Thiruvananthapuram: A gold smuggling case that took place over a year ago has returned to public memory amid indications that the UAE diplomatic baggage case is now inching towards higher officials.
The older case had revealed the involvement of senior officials in the smuggling racket. In fact, a Customs Superintendent was named by the CBI as the first accused in the case.
On May 13, 2019, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had seized gold worth Rs 8.5 crore that was being smuggled through the Thiruvananthapuram airport. The gold, in the form of 25 biscuits, was being smuggled in a handbag on a flight that had arrived from Dubai via Muscat.
Customs Superintendent S P Radhakrishnan was arrested in connection with the case for helping the accused. He is under preventive detention as per the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA).
The DRI has established that a 'gold syndicate’, comprising top officials, was operating in Thiruvananthapuram for smuggling. A year-long investigation also found that 705 kg of gold had been smuggled through the Thiruvananthapuram airport with the help of Radhakrishnan.
It is believed that with the help of the ‘gold syndicate’, the smuggling racket experimented with various ways, including the diplomatic baggage route, to get the precious metal into Kerala.
Aalimittathu Serena Shaji of Seminaripadi in Paravur and Thirumala native Sunil Kumar were the ones to be arrested first in the 2019 handbag gold smuggling case.
Based on their statements, the investigation was extended to Radhakrishnan, Biju Manoharan, the main conspirator and a lawyer in Thiruvananthapuram city and his wife Vineetha.
The big smuggling racket was unravelled when DRI officials seized 25 kg of gold from the bags of Serena Shaji and Sunil Kumar.
Six temporary employees who were allegedly helping smuggle the gold out of the airport had been arrested earlier. The information the DRI obtained from them led the agency to the biggest gold hunt ever at the Thiruvananthapuram airport till then.
Smuggling after taking leave from work
Serena Shaji mostly lived in Dubai. She ran a beauty salon there and was also a business partner in a construction company. She was usually the leader of the group responsible for bringing the gold to Kerala from Dubai.
Sunil Kumar, who got a conductor’s job in Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) as a dependant, had taken leave from work to go on the gold smuggling assignment.
The DRI found that Sunil and Serena had smuggled gold five times in six months as per the instructions of Biju, the lawyer in Thiruvananthapuram.
Remuneration: Dh2,000 and free air tickets
The smuggling gang’s activities were based out of Serena’s boutique in Dubai. Women taken from Kerala under Serena’s supervision would be used for the smuggling operations after being trained at her boutique.
Only those who seemed loyal were used as ‘carriers’. It was found that the group had members who were regular smugglers and who were paid up to Rs 1 lakh a month.
Serena, a native of Aluva, shifted to the capital Thiruvananthapuram to carry out the gold smuggling operations.
In her statement, Serena Shaji said that she had smuggled 50 kg of gold in eight trips from Dubai to Thiruvananthapuram with the help of Customs officials.
Each time she was rewarded with 2,000 dirhams (Rs 37,885). The smuggling racket provided free air tickets. A person named Jeethu facilitated the smuggling operations in Dubai.
The gold that was seized on May 13, 209, too was handed over to Serena by Jeethu at the Dubai Airport on the night of May 12, 2019.
Pak national introduced Serana to Jeethu
A Pakistani national, Nadeem, who supplied necessary cosmetics to the boutique salon, had introduced Serene to Jeethu.
Jeethu approached her saying he wanted her to act as the escort of the ‘carriers’ and also help them with the operation. He offered her free plane tickets and 2,000 dirhams in return.
Before each assignment, Serena had to reach the airport after which Jeethu would pass on instructions to her over phone. On May 12, 2019, when she reached the airport, Jeethu gave her 24 kilogrammes of gold. He told her that the quantity of gold for the trip was large and that he would no longer be part of this business.
Adv M Biju was the leader of the gold smuggling team. In November 2018, he called Serena and asked her to cooperate with the gang. A person called Vishnu Somasundaram was the one who mostly called on behalf of Biju.
Biju sent her flight ticket to reach Thiruvananthapuram on December 18, 2018. Later, she saw Vishnu and Jeethu together at the Dubai airport. Only then did she realise that they were all a part of the same group, Serena told investigators.
The gold was smuggled with the help of a Customs officer at the Thiruvananthapuram airport. The officer would stand near the first X-ray inspection belt. Serena said in her statement that she had seen the officer many times. She also identified him from the pictures that the DRI showed her.
CBI joins investigation; Radhakrishnan arrested
Besides DRI, the CBI also started investigations into the case after the involvement of Customs officials came to light. While the DRI registered a case under the Customs Act, the CBI started its investigations under The Prevention of Corruption Act.
The CBI entered the picture after DRI officials came under pressure when it became obvious that many Customs officials would be implicated in the case. It was announced that those with international links would also come under the purview of the CBI’s investigations.
The CBI’s FIR named Radhakrishnan as the first accused. According to the FIR, nine accused, including Radhakrishnan, conspired and smuggled gold worth crores of rupees through the airport between April and May 2019. The other accused are Serena Shaji from Kazhakoottam; M Sunil Kumar and Vishnu Somasundaram from Thirumala; lawyer Biju Mohan and his wife Vineetha; Abdul Hakeem from Malappuram; PK Rashid, an accountant with PPM jewellery; and Prakash Thampi from Pangode.
Although there were reports that said some of the accused had known violinist Balabhaskar and had a role in his death, the Crime Branch told the high court that it did not find any evidence to support such claims.
Balabhaskar died in a hospital after meeting with a road accident.
What the FIR says
Between April 24 and May 13, 2019, gold worth crores of rupees was smuggled through the Thiruvananthapuram airport with the help of Customs Superintendent Radhakrishnan, the FIR said.
Sunil Kumar and Serena were arrested on May 13 by DRI officials while trying to smuggle 25 kg of gold worth Rs 8.17 crore with his help. The two had arrived in an Oman Airways flight that came from Dubai via Muscat.
Serene, in her statement to the investigating agencies, said that Jeethu had given her the gold to be smuggled.
The two also revealed that they had smuggled gold before and that they were helped by Radhakrishnan.
Adv Biju Mohan’s wife Vineetha also said almost the same thing in her statements.
According to D-Batch Customs officials who worked at the international section of the airport, Radhakrishnan would be very keen on doing duty at the X-ray point.
CCTV footage proves that Radhakrishnan worked at the X-ray point whenever the accused smuggled gold.
It is learnt that the other accused sold the gold smuggled from Dubai to jewellers.