NIA knocks on CMO’s doors

    21-Jul-2020
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Kerala Chief Minister Vijayan's throne shakes as the Opposition parties demand his resignation over the involvement of his office in the gold smuggling scam which has ‘serious implications’ for national security
 

-Govindankutty 

 
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Kerala Chief Minister Vijayan's throne shakes as the Opposition parties demand his resignation over the involvement of his office in the gold smuggling scam which has ‘serious implications’ for national security
  
As National Investigation Agency (NIA) switched probe into possible terror funding angle in the case, the Kerala Gold Smuggling scam has thrust the office of Kerala Chief Minister Vijayan into a political firestorm once again after the controversial Sprinklr scam. In one of the biggest seizures in recent times, 30 kg of gold that smuggled into Kerala through Thiruvananthapuram airport was recovered by the Customs officials on July 4. The consignment worth Rs 15 crore, was found camouflaged in ‘diplomatic baggage’ which addressed to UAE consular general, Thiruvananthapuram.
 
The CPM and the LDF Government were in spotlight from the day one as there were allegations that the CMO intervened and tried to clear the baggage. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s close aide and his principal secretary M Sivsankar is now accused of helping Swapna Suresh, one of the key accused in the case.
 
As soon as the case was taken over by National Investigation Agency (NIA), the national agency had arrested the prime accused in Kerala gold smuggling case Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair, who were on the run following the gold seizure, from Bengaluru on July 10. NIA took over the case, citing the organised smuggling operation may have ‘serious implications’ for national security. All the accused have been charged with offences under various sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
 
Chief Minister’s Office & Smuggling Syndicate
 
Swapna was employed in Space Park and Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITL), which comes under the IT department, a portfolio held by Kerala Chief Minister. When customs interrogated an Ex PRO of the UAE consulate named Sarith, who is also an accused in the case, it has been found that Swapna has forged the Consulate documents to take advantage of the diplomatic immunity.
 
100 kg of gold smuggled into Kerala each month
 
More than 100kg of gold is being smuggled into Kerala from abroad every month, as per a dossier submitted by the State Special Branch to the NIA. The dossier confirms that a portion of this could have been used for economic terrorism and funding terrorist activities.
 
A major share of the gold comes from West Asian countries, through airports in Kerala. The major beneficiaries of the gold smuggling are Islamist-terrorist groups based in the state. The agencies have earlier found that these incidents have a direct link with gold mafias in Koduvally, a village in Kozhikkode known as as ‘Paradise of Gold’, one of the densest jewellery hubs in India.
 
 
Even though the Chief Minister has been maintaining that Swapna was appointed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the suspension order of Sivasankar has revealed that he had played a pivotal role in appointing her as Operations Manager/Junior Consultant in the Space Park project under Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Ltd (KSITIL). The suspension order of Sivankar has disproved the false claims of CM Vijayan and raised more serious questions over his office’s involvement in the case.
 
During the appointment, the state government had ignored a crime branch case and adverse remarks by the intelligence wing.
 
As per call data records, Sivasankar, former Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, found in regular touch with the key accused Sarith and Swapna. Sivashankar was interrogated by Customs officials for nine hours. Customs is investigating his links with Swapna Suresh and whether he used his office to facilitate the gold smuggling in any form. According to reports, the NIA will soon question Sivsankar.
 
Chief Minister Vijayan had been defending his close confidante Sivasankar until when he was suspended from the service on Thursday. Sivsankar has been considered to be the blue-eyed boy of CM Vijayan ever since the LDF govt came to power. Sivsankar, as IT secretary came to the rescue of CM Vijayan when the Sprinklr data scam rocked the LDF Government earlier this year.
 
The Opposition has said the NIA should question the Chief Minister and that he should resign taking moral responsibility for the acts of his principal secretary.
 
 
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Faisal Fareed
 
 
CPM and Smuggling Syndicate
 
The call data records between former SIMI leader and present minister KT Jaleel and the accused Swapna Suresh showed that as many as 16 calls were made between them. While Jaleel called Swapna eight times, she called him once.
 
UAE attaché was deported in 2013
 
In much the same manner, a senior diplomat working in UAE Embassy, New Delhi was caught for smuggling about 37 kg of gold jewellery at the Delhi international airport in March 2013. A team of Directorate General of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) officials had intercepted Mana Suleh Sultan Alsuwadi, the commercial attaché of UAE Embassy and seized 37kg of gold when he arrived by a Singapore flight early morning of March 11, 2013.
 
According to the reports, the diplomat initially resisted the request from DRI officials citing "diplomatic immunity”. "The diplomat was carrying gold jewellery in a suitcase. He could not give satisfactory answer as to why he was carrying jewellery in such a high volume. He was allowed to leave the airport after necessary formalities," PTI had quoted a DRI official as saying. The 17 packets of gold jewellery were camouflaged in two brown bags, bearing the marking “to be hand-carried to New Delhi.”
 
In connection with the incident, DRI officials had detained a Delhi businessman, who travelled with the diplomat in the same flight. He had bought the gold in Dubai and then took it to Singapore, where invoices were issued to confuse investigators.
 
