The media in the Belgian city of Antwerp, where diamond merchant Nirav Modi grew up, has taken a sympathetic approach to the “Antwerper” or Antwerp boy, while reporting about his role in the Punjab National Bank scam.

The Gazet van Antwerpen, a newspaper published from Antwerp, gave the headline “Antwerper Nirav Modi after indictment mega-fraud in India: Nothing is true”. It started the story by quoting Nirav’s lawyer, Vijay Aggarwal, who had reportedly said that “There is nothing true about it. The bank has, by spreading the news so widely, affected my (client’s) financial dignity.”

The report described Nirav as a local man, a famous diamond merchant, a jeweller for Hollywood stars such as Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts. The story talks about how he grew up in Antwerp, that his family was still there, and how his photos were being set on fire in Mumbai. 

Another local newspaper, De Tijd, which focuses on business and economics, described Nirav as an “Antwerp Boy” in its headline: “Indian ‘Antwerp boy’ shakes banks and diamond dealers”. It says that the “story” has hit India like a bomb, “especially because Modi had become one of the faces of the Indian elite in recent years. Last month, in the company of the Indian president Narendra Modi—no family—he went down to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.”

Quoting an insider with the diamond industry of Antwerp, it says, “The Modis are an important family in Antwerp, but their main activities are in Mumbai. The umpteenth fraud case in the sector is not good for the image of the industry. The industry is continually plagued by fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, many banks find the diamond industry too risky to finance. The Belgian banks have not wanted to do business with the diamond companies for three years.”

Significantly, De Tjid had last year published a story on how the Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC), the umbrella organisation of the Antwerp diamond sector, was working on a digital platform through which banks would be able to screen all transactions in the sector at a glance as the sector had gained a bad reputation due to instances of money laundering. It claimed that due to this loss in reputation, Belgian banks had refused to do business with diamond companies for the last three years. 

Responding to The Sunday Guardian’s queries on Nirav, whose firm, Firestar diamond is registered (number 10311) with AWDC, Karen Rentmeesters, head of communication, AWDC, said, “The AWDC is the umbrella organisation representing the Antwerp diamond industry. In Belgium, only registered diamond companies are allowed to trade. This registration is granted by the Federal Public Service Economy, not the AWDC. Questions, therefore, should be asked to the FPS Economy. In our knowledge, Firestar Diamonds BVBA is a daughter company of Firestar Diamonds Private Ltd which is headquartered in India, not Belgium. That being said, AWDC regrets to see that this case in India is damaging the reputation of the diamond industry. In Belgium, both diamond industry and financial industry are strictly monitored, eliminating the possibility of cases such as the one which is unfolding in India. On top of this monitoring, over the past years, the Antwerp industry has, in collaboration with the government and banks, invested greatly in developing compliance tools, such as access to KYC databases, awareness and information sessions, a risk analysis which identifies and mitigates potential risks, etc. Clearly the situation in India is very different from the one in Belgium.” 

The popular Het Laatste Nieuws, has described Nirav as an Indian merchant who grew up in Antwerp and left “our country”, when he was 19, to go to Wharton School in Pennsylvania, where US President Donald Trump also studied. In India he then built up a whole empire, with jewellery stores in New York and London, where stars like Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts were customers. Nirav has now become the linchpin of a billion-dollar fraud that has recently come to light and has been going on since 2011.

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