Kochi: The gold smuggling ring that was discovered in Kerala Monday has taken its first bureaucratic wicket, so to speak. M. Sivasankar, principal secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan as well as principal secretary IT, has been removed for his alleged association with Swapna Suresh, who is accused of being the key figure in the operation.
Sivasankar has now proceeded on leave and also been replaced as IT secretary.
The smuggling racket came to light Monday at Thiruvananthapuram international airport when 30 kg of gold bars (worth around Rs 15 crore) were apprehended in a diplomatic bag intended for the UAE Consulate. The details came from a former PRO of the Consulate, Sarith Kumar, who was arrested and remanded to Customs custody by the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate (Economic Offence), Ernakulam.
It emerged from Sarith’s questioning that Swapna Suresh, his former colleague at the UAE Consulate, was at the centre of this smuggling ring, and that this wasn’t the first consignment that had come into Kerala this way. Swapna, operations manager at the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited, was then sacked.
Then, it emerged that she had close ties to Sivasankar, who was allegedly a frequent caller at her apartment, followed by details about the special status she enjoyed within Kerala’s corridors of power. It also came to light that protocol was not followed in her appointment to the KSITIL, despite a pending crime branch investigation against her for allegedly framing an employee of Air India’s ground handling crew in a sexual harassment case. Swapna is still absconding.
All this has resulted in extreme political pressure on CM Pinarayi Vijayan. The leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress-led United Democratic Front, has written to PM Narendra Modi asking for his intervention, despite the BJP being a common enemy of the UDF and the ruling Left Democratic Front in Kerala.
The UAE Embassy in India issued a statement condemning the attempted use of diplomatic channels for smuggling, promised full cooperation with Customs authorities and urged stringent action.
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No official details have yet emerged on the modus operandi used for the smuggling operation, but there is much speculation.
One version doing the rounds is that Customs were alerted on 2 July by regular smuggling cartels, which were bypassed for the new operation through the diplomatic route. However, sources familiar with the case debunked this, saying Customs officers were riled by Sarith ticking them off for delaying clearance and approaching them with a letter from the UAE Consulate to release the consignment, which they refused to.
It is also understood that they may have scanned the consignment, declared to be food items, but found the presence of metal.
As the consignment enjoyed diplomatic immunity, Customs wrote to the Ministry of External Affairs, once they got the go-ahead, opened the luggage in the presence of a Consulate representative and found 30.24 kg gold hidden inside.
The operation was allegedly centred around Swapna, who was raised in Abu Dhabi, where her father worked. She came to Thiruvananthapuram to work with a travel agency, before joining Air India SATS, where she was fired for allegedly framing another employee in a sexual harassment case. Criminal proceedings are on against her.
She then returned to Abu Dhabi and joined the staff of UAE Consulate General as executive secretary, and during this tenure, she is understood to have got familiar with the who’s who in politics and civil services. Her proficiency in speaking Arabic helped her associate with dignitaries from West Asia and Kerala, and later, she was appointed operations manager in the KSITIL, under the IT department where Sivasankar was the top official. She allegedly had direct access to the Chief Minister’s Office.
Opposition’s attack on the LDF govt
Chennithala went hammer and tongs at the CM Monday when the smuggling racket emerged, and has now taken his attack to the next level by writing to PM Modi seeking central intervention.
“I write with utmost concern at the misuse of the diplomatic immunity of the UAE Consulate for the purpose of smuggling gold involving international cartels with the collusion of officials working under the government of Kerala with deep-rooted connections with decision-makers at the office of Chief Minister of Kerala…” Chennithala wrote.
“The main accused Swapna Suresh has been appointed by the government of Kerala, disregarding reports of the state intelligence against her and notwithstanding an investigation against her. It proves her deep-rooted links with the power centres at the office of the Chief Minister of Kerala… In this context, I request an investigation into the matter by agencies like CBI and Enforcement Directorate,” he said.
Kerala Congress chief Mullapally Ramachandran went a step further, requesting the PM not to allow a “whitewash” to save Pinarayi Vijayan. The Congress is planning a series of agitations, despite the Covid-19 situation.
Former CM Oommen Chandy, also of the Congress was terse in his response, saying he was a believer in god, and the truth would emerge sooner or later. He said the case warranted investigation by the CBI.
BJP state president K. Surendran, meanwhile, is convinced the issue will not end with the removal of Sivasankar as the principal secretary to the CM; he has alleged others in the LDF government had ties with Swapna.
However, state CPI(M) secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the party was all for a CBI inquiry, as there was “nothing to hide”.
UAE Embassy statement
The UAE Embassy in India said it “utterly condemns the attempted misuse of diplomatic channels by an individual engaged in smuggling activity”.
“The Embassy firmly rejects such acts and unequivocally affirms that the mission and its diplomatic staff had no role in this matter,” it said in a statement released Tuesday.
“Initial inquiries conducted by the mission revealed that a former locally hired employee of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram was responsible for this act. The employee in question was fired for misconduct long preceding this incident. At this time, it appears that this individual exploited his knowledge of the mission’s channels to engage in criminal activity,” it stated.
“The UAE looks forward to fully cooperating with Indian customs authorities to thoroughly investigate this matter and urges stringent legal action against those involved,” it added.
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