Following the incident, the DRI has taken up the matter with Ministry of External Affairs for further necessary action. As the diplomat was to be dealt as per Vienna convention, he was not charged or interrogated by the personnel.
 
The attache was deported to UAE on March 12, 2013, a day after the incident. As per the Vienna convention, a diplomat enjoys immunity from criminal, civil and administrative jurisdictions of the receiving State. As per Article 29 of the convention, diplomats must not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. They are immune from civil or criminal prosecution, though the sending country may waive this right.
 
 
Speaking to media, Jaleel claimed that he had spoken to Swapna only about distribution of ‘Ramzan food kits’ from the UAE consulate. “The consulate used to distribute food kits during Ramzan. This year, it didn’t happen due to the lockdown. So, the consul-general messaged me on May 27 expressing his wish to distribute the food kits and I agreed to make arrangements through Consumerfed. The consul-general messaged me that Swapna would contact me,” he said.
 
According to the data, the phone calls were made two months ago. Contrary to the justification of Jaleel, Swapna was no longer working with the consulate during Ramzan period as she left the job in 2019 itself.
 
Kerala No 1 in Gold Smuggling
 
With more than 550 kg of gold had been seized at various places in the state, Kerala set a national record in gold smuggling last year. The gold smuggling has been valuable funding to Islamic terror groups and political parties in the state for decades. “Kerala tops in the country in terms of gold seizure. During the last financial year, 550 kg gold was seized from four airports of the state. At least half of this quantity is from Kozhikode international airport,” says Sumit Kumar, Customs Commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep region.
 
 
Meanwhile, Jaleel’s admission that he had accepted sponsorship for food kits worth Rs 5 lakh from UAE consular general have raised serious questions about his integrity. The incident also amounts to serious violation of protocols by a minister while dealing with foreign missions and diplomats. Experts and ex-diplomats suggest that the revelation is equally damaging to the UAE consul general as he too seems to have breached the code of conduct for diplomats.
 
Several top CPM leaders, including the Chief Minister Vijayan, Speaker of state assembly P Sreeramakrishnan and others, are now facing heat over their alleged involvement in the controversial gold smuggling case. The opposition served a notice to the Kerala Assembly secretary seeking to remove Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan from the post for his links with Swapna. The Speaker had also inaugurated a shop belonging to one of the accused Sandeep.
 
In 2017, during CPM’s Janajagrata Yatra (march to keep the people vigilant) CPM ended up exposing his bonhomie with smuggling network in broad day light. CPM state secretary Balakrishnan led the yatra by getting into a ‘Mini Cooper’ owned by one Karat Faizal, a notorious smuggler and younger brother of the CPM-backed MLA of Koduvally, Karat Razak. BJP state secretary K. Surendran was the first to puncture the yatra by posting on Facebook the picture of a beaming Kodiyeri in the vehicle, now found to be falsely registered in neighbouring Puducherry.
 
BJP to launch protest against LDF Government
 
The BJP has decided to launch a series of agitations in connection with the gold smuggling case till Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan resigns and faces inquiry.
 
The agitations are scheduled to take place from July 16 to July 23. On July 16 and 17, the party conducted ‘satyagraha’ at all district centres. There will be one-day ‘satyagraha’ by NDA leaders on July 22. On July 23, 24 and 25, one-day ‘satyagraha’ will be held in all legislative assembly constituencies. On July 27, the party will launch an agitation in 15,000 centres across the state. Besides, frontal organisations of BJP will launch statewide agitations from July 18 to 23. The party said that the leadership and workers will strictly adhere to the Covid protocol during the protests.
 
 
In 2013, CCTV visuals surfaced on media in which Fayaz, an accused in several gold smuggling cases, visiting Central jail, Kannur wearing Arab costume. The visit was to meet some CPM leaders who were in jail in connection with the murder of CPM rebel T P Chandrasekharan.
 
UAE attaché leaves India
 
With the investigating agencies arresting two more individuals, Muhammad Anwar TM and Saidalvi E in connection with the case, Rashed Khamis Ali Musaiqri Alshemeli, the admin attache of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram left India for the UAE. The bag containing the gold, which Swapna Suresh and Sarith tried to smuggle, was addressed to Attache, who was in charge of the consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.
 
The on-going investigations by Customs and NIA have already divulged the role of Rashid Al Ashmiya in the case as the key accused in the case Swapna and Sarith gave testimonies against him before the investigation agencies. The call data records confirmed that the admin attaché of the UAE Consulate, Rashid Khamis had been in touch with Swapna Suresh. Attache’s number was also on the call list of the key accused Swapna.
 
Gold meant for anti-CAA protests?
 
Taking into account the striking similarities between the two incidents (the recent one and that of 2013), an ex-intelligence official told Organiser that the involvement of the UAE embassy in the incident should be viewed seriously by the investigation agencies and the country’s political leadership.
 
