Case of gold smuggling via diplomatic channel acquires political hue in Kerala

Vinson Kurian/V Sajeev Kumar Thiruvananthapuram/Kochi | Updated on July 09, 2020

Main accused applies to High Court for anticipatory bail

The curious case of smuggling through diplomatic channel in Thiruvananthapuram, perhaps the first of its nature to be reported in the country, is fast acquiring political colours, coming as it does in the run up to elections to the local bodies in Kerala later this year and to the State Assembly in April-May next.

The main accused, Swapna Suresh is at large, while, P Sarith, one of her accomplices, has been held. Swapna Suresh has moved the High Court of Kerala seeking anticipatory bail. She made an online application on Wednesday night, denying her involvement in the gold smuggling racket.

Sarith had allegedly earlier confided to investigators that he and Swapna, both former employees of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, have smuggled gold using the diplomatic channel more than 10 times before being identified with a 30-kg consignment here worth Rs 14.82 crore on July 5 (Sunday).

High Court to fix date

Swapna Suresh stated in her application to the High Court that her role was to carry out the work entrusted to her by the UAE Consulate. As a contract employee, she is required to coordinate the logistics of the consignments. She merely directed the Customs to release the consignments in accordance with instructions issued by the Consulate.

The High Court will decide on the date to consider her plea. The accused has been absconding for the last four days. Customs sources doubted the possibility of grant of anticipatory bail for the accused, citing earlier rulings by the same court against such a precedent in cases involving Customs matters.

Customs exudes confidence

Sumit Kumar, Commissioner of Customs (Kochi & Lakshadweep) told BusinessLine in Kochi that he could not offer any comment at present except that the State and Central governments are extending full cooperation with respect to the case. “We are confident of ascertaining the facts and bringing the all involved in the case to justice”, he added.

Official sources pointed out that the case is progressing well. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has promised all support to the investigation. The Customs have sought CCTV visuals from the State IT department where key accused Swapna Suresh had been engaged. There were allegations that the Kerala Police had not responded positively to share the footage when the gold was seized.

Independent political observers in Thiruvananthapuram are of the view that the episode has given the Chief Minister’s political opponents a handy stick to use at an opportune time. They drew parallels with the solar scam and a woman accused which scuttled predecessor and senior Congress leader Oommen Chandy’s bid for a second consecutive term in 2016.

Vijayan writes to Prime Minister

Chief Minister Vijayan had already written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for an ‘effective and coordinated’ investigation by ‘all Central agencies concerned’ into the seizure of gold by Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport here on July 5.

This is being seen as the Chief Minister’s riposte to both the Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as the state unit of the BJP which have gone hammer and tongs against what they suspect are the close links of the Office of the Chief Minister with the woman suspect in the case.

In the letter, Vijayan termed the crime as ‘extremely serious’ and one with ‘implications’ for the nation. The attempt to smuggle gold (concealed in diplomatic baggage addressed to the UAE Consulate here) had “more than one angle warranting a thorough investigation,” the Chief Minister added.

Costs Secretary his job

The scope of the probe should cover all aspects from the source to the end beneficiary. Every link should be unravelled. The State government would provide all necessary assistance, Vijayan said. The snowballing controversy has already seen the exit of M Sivasankar, his close confidante and Principal Secretary.

Sivasankar has also had to leave the position of the State IT Secretary, which his detractors alleged was misused to rehabilitate Swapna Suresh. This has emboldened Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala and BJP state president K Surendran to demand the resignation of the Chief Minister.

Chennithala alleged that Swapna Suresh had landed an employment in a State IT Department subsidiary through a global consultancy favoured by Vijayan to offer advice on mega power and mobility projects. She had organised a ‘Space Conclave’ at the behest of the IT Department under the Chief Minister’s watch.

Centre tracking with interest

Videos and photographs of the suspect socialising with ruling front politicians had testified to her alleged disproportional influence in the government, Chennithala said. He said the CBI inquiry should investigate the role of the Chief Minister’s Office in the scam.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Union Minister of State External Affairs V Muraleedharan said the Centre has taken a serious view of the crime. The Kerala Chief Minister cannot hope to disassociate himself from the case. His office had given the woman involved in the offence a plum posting in the IT Department.

This was despite cautionary reports from the State Police Intelligence and the Crime Branch about her antecedents while she was employed with the UAE Consulate before being expelled. Her links with Sarith, another ex-Consulate employee, who has since been arrested, is also being extensively probed, he said.

Tight-rope walk for agencies

The Congress and the BJP also used photographs and videos of official and private events to link Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan to the gold smuggling case suspect. The Speaker has denied any link with the woman and said he had encountered her only at public functions.

Sources in Thiruvananthapuram told BusinessLine that Central agencies may be walking a tight rope in the unusual case given its multi-dimensional implications involving not just the Consulate of a foreign nation but also the keen interest of higher echelons in governments both at the Centre and the State.

Neither the Customs nor any other Central Government agency would be willing to come on record beyond a point since none has been able to find a mutually agreeable point to proceed in the case. This is quite unlike the solar scam where the woman accused had come into the public and was willing to speak on her travails.

Published on July 09, 2020

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