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On 5 July Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport in Kerala seized around 30 kilograms of gold, worth Rs 13.5 crore from an air cargo addressed to the United Arab Emirates Consulate. The consignment was classified as diplomatic baggage.The smuggling racket has turned into a political controversy.
This is what we know so far.
How Did This Discovery Happen?
Following a tip-off, custom officials confiscated the bags, reported it to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi who informed that it contained noodles, dates and biscuits. But upon X-ray screening and inspection, the gold was found smuggled in cylindrical form inside steel pipes, door locks, air compressors and iron rods.
According to Article 27 of 1961, the container has diplomatic immunity from search and seizure, meaning it cannot be opened or detained.
Has an FIR Been Filed?
The two key accused Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair have been sent to 14-day judicial custody by the National Investigation Agency in Kochi. The two were absconding since they were named in the case and were later arrested in Bengaluru.
Another accused, Sarith, has already been arrested and one Rameez has been taken into judicial custody by the Customs (Preventive) Department. The NIA had on 10 July registered an FIR under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act naming Sarith, Swapna Suresh, Fazil Fareed and Sandeep Nair and said it has taken up the probe as the case has international linkages.
Who Are the Accused?
Swapna Suresh has been identified as a key conspirator in the case. She was working with Pricewaterhouse Coopers company, which was working on the Space Project under the IT department of the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited aka KSITIL.
Born and brought up in UAE, she worked in the Abu Dhabi airport before returning to Kerala, where she worked in a travel agency and then as an executive secretary at the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram till 2019. She was expelled from the job after she was named as a suspect. She had allegedly forged the documents allowing them to claim diplomatic immunity over the cargo. In the bail petition, she had claimed she had no role in the crime and that she only made a phone call to the Assistant Commissioner of the Customs on the direction by the acting Consular General of the United Arab Emirates Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, reports stated.
Sarith, a prime suspect worked as a Public Relations Officer at the UAE consulate in Thiruvanthapuram before his expulsion.
Sandeep Nair, a Thiruvananthapuram resident is believed to have been one of the masterminds, and has also been linked to the BJP. His Facebook page has a picture of him hugging veteran BJP leader Kummanam Rajasekharan, but the leader has said he had merely posed with a citizen and denied any links with Sandeep.
However, Sandeep’s mother told reporters that he was an active member of the BJP.
Fazil Fareed is a businessman based in Dubai who has been allegedly associated with Swapna. He has however denied these links.
What Does This Mean for the Kerala Government?
The IT portfolio is being handled by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan which has pushed several opposition parties to allege that his office had a role to play.
Meanwhile, M Sivasankar IAS has been removed from the post of Secretary to the Kerala Chief Minister’s office, following his alleged connection to Swapna. He also held the post of IT Secretary in Kerala, who had appointed Swapna Suresh as an operations manager at KSITL, which falls under the IT department of the state. He is the chairman of KSITL.
The chief minister has denied the allegations, saying that Suresh was appointed to KSITL without his knowledge. He said on 11 July than an inquiry will be held into the complaint on the alleged fake degree certificate submitted by Swapna. Congress has sought a CBI probe into the case.
Opposition leader in Kerala, Ramesh Chennithala, has alleged that the accused was helped by the state police. He questioned why the CM’s office was still not under investigation. BJP has demanded inquiry into the alleged calls made from the CM’s office.
— Ramesh Chennithala (@chennithala) July 12, 2020
Kerala is heading for elections in 2021, and this racket might not be good news for the ruling party.
The gold smuggling case had triggered massive protests by opposition parties in Kerala.
Protest marches were held by the Muslim Youth League and Yuva Morcha to the Kozhikode Collectorate and by Youth Congress to Chief Minister’s residence in Kannur, that turned violent. Police resorted to using tear gas and water cannons to clear the crowds who kept marching and tried to break through barricades. The workers even burnt effigies of the chief minister and Swapna Suresh.
The Fake News Cycle
Meanwhile, Kerala Minister for Industries EP Jayarajan has filed a complaint with the state police chief, against leaders and members of Youth Congress and RSS, for allegedly faking a photo of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s daughter’s wedding, with the picture of Swapna Suresh.
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