Smuggling on the rise during Covid-19
 
Amid Covid-19 pandemic, smuggling rackets are luring desperate NRIs into gold smuggling. Most of these gold smuggling rackets have direct or indirect links to radical Islamic outfits.
 
According to reports, since June, more than 5.9 kg of gold has been seized from nine people at Kozhikode airport, one of the largest gold smuggling hubs in Kerala.
 
“Some people think the Covid-19 situation would save them from Customs checks. But neither the crisis situation nor PPE kits will save them. We will screen all passengers and ask them to remove and dispose of PPE kits before Customs checks. But we won’t be able to check Covid-19 patients. After antibody testing, patients will be taken to hospitals directly,” the New Indian Express quoted an officer as saying.
 
 
“Since the UAE Consul General in-charge is involved in the case, it has been proved beyond doubt that the gold was not meant for any business purpose. Some UAE Islamist leaders and businesspersons under the spell of ISI had jumped on the bandwagon of the protests against CAA in India. There were media reports that several NRIs who were working in India were fired from jobs, citing their allegiance to the ruling BJP.
 
The vested-interests of the state and non-state actors in West Asia were clearly evident from the reactions from various corners during the anti-CAA propaganda,” he said.
 
According to the ex-intelligence official, who is a known national security expert, the smuggled gold could be used for financing the anti-CAA protests and other terrorist activities across the country. “These days, the stringent laws and strict regulations made hawala transactions nearly impossible and it has been replaced by the smuggled gold as a new means of terror funding,” he added.
 

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Swapna Suresh and Sandeep in NIA custody
 
Islamist-Communist Smuggling syndicate
 
The role of Kerala-based Islamist outfits in the recent anti-Hindu riots in Delhi, which was orchestrated as part of the anti-CAA protests, was exposed in the investigations conducted by the Delhi police. The police have already established its links with Islamist preacher Zakir Naik, Saudi Arabia and Islamist terrorist outfits like PFI. The Accused Ishrat Jahan and Khalid Saifi got funds from unaccounted channels and PFI respectively as well as from abroad.
 
Permitting NIA probe in the case, MHA Spokesperson had stated that the organised smuggling operation may have ‘serious implications’ for national security. The NIA has also maintained in the court that the purpose of the smuggling was to fund terrorism.
 
Faizal Fareed, the third accused in the gold smuggling case was arrested from Dubai in United Arab Emirates on July 19. The Dubai Police took Fareed into custody on Thursday. He is being questioned at the Al Rashidiya Police Station in Dubai. He is expected to be handed over to India at the earliest. The NIA had initiated the process for issuing an Interpol Blue Corner notice against Faizal Fareed.
 
According to reports, Fareed has arranged for the gold that was smuggled through the diplomatic channel into Kerala. Faizal is believed to have connections with Islamist outfits-based in Kerala that led the anti-CAA protests. A section of media had reported in favour of Fareed, projecting him a victim of ‘fake news and whitewashing his ‘business’ in UAE.
 
Adding support to the assumptions, Malappuram native K T Rameez held by Customs was found to be held for gold smuggling to Kerala. He was suspected to be the mastermind of gold smuggling using diplomatic channels. According to the customs, he has a criminal background and was earlier booked for smuggling gold and hunting deer. Rameez is a close relative of Muslim League leader and former state education minister, the late Chakkeeri Ahamed Kutty.
 
In the court, the NIA strongly had argued that no bail should be permitted for Swapna Suresh and other accused since they have been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The counsel had informed that they have strong evidence against Swapna Suresh, Sandeep Nair and Sarith that they were involved in the gold smuggling racket and they should be interrogated by the agency to find out the emerging links.
 
ISIS issues threat to Janam TV
 
Global Islamist terrorist group ISIS has issued a direct threat to Janam TV, Kerala’s nationalist news channel. In a message posted on the Instagram channel controlled by the Kerala unit of ISIS, the terrorist organisation threatened that it would destroy all the offices of Janam TV and exterminate all its employees.
 
In the wake of the threat message, state police chief Loknath Behra has instructed the police administration to ensure tight security to the offices of the Janam TV.
 
The message titled "Mujahideen’s Message to Janam TV" warns the employees of Janam to get ready to say goodbye to this world. “We invite you to convert to Islam or else get ready to say goodbye to the world and face the God’s wrath and punishment,” the message reads.
 
The Janam TV has been giving extensive coverage to the recent gold smuggling case. The channel reports have exposed the links between the political parties in Kerala and terrorist outfits in a chain of gold smuggling cases that had been reported for a long time. The intervention of the Janam in the case is believed to have provoked the terrorist organisations, prompting them to issue a threat to the channel.
 
 
Meanwhile, the CPM has chosen to defend the state government in the scam and has alleged that the gold smuggling case in Kerala is being used by the BJP and the Congress to destabilise the LDF government in the state. They also alleged that the issue is being used to target Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
 
“The gold smuggling case in Kerala is being used by the Congress-led UDF and the BJP to tarnish the image of the LDF government and (is) a joint effort to destabilise the government headed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan,” said the latest editorial of the CPM mouthpiece People’s Democracy.