The Kerala gold smuggling case has all the ingredients to be turned into a Bollywood thriller, involving globe-trotting investigation about the gold smuggling, politics, involvement of diplomats, terror angle and hawala links.
Recently, a team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) officials had reached Dubai to question Fazil Fareed, a key accused in the high-profile Kerala gold smuggling case. While on the other hand, another key accused in the case, Swapna Suresh, has been denied bail on Monday by a special NIA court in Kochi, observing that there’s prima facie evidence against her.
A few days back, the NIA hinted at the links between the gold smuggling case with the chief minister’s office. The involvement of high players in the gold smuggling case has heated up the politics in Kerala. However, gold smuggling is not a new phenomenon in the state. Last year, more than 550 kgs of gold was reportedly impounded in the state, a national record.
How was the Kerala smuggling case busted?
This particular case of gold smuggling by misusing diplomatic channels came to the fore on July 5, 2020, when the customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport confiscated 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.
Acting on a specific tip-off that a baggage was a part of a syndicate used to smuggle gold, the authorities found out that the luggage belonged to one Swapna Suresh, a staffer at the UAE consulate.
Key players involved in the smuggling
Swapna Suresh: Swapna Suresh had been the prime accused in the high-profile Kerala gold smuggling case. Suresh’s baggage, marked with the address of the UAE Consulate was held at the airport on July 5. Swapna Suresh was working as the marketing liaison officer Space Park under the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL) that comes directly under the IT department.
The National Investigative Agency (NIA) has also reportedly recovered ₹1 crore in cash and almost ₹1 kg of gold from Swapna Suresh, the prime accused in the sensational gold smuggling case that has wrecked Kerala’s politics.
M Sivasankar: He was the principal secretary of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and presided under the IT department under which Swapna Suresh was hired. Soon after his name came in the gold smuggling case, he was suspended and deposed from his office. The Customs departments, in their initial investigation, put him through the winger for over 9 hours. As per reports, Sivasankar is accused of making calls to the customs department to get clearance for a ‘diplomatic package’ that was smuggling 30-kg of gold.
He is currently being investigated if he had any links with Swapna Suresh and if he had used his authority to facilitate the gold smuggling. Reportedly, Sivasankar had facilitated the appointment of Suresh as the operations manager at the Space park under the department of Information Technology. However, according to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the appointment was made without his knowledge.
Sandeep Nair: He is another accused in the Kerala gold smuggling case. Nair was arrested from Bengaluru with the Prime accused Swapna Suresh. The NIA is investigating his role in facilitating the Kerala gold smuggling racket.
P S Sarith: A former employee at the UAE consulate, Sarith has been another prime accused in the Kerala gold smuggling case. He was arrested by the Customs authorities and is currently in NIA custody. He was arrested after investigative agencies found out that he nade several calls to M Sivasankar prior to the gold smuggling.
Fazil Fareed: Another Keralite based in the UAE who is suspected by the NIA to be involved in the smuggling of gold. The NIA had recently reached Dubai for Fareed’s interrogation after it secured a ‘blue colour’ Interpol notice against him. NIA believes Fareed could be the link that connects Kerala gold smuggling with terror activities.
Fareed is also mentioned in the FIR, suspected of one of the suppliers of the gold that was used in smuggling via diplomatic channel.
KT Jaleel: A minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Kerala government, the NIA is probing his call records after it is being said that the prime accused Swapna Suresh contacted the leader. Jaleel defended himself claiming calls between him and Swapna had been professional in nature and has released Whatsapp chat between the two which shows that Suresh was assigned by the UAE Consulate General to coordinate distribution of food kits during Ramadan.
The investigation in the case so far
The investigation was initially started by the Customs department but the Ministry of Home Affair on July 9 transferred the case to the National Investigation Agency citing the case may have “serious implications for national security”.
The probe in the case started with the questioning of one of the accused, P Sarith, a former employee of the UAE consulate. Custom officials in Kerala had earlier nabbed Sarith and in his interrogation he had divulged that Suresh, also a former staffer, had forged documents to misuse diplomatic privileges.
By then, Swapna Suresh had gone absconding. She, along with another accused, Sandeep Nair, were later tracked down in Bengaluru and arrested.
As per the preliminary investigation carried out by several agencies, the racket had been smuggling gold since September 2019. They had smuggled around 150 kgs of gold till date. The interrogation of the suspects will shed more light on their modus operandi and the other people involved.
The NIA has booked PS Sarith, Swapna Suresh, Sandeep Nair and Fazil Fareed under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act(UAPA). Barring Fareed, all others have been arrested. The NIA is also probing an angle about the proceeds of the crime being used to fund terror activities in the country.
The NIA team reached Dubai on Monday to question Fareed in connection with the high-profile gold smuggling case. Earlier, the Customs Department officials had registered Fareed’s statement on a phone call.
Accusations of links of the smuggling case with the Kerala government
The case has embroiled the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Kerala government in the state, which has found itself in the eye of the storm kicked up by the preliminary investigation into the gold smuggling case. The fact that the case was busted amidst the worsening coronavirus crisis in the state has only exacerbated the situation for the government.
The alleged involvement of the principal secretary of the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the gold smuggling case has made matters worse for the government, who is facing a groundswell of protest from the opposition parties, with the state elections slated to happen next year. The Opposition has asked the National Investigation Agency(NIA) to interrogate CM Pinarayi Vijayan over the matter and asked him to tender his resignation, taking moral responsibility for the unscrupulous acts of his principal secretary.
Gold smuggling linked to funding terror activities
The NIA had added that an initial probe by the Ministry of Home Affairs had conducted an initial probe and found that the smuggled gold was used for funding terror activities.
Responding to the court’s query on how a smuggling incident can be linked funding terror activities, the counsel representing agency argued that illegal activity of such high-level sophistication is a threat to the nation’s financial stability. In contrast to hawala and counterfeit money, a single bid of gold smuggling can garner a huge amount.