A significant development in Kerala‘s long history of gold smuggling from the Middle East, took place when the Ministry of Home Affairs decided to assign the probe about the seizure of 30 kg (66lb) of gold from a diplomatic cargo addressed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The Special Court on Monday sent the two accused on NIA custody for eight days based on the petition put forward by the agency.
Over the years, tonnes of gold has been smuggled into the state’s jewellery showrooms as finished ornaments, evading all taxes and import duties throughout the journey. Though carriers have been arrested and smuggled gold seized previously by the Customs and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the big sharks running the international business have been out of reach.
Development so far:
On July 10, the NIA registered an FIR against four people in connection with the smuggling, under the UAPA Act. The agency stated: “As the case pertains to smuggling of a large quantity of gold into India from offshore locations threatening the economic stability and national security of the country, it amounts to a terrorist act as stated in section 15 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.”
As the case has national as well as international connections, and the initial inquiries revealed that terrorism in India could be financed from the proceeds of smuggled gold, the agency has had to step in.
Former Public Relations Officer with the Consulate office, Sarith P.S, former Consulate Executive Secretary Swapna Suresh, and her two accomplices Sandeep Nair and Sharjah-based Fazil Fareed, who shipped the consignment to the Consulate, are the four accused booked by the NIA. Of them, Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair were detained at Bangalore on Saturday.
On Monday, NIA submitted in the special court that the gold smuggled was me not meant for jewellers but for “terrorism purpose,” which support the claims made by the Ministry of Home Affairs that the smuggled gold was used for financing terrorism. The court sent accused Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair to NIA custody for eight days.
NIA Takes up Investigation of Kerala Gold Smuggling Case (RC-02/2020/NIA/KOC) pic.twitter.com/NbPeueJvCV
— NIA India (@NIA_India) July 10, 2020
In a related development, the additional chief judicial magistrate court (economic offences) in Kochi remanded KT Ramees of Malappuram, suspected to be a buyer and financier in the smuggling racket, in judicial custody till July 27.
In the report submitted by NIA to the special court, it stated that a detailed probe is required as this may impact the relationship between India-UAE. Earlier UAE Embassy in New Delhi in a Twitter statement wrote: ” The authorities in the UAE have launched an investigation to find out who sent the cargo containing gold to the address of the UAE consulate.”
The UAE Embassy, New Delhi: The authorities in the UAE have launched an investigation to find out who sent the cargo containing gold to the address of the UAE consulate.
— UAE Embassy-Newdelhi (@UAEembassyIndia) July 7, 2020
UAE emblem and seal forged:
Public Prosecutor Arjun Ambalapatta submitted that the two of the main accused, Swapna and Sarith were ex-employees at the Consulate; thus they had all knowledge about the functioning of the diplomatic channel. The racket forged emblems and seals of the UAE consulate to smuggle gold.
The court took the NIA petition after the COVID-19 test of both the accused came negative. On Monday, it heard the custody application of the agency in the presence of the accused where they brought directly from the COVID care centres.
The agency also moved a petition in the court to issue a non-bailable warrant against the third accused Faizal Fareed so that a Blue notice–an Interpol notice to collect additional information concerning a crime from member countries — can be issued.
Seizure of the Baggage:
The consignment of 30 kg of 24-carat gold is worth Rs 14.82 crores. It was discovered by the Customs (Preventive) Commissionerate on July 5, camouflaged with diplomatic baggage from UAE, exempted from inspection following the Vienna Convention, at Trivandrum International Airport. It was supposed to be received by Sarith P.S. who had received multiple such consignments earlier as well.
He got arrested by the NIA, and he named Swapna Suresh, when questioned, thereby adding a political angle to the case. Senior IAS officer M Sivasankar was removed from his position of principal secretary to the CM by the state government due to his alleged participation in hiring Suresh.
In her anticipatory bail application to the High Court, Ms Suresh claimed that her intervention with the Customs was only to get the cargo addressed to Rashid Khamis Al Sheimeili, the Acting Consul-General, and she was otherwise innocent.
History of Gold Smuggling into Kerala:
From 2019 to 2020, authorities have seized 550 kg of smuggled gold in Kerala, which amounts to 15 per cent of all gold smuggling in India, as per Customs sources. However, the actual amount of gold smuggled to the state remains unknown. Between 2018-19, the count was at 401 kg.
As per the present market value of the metal in India, one kg of smuggled gold would earn a profit of Rs 5 lakh on import duty alone. Till the time the gold is converted to jewellery and ornaments, the tax evasion process would continue, thus making doorways for enormous profits for the smugglers.
The carriers usually get arrested during shipping, but they are not able to divulge any information about the notable links in Kerala or the Gulf countries, as they are kept in the dark about the receivers of consignments. Once a carrier is arrested, the upper chains vanish. Therefore, the big kingpins remain untouched. Even celebrities and film personalities are deployed to act as carriers.
Investigation limitations of Indian Customs authorities in the Middle East and the lax immigration and border checking at India-Nepal border, further facilitate the smugglers to remain undetected by the law agencies.
Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan is facing a severe backlash from the Opposition. Youth Congress, BJP, and IUML are setting up protest marches in all district headquarters demanding his resignation over the case. On Wednesday, Vijayan wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for an “effective and coordinated” investigation by central agencies into the gold smuggling case. Further developments in the matter are much awaited.