New Delhi/Thiruvananthapuram: Investigators are looking into a possible link between the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Kerala-based suspected radical organisation, and the alleged gold smuggling racket busted in the state this month, ThePrint has learnt.
According to sources, the smuggled gold may have been used by the PFI to fund “anti-national” terror activities. Sleuths of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) are also looking into the possibility that the money may have been used to finance protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that erupted across India after the law was passed in December 2019.
“There is a possibility that there is a PFI link here (in the gold smuggling case), which is being explored. It is suspected that the gold smuggling proceeds were being pumped in for anti-national activities by the PFI,” said a source in the security establishment.
“We are analysing the details of the PFI’s bank accounts to establish a trail,” the source added. “It was initially found that the PFI pumped in money to fund anti-CAA protests. It is a possibility that it was money sent to the PFI through this smuggling route.”
On 27 January, the ED had submitted a report to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) where it alleged that the PFI had mobilised money to “finance the cost of demonstrations and gherao against the CAA Bill till 6 January 2020”.
A source had subsequently told ThePrint that the agency had stumbled upon the information while investigating the PFI’s role in a 2018 case registered under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
The ED, the source said, had come across bank account details that allegedly suggested Rs 120.5 crore was credited to accounts related to the PFI, and claimed there was a direct correlation between the dates of deposits and withdrawals from these accounts and the dates of anti-CAA demonstrations.
These transactions are now being looked into afresh in light of the alleged Kerala gold smuggling racket. Sources in the security establishment said the racket, busted on 5 July, may have involved the smuggling of over 100 kg of gold into India over the last few months.
The racket and the suspects
On 5 July, the customs department in Kerala seized 30kg gold worth Rs 15 crore from a diplomatic cargo addressed to the UAE consulate-general in Thiruvananthapuram.
Following the seizure, the case was transferred to the NIA as it pertains to the alleged smuggling of large quantities of gold into India, which can pose a threat to economic stability and national security.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was invoked as initial investigations suggested the proceeds of the crime could be meant for financing terrorism in India.
Authorities in India have arrested four persons in the case so far — Swapna Suresh, Sarith P.S., K.T. Ramees and Sandeep Nair — and booked them under the UAPA. Senior IAS officer M. Sivasankar, who was the principal secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has since been removed from his post over his alleged links with Suresh. On Friday, he was questioned by the NIA for the third time in a week.
One of the key suspects, Faizal Fareed, is in the custody of Dubai police. He has allegedly been involved in smuggling over 200 kg of gold into Kerala over the past 11 months.
On 18 July, the NIA requested Interpol to issue a blue corner notice (issued to locate, identify or obtain information on a person of interest in a criminal investigation) against Fareed, but he was arrested by the Dubai police from his residence the next day.
A special NIA court in Kochi has issued a non-bailable warrant against Fareed, and India is believed to be in talks with the UAE to bring him here.
“The Indian Embassy has already intimated the UAE government and is in talks with them to repatriate Fareed,” a second source said. “He is extremely important to the case.”
Ramees was arrested by customs officials from his house at Malappuram on 10 July. The NIA said in a petition for his remand extension that it was Ramees who insisted on smuggling gold in large quantities during the lockdown to deal a blow to the country’s economy while it was reeling under the pandemic.
“He made many trips abroad and indulged in unlawful activities. He is… in touch with his counterparts in the Middle-East and… (he disclosed) that smuggling of gold using the diplomatic channel has been happening for quite some time now,” the second source said.
“The involvement of other people in this crime as well as the end users and beneficiaries needs to be ascertained,” the source added.
According to sources, during questioning, suspect Nair has disclosed that he met Suresh, Sarith and Fareed to talk about the plan, and also where they received the consignment as well as its illegal proceeds.
“All of them had met at several locations to discuss the plan and also where they received the consignment as well as illegal proceeds. A DVR (digital video recorder) suspected to have visuals of meetings of all the accused has been seized from those locations and has been submitted to the court,” the source said.
‘Gold smuggled multiple times through diplomatic channels’
Investigation into the alleged smuggling racket has revealed that, over 100 kg of gold worth crores was smuggled over 10 trips using diplomatic channels in the last few months, a third source in the security establishment said.
“During investigation, we found that gold was smuggled into India from the Middle-East on at least 10 occasions in the last two to three months. All this had been happening via diplomatic channels, which makes this even more serious,” the source added.
Gold smuggling is believed to be common in Kerala, but the case discovered this month is unique as it involves diplomatic cargo, which has immunity from customs examinations and checks. The 5 July bust is said to have been made possible by an intelligence input.
“This was an unusual case because the smuggled gold came in diplomatic baggage, which is not screened as thoroughly. It now appears that the channel had been misused in the past on several occasions,” the source said.
‘Proceeds of crime invested via banking, non-banking channels’
NIA investigators tasked with the smuggling probe are looking into establishing a money trail after the suspects allegedly revealed during questioning that the proceeds of crime were invested with various banking and non-banking channels, including safe-deposit lockers in banks.
“The details of the accounts have been collected and investigated to see where all the money has been parked… We are looking into the purposes for which the money was transferred,” the third source said. “We suspect that the money was pumped in for acts of terror.”
The investigators have seized the suspects’ mobile phones and laptops, which, the sources said, host “WhatsApp chats with UAE authorities” regarding diplomatic baggage in which the gold was smuggled to India.
“It is also observed that some chats were deleted… They will be retrieved through digital forensic analysis and can prove to be key evidence. Moreover, contents from social media accounts of all accused are being scrutinised,” the third source said.