Gold smuggling case: Suspended IAS officer taken into ED custody; Oppn demand CM's resignation

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(Eds: Repeats after recasting intro) Kochi/Thiruvananthapuram, Oct 28 (PTI) Suspended IAS officer M Sivasankar, facing probe in the Kerala gold smuggling case, was taken into custody by the ED from a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, with the opposition mounting pressure on CM Pinarayi Vijayan demanding his resignation over the matter.

Minutes after the high court rejected his anticipatory bail pleas in the case, a team of ED officials reached the Ayurveda hospital, where the former Principal Secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was undergoing treatment and detained him.

He was later brought in a car to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) office in Kochi for interrogation.

Sivasankar was taken into custody soon after the high court dismissed two separate anticipatory bail pleas filed by him apprehending arrest by Customs investigating the smuggling angle and ED probing the money trail in the case.

The Congress and BJP stepped up pressure on the Chief Minister to quit after Sivasankar was taken into ED custody.

Protests were held at various parts of the state, including infront of the secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, by opposition parties and their youth wings demanding the resignation of the CM.

The protesters even burnt the effigy of Vijayan in some places.

Dismissing Sivasankar's plea seeking anticipatory bail in the ED case, the high court observed that the agency was relying on the statements given by him as also prime accused in case, Swapna Suresh and his chartered accountant Venugopal.

There is clear indication that the IAS officer was very close to Suresh.

Sivasankar had discussed the deposit of amounts belonging to Swapna Suresh with his chartered accountant.

He had introduced her to the chartered accountant and had asked him to sort out her financial problems, Justice Ashok Menon mentioned in the order.

The court further said the statements given by the accountant and the accused Swapna Suresh strongly indicate the involvement of Sivasankar.

'It is alleged to be in consequence of the directions given by the applicant that Swapna Suresh and the Chartered Accountant (Venugopal) opened a locker in the State Bank of India, Thiruvananthapuram Branch. Both of them had rights to operate the locker.' 'Even though the applicant (Sivasankar) has disassociated himself from activities pertaining to the deposit of amounts in the locker, there is some indication in the communications between him and the chartered accountant regarding the applicant overseeing the management of the finances of Swapna Suresh', the court said.

Noting that the ED has not yet concluded whether the applicant is to be made an accused or a witness in the crime, the court said there are strong indications pointed out by the agency to suggest that the applicant may be a person involved in the money laundering with Swapna Suresh.

'Probably there may not be sufficient evidence at present collected by the ED to implicate the applicant as an accused, and there also may not be sufficient evidence to suggest that he is guilty of the offences alleged.

But, they have sufficient materials to interrogate him, for which he is bound to cooperate, as a senior government official', the court said dismissing the bail plea.

Rejecting the contentions made by Sivasankar that he was connected with the affairs of the government and had in such capacity interacted with Swapna Suresh, the secretary to the Consulate General, UAE, the court observed that 'If that be so, there is no need for him to interfere in matters concerning management of her finances.' Dismissing the anticipatory bail application by Sivasankar in the gold smuggling case, the court said the fact that he was in constant touch with Swapna Suresh and even volunteered to help her by contacting his accountant indicates that there is a possibility that he knew of the involvement of Suresh in the 'smuggling activity.' 'Whether the applicant was himself actively involved in the commission of the offence is something which is to be investigated and found out,' the judge said.

Referring to a Supreme Court judgement, the judge said, 'I find that the power of the Customs department to question the applicant under Section 108 cannot be curtailed by granting anticipatory bail. The relief sought for is undoubtedly premature.

Therefore, I am of the opinion that the applicant is not entitled to anticipatory bail.' Reacting to the development, Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly, Ramesh Chennithala, demanded the resignation of the chief minister.

'Without further justifying Sivasankar, the CM should step down from the post. It was the Chief Minister's Office that made all the moves to protect the accused in the gold smuggling case,' he alleged.

BJP state chief K Surendran said that it has now become clear that the CMO intervened in the gold smuggling case.

'When the agencies question Sivasankar, more details will come out. The court order has cornered the Left government in the state.

As the investigation progresses, the involvement of the chief minister and his office will become clear,' Surendran told reporters.

Meanwhile, Law Minister A K Balan said the government wanted all the culprits in the gold smuggling case to be brought to book and extended support to the central agencies in the probe.

'The chief minister has sought a comprehensive probe by the central agencies on July 8.. we just want the law to take its course.

Also, the agencies have not complained against the state government as we have provided necessary assistance to them for the investigation,' Balan told the media.

Central agencies---National Investigation Agency, Customs and the Enforcement Directorate, are conducting separate inquiries into the seizure of gold worth nearly Rs 15 crore from a 'diplomatic baggage' at Thiruvananthapuram International airport on July 5.

Several people, including two former employees of the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, Swapna Suresh and Sarith P S, have been arrested by the central agencies in connection with the case. PTI COR RRT TGB ROH ROH