2013 he had become a sponsor for the Tirana football team. At one football game, he was photographed with the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

OCCRP has also uncovered another connection between Morina and the first family: Edi Rama’s son, Gregor Rama, appears to have lived in a residential block built by Morina in an upscale neighborhood of Tirana for more than two years.

Neighbours and a real estate agent confirmed he had lived in the 140-square-meter luxury apartment since September 2018. Edi Rama said in his asset declaration for 2019 that he paid 1,50,000 leke in rent for his son for the last five months of that year, the equivalent of 243 euros per month, well below the market rate of 1,000 euros a month for flats in the area where Gregor lived.

Although the asset declaration doesn’t give the address of Gregor’s flat, an OCCRP reporter saw him enter and leave Morina’s building repeatedly throughout 2020. When the reporter tried to meet Gregor to seek comment for this story, someone else turned up to the meeting. He then stopped replying to messages and calls.

Morina defended his ties with the Sandesaras to OCCRP, saying they were being “persecuted by their state for their political and religious beliefs and I strongly believe that they are honest persons”.

He declined to respond to detailed questions about Gregor Rama’s rent, saying only that “it seemed very biased to ask me who lives in one of the 50 buildings built by the company I run.”

Julian Morina, the Sandesaras’ Albanian partner. Credit: Facebook

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.

Then, in November that year, an Interpol official sent the Sandesaras’ lawyer a letter confirming that the notices for Nitin, Chetankumar, and Diptiben were being lifted. The reason was not clear, with the letter only citing an unspecified “request” they had made.

Interpol declined to comment, except to note that it has no power to compel national authorities to make arrests. “Interpol cannot insist or compel any member country to arrest an individual who is the subject of a Red Notice. Nor can Interpol require any member country to take any action in response to another member country’s request,” its press office said in a statement.

At least one Sandesara family member has continued to travel to Albania even after India’s extradition request: border data collected by police shows the younger Sandesara brother, Chetankumar, entered the country at least three times since March 2020, including once this January.

Albania and India do not have an extradition treaty, but Arben Braçe, a senior official from Albania’s ministry of justice who deals with jurisdictional issues, said that India’s request should have been enough for him or his brother to be arrested.

"If they are required by the Indian state they should be handed over to the Indian state on the basis of reciprocity”, because both countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, Braçe told OCCRP. “It is enough that the offense they have committed in India is punishable in Albania as well.”

The Sandesaras’ Albanian lawyer, Xhevair Morina – the brother of their business partner “Lul” Morina – told OCCRP that Chetankumar had been coming to Albania to check on their business affairs.

Morina Palace, which Julian Morina completed shortly after signing a cooperation agreement with the Sandesaras. Credit: OCCRP

But the Sandesaras’ apparent influence in Albania has not completely shielded them from scrutiny. Less than a year after the Sandesara brothers were granted Albanian citizenship, the Tirana Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation into them and Morina for laundering money through the very investments that won them their new passports.

According to a letter sent to the Prosecutor’s Office in January 2019 by Albania’s General Directorate of Prevention and Money Laundering, the Sandesaras “benefited from loans from various banks in the Indian state using falsified documentation and then these loans were used for other purposes”.

Files from the investigation said it was looking into all activities linked to the Sandesaras in Albania. These included construction projects in Tirana and the Albanian seaside town of Himara, as well as a 15,419-square-foot plot with a preliminary permit to build a tourist resort on the desirable Dhërmi coast, and Morina’s purchase of a company called Drymades Dream.

Preçi, the director of the Albanian think tank ACER, said the Sandesaras’ investments should have been closely monitored given the money laundering charges against them in India.

“There is a well-founded suspicion of money laundering, and the fact that there was no further movement even after the scandal was discovered leads to the thought that there are implications that deserve further investigation,” he said.

The Albanian investigation was ongoing at the time of publication.

Morina confirmed he worked with the Sandesaras, but said they were currently only collaborating on building some apartments in Tirana. He said he “had no idea” that there was a money laundering investigation into the Sandesaras in Albania.

“My perception of them is that they are persecuted politically and religiously, as evidenced by the decisions of international justice,” he said.


Kosovo and Beyond

Albania isn’t the only Balkan country where the Sandesaras have friends in high places. They 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.

Then, in January 2020, Agnesa Vuthaj, a model and entrepreneur who was crowned Miss Kosovo in 2003 and Miss Albania the following year, published a Facebook post denying reports that she was in a relationship with Chetankumar Sandesara.

