French Ministry Refusing to Declassify Rafale Documents Needed for Probe: Report
Dassault Rafale. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia
French judges are leading an investigation into corruption claims surrounding the 7.8-billion-euro sale to India in 2016 of 36 Dassault-built Rafale fighter aircraft.
But four months after searching the headquarters of the French defence and aviation group, investigators were refused access by France's Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to classified documents concerning the contract negotiations, according to a report by Mediapart, a French media platform.
In February this year, a team from OCLCIFF, the anti-corruption unit of the French police, searched Dassault’s headquarters in Saint-Cloud, in the western suburbs of Paris, on the judicial panel’s request, which consists of Judges Virginie Tilmont and Pascal Gastineau. When Mediapart asked Dassault about this, the company refused to respond.
In June, however, the judges found it difficult to proceed further –France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces and Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to declassify certain secret documents on the sale that the judges had requested as part of their probe. The body that looks after declassifying documents of this sort – the Commission du Secret de la Défense Nationale (CSDN) – reportedly recommended to the ministries in two separate opinions that the documents should be left as is.
If the judges’ probe were allowed to continue without hurdle, it might have raised serious questions for François Hollande (who was the French president at the time of the sale in 2015), his successor Emmanuel Macron and their former minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the report said.
The French probe was 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.
Now, the complainants at Sherpa are unhappy with the government’s alleged stalling tactics. “Once again, military secrecy is used as window dressing to protect personal interests and ensure the impunity of top public or private figures united in the same fraudulent grouping,” William Bourdon and Vincent Brengarth, lawyers for the NGO Sherpa, told Mediapart.
India and Dassault had officially been negotiating terms for the purchase and manufacture of 126 Rafale jets right up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s publicly announced decision – on April 10, 2015 – to scrap that deal and replace it with the outright purchase of 36 fighters. While Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister at the time, was unaware of Modi’s decision until the very end, Mediapart investigations revealed last year that it appears Anil Ambani may have had an inkling of it.
While the French investigation into the deal continues, despite hiccups and alleged stalling tactics, no similar investigation has been launched in India. The Supreme Court had earlier rejected contentions that an FIR and probe were required on the matter, despite evidence revealed by a series of journalistic investigations.
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