Saga of an audacious gold smuggling bid in Kerala

A multi-agency probe monitored by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in the Kerala gold smuggling caes is underway which includes the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and Enforcement Directorate (ED) besides the NIA and Customs (Preventive) Division.
Police use water cannons to disperse a crowd gathered to demonstrate against the gold smuggling case, in Kozhikode on July 10.(PTI Photo)
Police use water cannons to disperse a crowd gathered to demonstrate against the gold smuggling case, in Kozhikode on July 10.(PTI Photo)
Updated on Jul 17, 2020 11:02 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram | By

On July 3, P. Sarith Kumar walked into the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport to collect a rather heavy carton addressed to an official working at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consular office in the city. The bespectacled 39-year-old Kumar claimed to be a Public Relations Officer with the consulate who had come to collect the carton for an attaché. Two days later, he was arrested by Customs officials for attempting to smuggle gold into the country.

After receiving the nod from the ministry of external affairs, officers of the Customs (Preventive) Commissionerate opened the 70-kilogram carton in the presence of the acting in-charge of the UAE consulate.

The sight that greeted their eyes may not have been what they expected: the carton had an assortment of pipes, taps, and door handles amidst food items and other electronics, according to news website The Lede. The pipes, however, weren’t hollow. At least 30 kilograms of 24-carat gold — the best quality — estimated to be worth at least Rs 15 crore, were hidden inside them.

Since January, seven air cargo consignments, some heavier than 30 kg, had reportedly arrived in the state. Preliminary investigations by the Customs officials found that P. Sarith, who had worked for the UAE consulate but wasn’t currently employed with them as he claimed, had received multiple such consignments.

Officials suspect that at least 300 kg of smuggled gold flooded the yellow metal market already. Last week, Kerala chief minister Pinnarayi Vijayan wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting a probe by central agencies. “Every link of this crime should be unravelled,” he wrote. “The case has serious implications as this undermines the economy of the Nation. In fact, it has more than one angle warranting a thorough investigation,” he wrote on July 8.

On July 10, the National Investigation Authority (NIA), which usually tackles terror-related cases, took up its first gold-smuggling related case. It filed a First Information Report against four: Kumar, who was already under arrest, and three others — Swapna Suresh, Sandip Nair and Fazil Fareed, an alleged smuggler from Ernakulum but based in the UAE — whose names were revealed during interrogation. On July 15, it added one more name to the FIR: an alleged gold smuggler named KT Ramees.

The NIA charged all of them under Sections 16, 17, and 18 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is usually invoked to deal with terrorists and those who pose a threat to the integrity of the nation. The suspected offence: Conspiracy and commission of terrorist act by raising funds through gold smuggling to threaten the economic security and monetary stability of India. On Wednesday, the NIA moved the Interpol to extradite Fareed from the UAE, as a Kochi court issued an arrest warrant against him.

A multi-agency probe monitored by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is underway which includes the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and Enforcement Directorate (ED) besides the NIA and Customs (Preventive) Division.

Suspects tracked down

On Saturday, the NIA arrested Suresh and Nair from a hotel in Bengaluru, and brought them to Cochin on July 12. The two have been remanded to NIA custody by a special court till July 21.

Suresh worked at the UAE consulate general’s office before she joined as an operational manager of the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited under the state IT Ministry in 2017. It was likely at the consular office that Suresh and Kumar came to know each other, and even after they stopped working at the consulate, they remained in touch with each other.

Suresh, in her early forties, claims to hold a Bachelors in Commerce degree from Maharashtra’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Technological University. However, the university clarified that it didn’t offer such a course. The controller of examinations at the varsity, Dr. Vivek S Sathe, said her degree was fake. Her estranged brother Bright Suresh, based in the United States, told local television channels that she had not passed her matriculation.

However, Suresh is known to be fluent in Arabic, English, Hindi, and Malayalam. She also played a key role in many programmes such as the Loka Kerala Sabha in 2020, a global meeting of non-resident expatriates from the state.

Kerala assembly speaker S Sivaramakrishnan told media channels that he had inaugurated an automobile workshop owned Sandip Nair — whom he did not know — three months ago, at Suresh’s request. “I never knew about her past and I thought she is a high-ranking official,” the speaker said.

Soon after she was named in this case, Suresh went underground.

Last week, she applied for bail at Kerala High Court— her case was to come up on July 15. She also circulated an audio tape to a news channel in which she claimed that there was a concerted move to target the Kerala government ahead of the assembly elections next year and she had been made a scapegoat. She also claimed that she made a call to the Customs on July 3 to release the consignment because she was asked by the UAE consular office to do. She said she feared for her life.

