Gupta citizenship inquiry: Chawla back in SA only in December, says lawyer

The attorney for Ashu Chawla says he is surprised by Parliament's attempt to summon his client from India via SMS at a moment's notice to appear before the inquiry into the naturalisation of members of the Gupta family.

The Sahara and Oakbay director's name cropped up repeatedly during the inquiry into what led to Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba's decision to approve their naturalisation application.

Based on analysis of the #GuptaLeaks during the presentation to the committee by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, Chawla only got an average of four hours' sleep a day as he handled up to 300 emails for the company.

Among these emails were alleged requests for expedited visas, and eventually a motivation for the naturalisation of Ajay Gupta's mother Angoori, and his sons Kamal and Surya.

He apparently had a very close relationship with Gideon Christians, a first secretary at the South African consulate in New Delhi, to the point that Gideons sent him a spreadsheet containing private details of foreign mission staff around the world, right down to how much they paid for rent, the committee heard.

The committee decided on Wednesday, the first day of the second phase of its hearings into the naturalisation, that it should question Chawla.

READ: 'Talk to my lawyer' - Gupta 'fixer' Chawla to parliamentary committee

On Thursday, committee chairperson Hlomani Chauke said MPs had discovered that Chawla was in India and would only deal with the committee via his lawyer.

This raised questions by EFF MP Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi about how Chawla had been able to leave South Africa in the first place, since he was a co-accused in the Estina dairy farm case.Rudi Krause, attorney for Chawla, said he was "astonished".

He was amazed that Chauke did not know Chawla's bail conditions.

"He was permitted by the court to leave South Africa," said Krause.

"So, he is perfectly legitimately outside the republic at the moment, and not in any breach of his bail conditions."

Krause said the only correspondence he had received from the committee was an SMS, at 15:41 on Wednesday, telling him that Chawla's presence was required at the committee on Thursday morning.

He said Chawla would not have been able to make it to Parliament even if he was in Johannesburg, not India, with such short notice.

Lawyer requests 'official and proper notice'

"I didn't know that our Parliament functions in this manner," said Krause. 

"Until such time as we receive an official and proper notice from Parliament there is, very simply, nothing for us to do."

He said Chawla would return to South Africa for his next court appearance on December 4.

Arun Gupta, the nephew of the controversial Gupta brothers, Oakbay CEO Ronica Ragavan, Chawla, former The New Age media executive Nazeem Howa, Estina director Kamal Vasram and three Free State provincial government officials – Peter Thabethe, Sylvia Dlamini and Takisi Masiteng – appeared in court on August 21.

READ: MPs want Gupta brothers to answer at citizenship inquiry

The eight were granted bail after an appearance in February this year.

They were arrested on charges of fraud, theft, conspiracy to commit fraud and theft, contravening the Public Finance Management Act, contravening the Companies Act, and contravening sections of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act in connection with the alleged theft of more than R200m linked to the Estina dairy farm project in Vrede.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Phaladi Shuping told News24 the state and the defence came to an agreement that the bail conditions of the accused should be relaxed.

"One of the conditions that was relaxed relates to travelling abroad. They can travel anytime but they just have to inform the investigating officer of when they are intending to get out of the country and when are they intending to get back.

"All of their passports are with the investigating officer but once they have informed him of their intention to travel abroad, the investigating officer will give them their passports. They will then have to hand over their passports back to the investigating officer once they have returned to South Africa," explained Shuping.

The committee itself was unexpectedly adjourned on Thursday night, with Gigaba ready with a presentation on how the process of naturalisation works. 

Chauke said the committee needed more time to question former director general Mkuseli Apleni, to talk to Chawla and to go through the administrative information on naturalisation they had received.

*This article was updated on September 17 to provide additional information from the NPA on Chawla's bail conditions.