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Murder case: NRI loses US passport

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai
October 16, 2003 09:35 IST
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The United States of America has revoked the passport of an Indian American, Pragnesh Desai, despite an Indian court acquitting him of the charge of murdering his fiancée.

A letter issued to Desai by Vice Consul Nancy S Cunningham (American citizen services), Mumbai said, 'The Department of State has requested this office to inform you that it has revoked passport No 093558945 issued to you on September 4, 1996, at the Philadelphia Passport Agency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and any other US passport you may possess, whether issued to you in your true identity or not.'

The department's action is based upon an arrest warrant issued against Desai on May 5, 2003 by a US court, District of New Jersey, Newark. 'Any further use of any US passport issued to you would constitute a violation of US laws,' Cunningham told Desai in her letter.

The move has come as a setback to Desai, who was on September 26 was acquitted by a Thane court of the charge of murdering his fiancée Leona Swinderski on February 8, 2003.

Desai landed in India with Swinderski on February 8, 2002 at the Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai by an Air-India flight from New York.

Soon after, he reportedly went to urinate but did not find Swinderski on his return. He immediately lodged a report with the police.

The next day, the Thane police found Swinderski's body 30km from Mumbai city. Investigations revealed that she had been murdered.

On interrogation, Pragnesh reportedly broke down and confessed to murdering her.

The police allege that Pragnesh had hired two goons, Altaf and Farooq Patel, to do the job. The cops had even got a witness, Rashmi Patel, who alleged that Desai had entered into a deal with his friend, Vipul Patel, to murder Leona on her arrival in Mumbai. Rashmi Patel is Vipul Patel's brother-in-law.

Amatao Galasso, the attorney representing the Swinderski family, told India Abroad (a publication) that Desai had bought two insurance policies of $500,000 each in Swinderski's name with himself as the sole beneficiary.

"We had strong circumstancial evidence. Unfortunately, Rashmi turned hostile in court and therefore Desai, along with other accused, were acquitted. Now we are trying to extradite him to the US where he is charged with transferring money illegally to India to pay the killers," said Ramrao Pawar, the policeman leading the investigation.

When contacted, Desai's lawyer Majeed Memon said, "We have informed the US consul office that Desai is ready to appear before US courts and he be given the right to legal counsel over there."

"He has been cleared of all the allegations against him. It cannot be said that he is absconding or evading the call of attendance by the district court, New Jersey. He is very anxious to clear his name vis-à-vis false accusations against him even in the US courts," added Memon.
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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai