Kerala gold smuggling case: ED arrests suspended IAS officer, opposition heat on Vijayan

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(Eds: Updates with arrest) Kochi/Thiruvananthapuram, Oct 28 (PTI) Suspended IAS officer K Sivasankar was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on Wednesday in the sensational gold smuggling case, hours after he lost a legal battle in the Kerala High Court for anticipatory bail.

The ED, probing the money trail in the case, arrested the former principal secretary to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan after six hours of interrogation at its Kochi office, the latest in a series of grilling by central agencies, official sources said.

Opposition Congress and BJP mounted pressure on Vijayan following the ED action against his former secretary, demanding his resignation, while the ruling LDF said it wanted all culprits in the case to be punished.

Earlier in the day, the agency moved swiftly to take custody of Sivasankar from an Ayurveda hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, where he had been undergoing treatment, minutes after the high court dismissed his anticipatory bail plea, and took him to Kochi in a car for interrogation.

The high court dismissed two separate anticipatory bail pleas filed by Sivasankar apprehending arrest by Customs investigating the smuggling angle and the ED, observing there was clear indication that the IAS officer was very close to prime accused in the smuggling case Swapna Suresh.

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

Protests were held at different parts of the state, including in front of the secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, by the opposition parties and their youth wings demanding the resignation of Vijayan, who has been maintaining that his government would not shield anyone involved in the case.

The protesters burnt effigies of Vijayan in some places.

The National Investigation Agency, Customs and the ED are conducting separate probes into the seizure of gold worth nearly Rs 15 crore from a 'diplomatic baggage' of UAE consulate at Thiruvananthapuram airport on July 5.

Several people, including two former employees of the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, Suresh and Sarith P S, have been arrested by the central agencies so far.

The NIA and Customs have also earlier questioned Sivasankar, who was suspended in July after his alleged links with Suresh surfaced.

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

There is clear indication that the IAS officer was very close to Suresh. Sivasankar had discussed about the deposit of amounts belonging to Suresh with his chartered accountant.

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

The court further said the statements given by the accountant and 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 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 Suresh, then 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.' The court said the fact that he was in constant touch with Suresh and even volunteered to help her by contacting his accountant indicates that there is a possibility that he knew her involvement in the 'smuggling activity.' 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,' the Congress leader 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.

Law Minister A K Balan said the government wanted all culprits in the 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. PTI COR RRT TGB SA VS VS