Instead, Vuthaj, who today runs a high-end fashion label in Pristina, claimed to have worked with the Sandesaras to help Kosovo gain recognition as a state from Nigeria.

“I have also been to Nigeria and we are working for the recognition of Kosovo by Nigeria, something that no Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister or President has done yet, despite many years of efforts,” she wrote.

The surprising claim of the Sandesaras’ involvement in this issue was backed up by their lawyer Xhevair Morina.

"They are also negotiating for the recognition of Kosovo's independence," Morina told OCCRP in the summer of 2019. “If you hear that Nigeria recognized Kosovo, know that this happened because of them.”

The office of Kosovo’s prime minister did not respond to requests for comment.

The Dhërmi coast in Albania, where the Sandesaras have a permit to build a tourist resort. Credit: Olga Kolos

The Nigerian connection

The Sandesaras have also found shelter in Nigeria, along with lucrative business opportunities.

In 2011, the brothers’ Sterling Oil Exploration & Energy Production Co Ltd, or 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 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, Nigeria’s foreign minister Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim wrote to the Albanian ministry of foreign affairs asking for Nitin Sandesara to be appointed honorary consul to her country. In a letter dated November 27, 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 had 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 offense is “political in nature”.

A picture from the SEEPCO website.

Prashant Bhushan, a 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, RK 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 company has sold over $700 million of crude oil which was later bought by state-owned Indian companies since the Sandaseras went on the run, according to Sukhpal Singh, who at a much earlier time was in charge of a shipping vessel owned and operated by SEEPCO through a subsidiary.

Documents show SEEPCO sold the oil to the UK office of Glencore, a major commodities trader, which then sold it to three state-owned oil companies: Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. That includes a shipment sold to Indian Oil Corporation that was picked up from a terminal belonging to SEEPCO in November 2020, two months after the Sandesaras were declared fugitive economic offenders.

“On paper, the supplier on the bill of lading is Glencore, but there should be no confusion that the actual supplier is Sterling Oil-Nigeria, or SEEPCO,” Singh said. Considering the information available, “it would be strange that they have apparently sought political asylum in Nigeria claiming persecution in India”, he added.

Singh said he even approached India’s Supreme Court last year to try to spur the state and the banks to act.

A Glencore spokesperson, Charles Watenphul, confirmed that the company had bought oil from SEEPCO that was then sold to the three state-owned Indian companies. He rejected any suggestion that Glencore had tried to disguise the origin of the oil, however, saying the trader had acted “in its own name and for its own account”.

Watenphul added that Glencore terminated its commercial relationship with SEEPCO in 2020, without specifying when.

Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited did not respond to requests for comment.

A picture from the SEEPCO website.

Failed extraditions

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.

The Albanian judge who refused to extradite Patel to India after he was arrested at Tirana airport in March 2019 cited both rulings in his decision, arguing that Nigeria’s High Court had shown the Sandesara family were being targeted because of their “political and religious beliefs”.

“Nitin Sandesara and Chetan Sandesara have suffered serious political and economic persecution by India’s current government because they are recognized as persons with strong Muslim [affiliations] and strong ties to India’s [opposition party, the Indian National] Congress,” Judge Gerd Hoxha wrote.

Another file that appeared among the court documents hints at how the Sandesaras and their associates leveraged their influence behind the scenes to ensure the Albanian court would draw on Nigeria's precedent: A letter written by SEEPCO executive Deepak Barot to the Commissioner of Police and Interpol in Abuja after Patel's detention, urging the Nigerian authorities to "strongly and urgently" convey the Nigerian Federal High Court's decision to Interpol Albania.

It is not clear exactly what role, if any, the Interpol offices in each country played in the letter's submission. Interpol’s head office referred reporters to Nigerian law enforcement for comment. Interpol Nigeria and Nigeria’s national police force did not respond to requests for comment.

But one way or another, the letter made its way to the Albanian court. Once again pointing to the "political victimization and religious persecution" the Sandesaras ostensibly faced, the letter cites both Patel's membership in the family and his Nigerian residency. The alleged fraud, it says, was in fact “a simple commercial transaction”.

Lindita Çela is with OCCRP and Ushinor Majumdar with Confluence Media.

Newslaundry is publishing this report with permission from OCCRP and Confluence Media. We have lightly edited it for style and clarity.

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