Since Suresh was arrested, the anticipatory bail hearing now stands infructuous.

A political storm

The seizure of gold smuggled through the cover of a diplomatic channel has set off a political storm in Kerala as opposition party members have demanded chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s resignation, claiming that he had knowledge of the wrong-doing.

Soon after she was named, customs officials raided Suresh’s house. During their investigation it was revealed that the chief minister’s principal secretary M Sivasankar was a frequent visitor to her house. In a series of swift political moves, Sivasankar was removed from his post on July 7, the chief minister denied the involvement of his office in Suresh’s appointment in the IT ministry body, Suresh was sacked from her job, and on July 8, Vijayan wrote the letter to the PM seeking a probe by central agencies.

However, the Opposition wasn’t willing to let go and members protested, calling for his resignation. “Almost a week passed since the case came up. Not a single FIR was filed against Swapna Suresh though many cheating incidents against her surfaced including fake certificate. We suspect she is getting protection from higher-ups,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala on July 11.

Though the CM welcomed the NIA probe — he said that such a probe would worry many people — the party is wary because it fears that his office may also come under the ambit of inquiry. “Nobody can browbeat an elected government. The union government announced the probe as sought by the CM. Let them investigate but we will not allow any victimization in this regard,” said Anathalavattom Anandan, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The Customs department questioned M Sivasankar at their office in Thiruvananthpuram for nine hours, till the wee hours of July 15. A day later he was suspended.

“It is a big setback to the CM who is trying for a second term riding on the so-called Covid success story,” said political observer Sunnykutty Abraham.

Meanwhile, the MEA has also had to ensure that diplomatic relations between the two countries are not affected because of this case. The Gulf is home to millions of Indian expatriates with a range of work profiles; at least 1.8 million belong to Kerala. The UAE has ordered a probe into this matter and said that it will assist the ongoing probe by Indian agencies, in a brief statement.

Last week, the MEA minister of state V Muraleedharan also clarified that the baggage was not in the diplomatic baggage category and the Customs department had only sought the ministry’s nod to open the package due to the rules stipulated under the Vienna Convention, a framework on diplomatic relations between countries.

Meanwhile, the MEA has also made a request to the UAE embassy in Delhi to meet a few employees at the consular office in Thiruvananthapuram for more details. The acting in-charge of the UAE consulate, who present during the opening of the consignment on July 5, left the country this week.

Yellow metal market

It started with innocuous looking packets of cookies, noodles and dates sent from the United Arab Emirates to its consular office in Thiruvananthapuram, which raised the suspicions of customs deputy commissioner Rama Murthy.

Since January, seven such consignments flew in including door knobs, water taps and even shower caps. The trouble was that the packages which came as air cargo addressed to the consulate, enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

In Kerala, the trade of illegal gold is a thriving business as it is cheaper in the Gulf. What’s more with an import duty of 12 % and an additional GST of 3 %, smuggled gold often costs Rs 8-10 lakh per kilogram lesser than legally imported gold.

“The state tops in the country in terms of gold seizure. During the last financial year, 550 kg gold was seized from four airports of the state. At least half of this quantity is from Kozhikode international airport,” Sumit Kumar, Customs commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep region, said.

Dates, bra straps, belt buckles, shoe soles, and sausages are few the ingenious methods used to smuggle gold into the country.

“It is a fact, that a good quantity of smuggled gold is present in the market. We have to change our flawed import policy to check this. Tax evasion is also high in the industry, which gives employment to 60 lakh people directly and indirectly,” says Malabar Group Chairman M P Ahmed, who runs one of the largest jewellery store chains in the country.

According to DRI officials, who spoke anonymously to HT, the union government was waiting for an opportunity to intervene, as they suspected that much of the smuggled gold also funded terror activities and hawala operations.

“Custom and DRI have limitations in a foreign land. NIA can intervene here effectively and dig into the plush network. Invoking terror sections will really help to unearth the well-entrenched syndicate,” said the senior DRI official in Kochi.

But this case has also given other agencies a filip to get tough on smuggling. Customs commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep Sumit Kumar, on Wednesday, issued an ultimatum to smugglers to surrender. At least six persons in connection with gold smuggling have been arrested.

“We have a list of regular offenders and we are out to break their syndicate. The multi-agency probe is going as planned,” he said.


    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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