Explained: Kerala gold smuggling case that put Pinarayi Vijayan govt in the dock

Kerala gold smuggling and its political fallout: What we know so far
M Sivasankar IAS, Kerala CM PInarayi Vijayan, Swapna Suresh

On Sunday, the Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport in Kerala seized around 30kg of gold worth Rs 13.5 crore from an air cargo addressed to the United Arab Emirates Consulate in the state capital.

The smuggling soon turned into a political controversy with the investigators identifying Information Technology (IT) department staff Swapna Suresh as a key conspirator in the incident. She has been expelled from the job after she was named as a suspect in the case.

The IT portfolio is being handled by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. This has given an opportunity for the opposition political parties to allege that the chief minister's office knew about the smuggling racket. Congress has sought a CBI probe into the smuggling case, while BJP has demanded inquiry into the alleged phone calls made from the chief minister's office to rescue the conspirators.

With Kerala heading for an election in 2021, the political fight over the issue is expected to continue for a long time.

This explainer will help you understand all details about the smuggling case, such as how the racket was busted, who are the conspirators, do they have any high-level connections and the political ramifications.

When did the gold smuggling at Thiruvananthapuram airport come to light?

Kerala gold smuggling and its political fallout: What we know so far
M Sivasankar IAS

On Sunday (July 5), the Customs at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport recorded the seizure of 30kg of gold worth Rs 13.5 crore from the air cargo sent to the United Arab

Emirates (UAE) Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. The baggage came via Emirates Airways flight on Friday (July 3, 2020).

Since they were addressed to the Consulate, the consignment was classified as diplomatic baggages.

Why did the Customs take two days to register the gold seizure?

Customs officials confiscated the bags following a tip-off. They did not release them despite requests from a consulate official and Sarith, who was taken into custody in Kochi on Monday.

The suspicious baggage was then reported to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi, which in turn asked the UAE Embassy in India to disclose their contents.

The embassy informed that it contained noodles, dates and biscuits. But Customs officials found suspicious materials during the X-ray screening. This was again reported to the MEA. Following this, the MEA gave the Customs the nod to open the baggage for inspection, which resulted in gold seizure.

What is diplomatic baggage?

Kerala gold smuggling and its political fallout: What we know so far
Swapna Suresh (R), former UAE Consulate employee who helped Sarith (L), PRO of the Consulate, in gold smuggling.

It is container used for sending official documents and other materials from one country to its diplomatic mission in another country.

In this case, the suspicious baggage was sent from the UAE to its consular office in Thiruvananthapuram.

According to Article 27 of 1961, the container has diplomatic immunity from search and seizure. That means it cannot be opened or detained.

How did Customs nab people associated with gold smuggling?

Kerala gold smuggling and its political fallout: What we know so far
Smuggled gold seized at the Trivandrum International Airport.

The Customs opened the baggage in the presence of an official from the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram only to find 30kg of gold and a few packets of noodles and biscuits.

The consulate official informed the Customs that the food items belonged to him and Sarith used to bring those items to his office.

Following this, Customs took Sarith into custody. The Customs is searching for another suspect Swapna Suresh.

Who is Sarith and what did he tell Customs?

Sarith is the prime suspect in the smuggling case. He worked as a Public Relations Officer at the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram before his expulsion. But the Consulate had given him the contract to receive diplomatic baggage from the airport.

During interrogation, Sarith confessed that he did the smuggling for Kochi native Faisal Fareed. Customs officials believe that he had smuggled gold at least 10 times in the past.

Where is Sarith now?

He was arrested on Monday and was produced at an economic offences court in Kochi. He has been remanded in judicial custody for 14 days.

Who is Swapna Suresh?

Swapna Suresh worked as the marketing liaison officer of the Space Project under the Kerala Information Technology department's Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL). The IT department said that it had expelled Swapna after she was named as a suspect in the smuggling.

Swapna was born and brought up in UAE. She had worked in the Abu Dhabi airport before returning to Kerala. She worked in a travel agency in Thiruvananthapuram. In 2013, she joined Air India SATS.

She had filed a sexual harassment complaint against her former colleague in 2016, which eventually turned out to be fake, before returning to UAE. She is facing police probe for filing the fake case.

Kerala gold smuggling and its political fallout: What we know so far
Swapna Suresh

She joined as an executive secretary at the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram and worked there till 2019.

Where is Swapna now?

Customs officials have charged Swapna in the smuggling case. They inspected her house in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday. She is believed to be on the run.

Why Opposition parties put Kerala government in the dock in the smuggling case?

Opposition alleges that Swapna has close connection with secretary to Kerala Chief Minister and IT secretary M Sivasankar and that is how she got a job in the state government-run KSITIL. They alleged that she was hired despite adverse reports from the police intelligence and crime branch.

How did CM Pinarayi Vijayan respond to the allegations?

When asked about the controversy during his daily COVID-19 press meet on Monday, Pinarayi Vijayan said he was not aware of the circumstances that led to the appointment of Swapna Suresh at KSITIL.

Will this controversy continue to haunt Pinarayi Vijayan government?

The controversy took its first toll with the government removing Sivasankar from the post of 'secretary to the CM'. He has gone on long leave to avoid embarrassment to the government as he is likely to be questioned by the Customs.

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