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30 December, 1997

Rajan Pillai associate nabbed in Singapore 

Prema Viswanathan  
Singapore, Dec 29: Industrialist Rajan Pillai may be no more, but the controversy which had enveloped him until his death in custody in Delhi over two years ago has been given a new lease of life in Singapore: the local authorities nabbed one of his former associates, Antony Joseph, at Changi Airport on Friday.

On Saturday, a district court here charged Joseph, who was a company secretary with Britannia Industries, with 22 counts of criminal breach of trust. The defendent faces a jail term of 10 years or even life imprisonment on each charge.

A bail of S$2 million has been set by the court, greatly exceeding the the S$300,000 sought by defence counsel Prabhakaran Nair. A court hearing has been fixed for January 8.

Most of the charges levelled against Joseph are similar to those Rajan Pillai faced, relating to misuse of company funds. The former company secretary is charged with siphoning $4.2 million from the company coffers to pay off the debts of Paragon Corporation in the Virgin Islands, in which the late Pillai had a stake, and of the Singapore-based Shasta Industries, which was fully owned by the latter and his wife, Nina.

The 43-year-old Joseph, a chartered accountant who enjoys permanent resident status in the city state, was arrested on his arrival from India, where he had supposedly sought refuge from the Singapore police. A warrant had been issued for his arrest in March 1995, when he fled the country, presumably to evade a court hearing in connection with the Rajan Pillai case.

Joseph, a prosecution witness in Pillai's trial, was to have clarified to the court whether he had acted under Pillai's direction when making entries in the accounts. Brittania Industries was jointly owned by Pillai and former RJR-Nabisco chairman Ross Johnson and his associates.

The re-opening of the Rajan Pillai case, which had been declared closed in May 1995, has taken observers by surprise.

District Judge Jasvender Kaur had closed the file following an application by deputy public prosecutor Hamidul Haq of CAD.

Pillai fled Singapore in April 1995 while awaiting the sentence on his conviction of 23 counts of criminal breach of trust, one count of cheating and two counts under the Companies Act.Another three charges -- one under the Companies Act and two under the Penal Code -- had been stood down.

Pillai could have been sentenced to a maximum of 14 years imprisonment. The charges related to Pillai's buying over the Asian operations of the American RJR-Nabisco group in 1989 for US$180 million with the aid of a group of investors including RJR Nabisco's former chief executive Ross Johnson. However, differences erupted between him and Johnson.

A government probe was instituted and criminal charges were filed in 1993 against Pillai. The charges involved more than S$31.5 million (approximately Rs 64 crore). Following his getaway from the island-state, the district court forfeited the S$3.5 million (Rs 7.7 crore) Pillai had put up as bail money using an employee as a front.

Hours before the sentencing, the 47-year old tycoon fled Singapore before the sentence could be passed, hoping to find an Indian court sympathetic to his case. However, he was forced to live the life of a fugitive in his hoe country, moving from one hotel to the other when his efforts to get anticipatory bail to avoid extradition to Singapore, met with failure. In early July, he was nabbed by the CBI in a predawn raid at New Delhi's five-star Le Meridien Hotel. He died in hospital four days later, sparking a controversy revolving around the alleged neglect by the prison authorities.

Preliminary investigations pronounced his death to have been caused by cirrhosis of the liver, but this was disputed by Nina Pillai. In August this year, Delhi's chief metropolitan magistrate, Prem Kumar, asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to launch another investigation following a petition from the widow, alleging that he had been murdered in jail.

Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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