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GOLD SMUGGLING IN GOD'S OWN COUNTRY


THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, 18 JULY. On July 5, Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport seized baggage containing gold weighing over 30 kg and valued at around Rs 15 crore. This gold was inside diplomatic baggage that landed by air cargo, and was addressed to the UAE consulate.

Customs officials acted based on a specific tip off by an informer that that baggage was part of a smuggling syndicate that was trying to misuse the name of a person who enjoys diplomatic immunity.

It was also learnt that the 30 kg smuggled gold was hidden inside baggage concealed in bathroom equipment and electronic devices.

Swapna Suresh is the main accused in this case. A former staffer at the UAE consulate, Swapna Suresh was hired by a private firm to work on a project for Kerala IT department, which is under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The CM's principal secretary M Sivasankar used to head this department.

Investigation so far has revealed that Swapna Suresh had contacts with powerful people in Kerala and made several calls to them in the run-up to the current case of gold smuggling. Her call data records suggests that she had spoken to the UAE consulate general 138 times, PS Sarith (another key accused) 45 times, a diplomatic attaché at the UAE consulate 28 times, besides others.

M Sivasankar was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's principal secretary and headed the IT department under which Swapna Suresh was hired. Sivasankar has been suspended and sacked from his post after his name cropped up in investigation. He was grilled by the Customs department for over nine hours. Customs is presently investigating his links with Swapna Suresh and whether he used his office to facilitate the gold smuggling in any form.

PS Sarith, a former PRO at the UAE consulate, is a prime accused in the Kerala gold smuggling case. He has been arrested by the Customs department and is currently in the NIA's custody. He was zeroed in on after call records showed that he had called M Sivasankar several times in the run-up to the gold smuggling.

Sandeep Nair is another key accused in this case and was arrested along with Swapna Suresh from Bengaluru. The NIA has been authorised to inspect his bags that were taken into custody from Bengaluru.

Fazil Fareed is a Keralite based in the UAE and is a key suspect in this case. The NIA has secured a 'blue colour' Interpol notice against him. The agency suspects a terror angle to the Kerala gold smuggling case and is probing if the proceeds of the crime were to be used for terror activities.

Named in the FIR, Fareed is suspected to be one of the suppliers of the gold that was used in smuggling via diplomatic route. The Interpol blue notice has been issued to collect more information about him and his activities. This is an enquiry notice which is issued to locate, identify or obtain information about a person.

KT Jaleel is a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan government and is said to have been contacted by Swapna Suresh. The NIA is currently investigating these call records. Jaleel has said calls between him and Swapna Suresh were purely professional. Jaleel has also released WhatsApp chat screenshots which suggest that Swapna was assigned by the UAE Consulate General to coordinate distribution of food kits during Ramadan.

The investigation into the Kerala gold smuggling case was initially being carried out by the Customs department. However, on July 9, the Union Home Ministry allowed the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the case, saying this case may have "serious implications for national security".

A day earlier, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his "intervention for an effective investigation" into the Kerala gold smuggling case.

The investigations in this case started on July 5 with the questioning of PS Sarith, a former employee of the UAE consulate, by Customs officials. The department then was also trying to get Swapna Suresh to join the probe. However, soon after the investigation started, Swapna Suresh absconded. She and Sandeep Nair, another accused, were later tracked down in Bengaluru and arrested.

The NIA has secured sevenday custody of PS Sarith, who was earlier in the custody of the Customs department.

Besides this, the NIA also suspects a terror link to this gold smuggling case and has already filed a case under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). The NIA has booked four people -- PS Sarith, Swapna Suresh, Sandeep Nair and Fazil Fareed -- under UAPA. Barring Fareed, others have been arrested.

The NIA first secured a nonbailable warrant against Fazil Fareed, who is believed to be operating from the UAE. It is suspected that he was one of the suppliers of the gold that was being smuggled into India in the diplomatic baggage. Based on the non-bailable warrant, the NIA was able to secure a 'blue notice' against Fazil Fareed from the Interpol.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's Principal Secretary Sivasankar was summoned by Customs officials and grilled for nearly nine hours. The questioning lasted till around 2 am on Wednesday as the Customs officials tried to find out if he had used his office to provide any help to the key accused -- Sarith, Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair.

The NIA has also started looking into call records between Swapna Suresh and Kerala minister KT Jaleel. The call records suggest that Swapna and the minister spoke over the phone nine times between June 1 and June 26. Most of the calls lasted 1-2 minutes. The minister has said that these calls were strictly professional.

Sources privy to the investigation have told India Today TV that they will be looking into the calls, but they do not prove any culpability. "Since the accused worked in the UAE consulate, she is bound to have contacts in the government. Surely this will be probed by NIA if required," a source said.

Apart from terror financing, NIA is also looking into if there is any money laundering involved in this case. The Enforcement Directorate is also keeping a close eye and if money laundering is suspected, it will file a case accordingly.

Besides the gold smuggling, Swapna Suresh has also been booked for providing fake certificates for getting a posting in a project under the state IT department, from which she has been removed after her name cropped up in the smuggling racket.

On the other hand, an official of the UAE consulate, a key witness, is learnt to have returned to his country, PTI said in a report. The consulate official, who enjoys immunity under the Vienna Convention, reached Delhi on Sunday and took another flight to the UAE. The investigating agencies have 'noted' this development.



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