The seizure of 30 kilogram of smuggled gold from a diplomatic cargo addressed to the UAE Consulate-General Office in Thiruvananthapuram last Sunday has emerged as a major controversy in Kerala, where smuggling of the yellow metal from the Middle East is a routine affair.
But what makes this seizure, worth Rs 15 crore, cling on to the headlines is that the gold was found in diplomatic cargo, which enjoys immunity from routine Customs examination. The players behind the racket and their alleged links with senior government officials have also added to the interest around the episode.
On Tuesday, M Sivasankar was removed as the principal secretary to Kerala Chief Minister, after the senior IAS official was found in the close network of an alleged key player of the smuggling racket, Swapna Suresh, who had earlier worked as executive secretary at the UAE Consulate-General’s office.
Gold in diplomatic cargo
The stash of gold was part of diplomatic cargo from Dubai which reached the Thiruvananthapuram international airport last week. As per law, the diplomatic cargo should not be subjected to routine Customs examination and should be cleared as early as possible. The cargo was listed as bathroom fittings, noodles, biscuits and dates, sent from Sharjah-based Al Zatar Spices. But the Customs already has specific inputs about concealment of gold.
Sarith Kumar, who had earlier worked as a local PRO for the Consulate-General office in Thiruvananthapuram, turned to claim the cargo under the pretext that he was still with the Consulate. The Consulate had already informed the Customs that Kumar had been removed as local PRO a year back and had not been assigned to get the diplomatic cargo cleared. The Customs did not release the cargo, but decided to open the consignment in the presence of the officials of the UAE Consulate; another condition for examining any diplomatic cargo.
Customs arrested Sarith Kumar, who had worked as the Consulate PRO from 2016 till a year back. A graduate, Kumar had earlier worked in Dubai as an asset officer at Commercial Bank International. He had also worked with Future Group India for a short stint 12 years back.
Meanwhile, Suresh, who is currently on the run, filed an application for anticipatory bail before the Kerala High Court on Thursday. In her petition, she claimed she was being falsely implicated in the case and that she had contacted the Customs officer at the airport on the directions of Rashid Khamis Al Shameli, who holds acting charge of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, regarding the delay in his consignment.
Suresh, who went into hiding a day before the Customs decided to open the diplomatic cargo, joined the UAE Consulate-General Office when it opened in the state capital in 2016, with her exposure to the emirates and fluency in Arabic standing her in good stead. As the Kerala government maintains a good rapport with UAE, home to lakhs of expats from Kerala, the local staff of the Consulate rose into prominence. Suresh moved in social, bureaucratic and political circles, at times even projecting herself as a diplomat. In 2017, when the Sharjah ruler was on a four-day official visit to Kerala, the consulate executive secretary moved along with the dignitaries and attended several official functions.
A year back, she was sacked from the Consulate General’s office over her criminal case. Kumar was also sacked around the same time.
However, thanks to her networking, Suresh managed a job as business development manager with Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL) with senior IAS officer and IT secretary M Sivasankar as its chairman. Sivasankar was then Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary, a key post in the CMO.
After the smuggling scandal broke out, it was revealed that Sivasankar had recommended Suresh’s name through transnational consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers for the post of manager at KSITIL. While KSITIL officials claimed Suresh, a graduate, was qualified for the job, her brother living abroad told the media she hadn’t even completed the state school board exam. One of her former colleagues at a travel agency has also doubted about her qualification saying she had completed only Class XII.
However, this is not the first case against Suresh. In 2013, when she joined as an HR executive with AISATS, an airport service firm, in Thiruvananthapuram. It came to light later that she had conspired with another senior executive at the firm to forge a false complaint of sexual abuse against an airport staff.
She had prepared as many as 17 complaints, in many bogus names, against the person, who later complained to the state police seeking a probe into the conspiracy. Suresh was listed as an accused, but the probe was derailed, allegedly because of her influence.
Suresh, a resident of Dubai, is currently living with her husband and two children, the younger son is studying in third standard and the elder daughter is studying for the second year degree course.
The Customs department is now investigating to identify others involved in this smuggling network, including whether the racket had any support from other staff at the Consulate-General’s office. So far, they have arrested only Kumar and have been looking for Suresh, who is now absconding.
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Customs officials said they suspected the role of the well-orchestrated smuggling lobby operating in the Middle East behind this incident also. “The smuggling racket is always one and the same, in all previous cases of gold smuggling. They use different people and strange ways of concealing the gold in different forms in baggage. We would come across a new method of smuggling only after they completed several successful missions. Then, they (the racket) would explore other venues,” said a senior officer.