Monday, February 14, 2005

At home with India's most wanted man

+ According to Mirchi, his problems began soon after a series of bombs ripped through Mumbai in 1993, killing more than 300 people - part of a Muslim backlash following the destruction of a historic religious monument. 'A senior police officer told me that my name would be attached to false charges unless I paid millions of rupees in bribes. I refused and moved to Dubai. In my absence they made charges against me and claimed I had absconded. That mud has stuck to my name ever since.' In Dubai, Mirchi admits meeting Dawood Ibrahim. 'He is from Mumbai, I am from Mumbai. There was some contact but I have never worked for him. It was social. These people are the mafia, they kill people. I have never hurt anybody in my life.' +

At home with India's most wanted man

Iqbal Mirchi denies any part in a global 'mafia' that controls drugs, gold smuggling and Bollywood films


13/02/2005

Tony Thompson, crime correspondent

Iqbal Mirchi is one of the world's most wanted men. He is being sought by police in India for murder and his part in a bloody terrorist bombing campaign which left hundreds dead. He is currently ranked among the top 50 global drug barons and a United Nations report says he is a senior figure in the 'D' company, a worldwide organised-crime syndicate with wealth and power said to rival that of the Italian mafia.

Last week his name cropped up during the trial of Hemant Lakhani, a Briton accused of smuggling a shoulder-launched missile to the US, who was said to be an associate of the 'drug lord and terror suspect' Mirchi. Yet far from living on the run, The Observer has learnt that Mirchi has spent the past 15 years in the Essex town of Hornchurch.

Regularly referred to in the Indian press as the country's 'number one drug lord', Mirchi is said to have mastered the art of distancing himself from the criminal activity he is said to control.

Mirchi says he has no involvement in organised crime or terrorism and is being persecuted by the Indian government because of his religion. But according to the US and Indian authorities, he is the right-hand man of Dawood Ibrahim, head of the D company.

Mirchi lives in a large, detached, six-bedroom house in an exclusive part of Hornchurch. Two luxury cars sit in the driveway. When The Observer called round to put the allegations to Mirchi, he promptly invited the reporter inside and offered him tea.

In a living room finished with dark wood floors and walls, furnished with two cream leather sofas and dominated by an enormous running machine, Mirchi contested the allegations. 'Everything they say about me is total bullshit,' he explained. 'The drugs, the murder, the terrorism. All bullshit. My first crime is that I am a Muslim. My second crime is that I am a successful Muslim businessman.'

According to Mirchi, his problems began soon after a series of bombs ripped through Mumbai in 1993, killing more than 300 people - part of a Muslim backlash following the destruction of a historic religious monument.

'A senior police officer told me that my name would be attached to false charges unless I paid millions of rupees in bribes. I refused and moved to Dubai. In my absence they made charges against me and claimed I had absconded. That mud has stuck to my name ever since.'

In Dubai, Mirchi admits meeting Dawood Ibrahim. 'He is from Mumbai, I am from Mumbai. There was some contact but I have never worked for him. It was social. These people are the mafia, they kill people. I have never hurt anybody in my life.'

The son of a police constable, Dawood's ability to combine organised crime with global terrorism has led to his being described as 'the most dangerous man in the world'. He fought his way to the top of the underworld by executing every one of his rivals. As well as drugs and terrorism, the D company is involved in gold smuggling, gambling, counterfeit currency, diamond trading, contract killing, extortion and film financing. It is said to have a 60 per cent stake in the Bollywood film industry.

Dawood is also known to have met Osama Bin Laden and, in the aftermath of 9/11, allowed his smuggling network to be used to enable senior al-Qaeda operatives to flee Afghanistan. Dawood is now in hiding in Pakistan.

In April 1995 officers from Scotland Yard raided Mirchi's home and arrested him on drugs and terrorism charges in connection with the 1993 blasts. By the time the case came to court, those charges had been dropped and replaced with a charge relating to the murder of the manager of Mirchi's London rice mill, who was shot dead in Mumbai soon after quitting his job. An extradition request was turned down when magistrates at Bow Street decided there was no case to answer. India did not appeal, and paid Mirchi's legal costs. Despite this, all the charges against him remain on file in India and Mirchi will be arrested and tried if he ever returns.

Scotland Yard's investigation of Mirchi, which ended in 1999, found no evidence of criminal activity. In 2001 the Home Office granted him indefinite leave to remain, yet last year the 55-year-old former taxi driver's name was added to the list of narcotics kingpins issued by the US State Department.

'I now realise that I made a mistake,' Mirchi continues. 'I should not have fought the extradition, I should have stood trial. Then I would have cleared my name and I would be free to go about my business. I have offered to return to India but asked for a guarantee that I would be given judicial protection.'

The Indian government has refused Mirchi's request so he has stayed put. In the meantime several of his properties in India were seized and the passports of his wife and children were restricted, allowing them to travel only between Mumbai and Dubai. Mirchi moved to Dubai in order to be with them but was forced to leave and return to the UK when India made it clear that they would attempt to extradite Mirchi from there.

Since his return to the UK, India has shown no sign of bringing new charges. Mirchi has written to the US State Department expressing outrage about his name being included on the kingpin list.

'The bottom line is that I have never made any secret of where I am,' Mirchi says. 'The British police, the Indian police, the American police all have my address because I have written to them and told them. If I am a kingpin and they want to arrest me, they know exactly where to find me.'