As multi-agency probe takes speed in Kerala, smugglers and hawala operators feel heat
Kerala gold smuggling drama unfolded after the customs seized 30 kilograms of gold from an air cargo consignment from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the country’s consular office in Thiruvananthapuram on July 5.
As the multi-agency probe in Kerala gold smuggling case took up speed, smugglers and hawala operators have started feeling the heat even as the Customs Department grilled chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s former principal secretary M Sivasankar for nine long hours.
Arrived for questioning at 5.30 pm at the customs office on Tuesday, Sivasankar’s grilling went on till 2.30 am till the early hours on Wednesday. Officials said he will be summoned again after cross-examining information provided by him.
Kerala gold smuggling drama unfolded after the customs seized 30 kilograms of gold from an air cargo consignment from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the country’s consular office in Thiruvananthapuram on July 5. Later it arrested four persons including Swapna Suresh, a consultant with the state IT department. CM’s powerful secretary Sivasankar, a senior IAS officer, was later removed from his post after reports surfaced that he was allegedly close to Suresh. The case was later handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
As the multi-agency investigation progressed, customs commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep Sumit Kumar, known for his tough stance, gave out an ultimatum to smugglers to either surrender or face action. There are reports that at least six of them have already surrendered and more are in touch with the officials.
“We have told them to surrender or face music. We have a list of regular offenders and we are out to break their syndicate. The multi-agency probe is going as planned. Since the investigation is on, I can’t say more at this juncture,” he said.
Meanwhile, the NIA has approached the Interpol, international criminal/police organisation, for the extradition of Faisal Fareed, the third person accused in the case, who is reported to be in the UAE. A court in Kochi had issued an arrest warrant against him. Reports from Dubai also suggest he was absconding fearing arrest and extradition.
The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax and other agencies are also helping the ongoing probe. People familiar with central agencies also said this is the strongest ever probe conducted by central agencies being supervised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. This is the first time the NIA is taking up a smuggling case, said an official familiar with the probe.
In the custody application for those arrested, the NIA said a good amount of money generated through smuggling was pumped in to funding terror activities. It also said 150 kilograms of gold was smuggled through Thiruvananthapuram airport in last six months in a similar fashion.
Four persons had been named in NIA FIR and include, Sarith Kumar, a former employee of the consulate; Swapna Suresh, Fareed and Suresh’s friend Sandeep Nair. The customs department has arrested three others and detained many, some of them will soon figure in the FIR after a detailed questioning, said the official.
There are also reports that at least two dozen smugglers and hawala operators, including some living abroad, have expressed their willingness to surrender.
“After we tightened the grip they are running for cover. We will net them. If it goes unchecked it will take the proportion of notorious cartels of Columbia. Their roots are very strong in south India, especially in Kerala. They are posing a big threat to the economy and national security,” said the senior official.
There are reports that the customs department has prepared a list of 100 known offenders from south India and some people from Mangaluru in Karnataka and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu figure in this. There are also reports that the Union Finance Ministry will amend some of the gold and money laundering laws to give them more teeth and plug loopholes. Usually, carriers get away after coughing up fine and only small fries get netted and now the multi-agency probe is after elusive kingpins, he said.