IT'S safe to say diamonds aren't Rajeev Chandel's best friend these days.
The longtime Winnipeg businessman recently got the jolt of his life when he was arrested, detained and convicted in a South African court.
Chandel, 43, was caught at the airport in Johannesburg last month with four small, rough diamonds in his shaving kit. Authorities also seized US$20,000 in cash he was carrying, claiming it was from proceeds of crime.
"It was my mistake," Chandel told the Free Press Tuesday in a telephone interview from a hotel room in India. He spent three nights in custody before regaining his freedom after paying a small fine for illegal possession of the gems, which were valued at only a couple hundred dollars.
"The four stones had been given to me. I told them right away I would pay the fine, but I think they wanted to make an example out of me, to prove a point," Chandel said. That included detaining him, although Chandel said he "paid off" one of the guards in exchange for being allowed to watch television and eat McDonald's in his holding cell.
Chandel didn't get his seized cash back. After speaking with members of the Canadian embassy, who helped him obtain a lawyer, he opted not to get involved in what likely would have been a long, costly legal battle. He claims it was just money he was carrying while travelling on business and not the proceeds of any criminal enterprise.
Chandel told the Free Press he wants to make clear he's no jet-setting diamond smuggler but just forgot what was in his luggage.
"I'm a simple person. I had no idea they were even in there. I think they've been in there since at least 2010."
Chandel moved to Winnipeg in 1986 and spent much of his life here, including running a clothing store at the Portage Place mall for more than a decade. His parents and other family still live in the city.
He now spends much of his time in India and South Africa, where he owns a mine. He was on a trip with one of his gemologists, scouting a potential new "business opportunity," when he was arrested in mid-June.
"They stopped me at customs, told me to follow them. They asked me if I was carrying any narcotics. I said no. They asked me if I was carrying any diamonds. I said no. Then they asked me if they could check my bag, and I said yes," he recalled.
Chandel is in the middle of a nasty divorce from a Toronto woman, which is currently before the courts. He said he believes that played a role in his arrest, alleging authorities in South Africa were tipped off that he had the gems and a large amount of cash in his possession.
"They told me they had information that I was this smuggler, this drug dealer," he said. At his sentencing hearing, the judge scolded Chandel for not being aware the diamonds were in his bag.
"The judge said, 'You are a mine owner; you should know about the law.'"
Chandel claims his email was recently hacked and information about his arrest has been sent to many business colleagues around the world in an attempt to discredit him. The Free Press can confirm a similar email was sent to the newspaper last week. The anonymous source did not reply to requests for further information.
"I'm just trying to move on with my life," said Chandel, who has been told there should be no future issues with travelling abroad despite this incident.
Still, he remains cautious, especially with a return trip to South Africa due later this month.