kashmir bridge 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Rejecting charges that he received bribes from a leading Israeli defense contractor, former Indian defense minister George Fernandes told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Thursday night that he had approved the $268 million deal in 2000 because he feared an imminent war with Pakistan.
Federal Indian investigators on Tuesday launched investigations of Fernandes and former navy chief Sushil Kumar for alleged irregularities in the purchase of the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Rafael-developed Barak anti-missile ship defense system six years ago. The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began a formal investigation into the deal, the first step toward prosecution, the agency said in a statement.
In an attempt to clear his name, Fernandes denied in an interview with the Post from his home in New Delhi that he had taken bribes from IAI. He raised the possibility that rival defense companies were behind the allegations and had fabricated the charges to damage relations between Israel and India.
Fernandes said that in 1997, the navy made an urgent request to purchase the Barak, which had already been bought by Chile and the Israel Navy.
"The navy needed it desperately and the point they made was that they had just emerged from a fight with Pakistan and there was a fear of something more happening," he said in his first interview with the Israeli press. "It was taking time for India to produce such a system on its own and I - as well as the whole government - cleared it [the deal]."
In 2000, following testing and visits by IAI officials to India and by Indian naval officers to Israel, the Indian Defense Ministry signed a $268 million contract with IAI to buy seven Barak anti-missile systems and 200 missiles, despite, according to CBI, objections by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), a government-run defense organization.
On Tuesday CBI investigators raided the homes and businesses of six men who it said had acted as middlemen in the deal. The agency said that $434,780 was allegedly paid to the then-president of a political party who functioned out of Fernandes' residence. "The then-defense minister not only approved the proposal for import of Barak AMD Systems, but tried to get the proposal approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security," a CBI statement said.
Fernandes rejected the charges, claiming "no person can corrupt me and I stand by this position, and if anyone has evidence they should produce it."
He acknowledged that Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was at the time of the signing scientific adviser to the defense minister and secretary of the DRDO, had objected to the deal. But he said, he decided to approve the purchase due to what he called the "Indian navy's desperation."
"The president, who was then an adviser on defense matters, gave certain advice, but I had to make a decision looking exactly at what the navy needed desperately and since they were worried about Pakistan having a device and India not having, this was what led me to make my decision," he said.
While expressing concern that the Israeli defense industries would suffer due to the investigation, Israeli defense officials said that the accusations were baseless and would prove to be false.
Israel is India's second-largest military supplier, and IAI is behind dozens of contracts and upgrades, including the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles and the $1.1 billion Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control System sale to the Indian air force. According to a report on the India Defense Web site, India purchases $900 million in arms from Israel annually.
IAI is also involved in the upgrade of several Indian air force fighters - such as Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 - helicopters - such as MI-8, MI-17 and MI-35 - and Antanov-32 transport aircraft.
According to the Web site, top Indian military officials, including air force chief Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi and navy vice-chief Vice-Adm. Venkat Bharathan, paid covert visits to Israel recently.