Kerala Higher Education Minister K T Jaleel is being questioned by Customs officials in Kochi after being named as a “person of interest” in cases of illegal import of dates and religious texts through diplomatic cargo mailed to the UAE Consulate. These emerged during a probe into smuggling of 30 kg of gold through diplomatic cargo to the Consulate.
The smuggling case & Jaleel
On July 5, Customs seized 30 kg of gold stashed in diplomatic cargo addressed to Consul Chargé D’affaires Rashid Khamis Al Sheimeili, acting as Consul-General since April. As per the inventory, the cargo contained dates and sanitary fittings. Diplomatic baggage is often chosen by smugglers, in both Kerala and the UAE, as such consignments are exempt from Customs inspection under Article 35 of the Vienna Convention.
The arrest of a former Executive Secretary at the Consulate, Swapna Suresh, brought the focus on Jaleel. The minister agreed he had contacted Swapna as she was a consulate staff, but said he was unaware she had left the Consulate a year ago. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have already questioned the minister, who is a CPM-backed MLA since 2006. The Congress and the BJP have been demanding his resignation.
The gold seizure led to the Customs looking into other imports through diplomatic cargo. The probe found that the Consulate had imported 17,000 kg of dates in the last three years and at least 250 packets containing 8,000-odd copies of Quran during March this year. The dates and religious texts had been picked up by the Centre for Advanced Printing and Technology (CAPT), which runs under Jaleel’s department, and been taken to his home district Malappuram for distribution.
Imports allowed/not allowed
As per the Protocol Handbook-2018 of the External Affairs Ministry, diplomatic missions are allowed to import free of customs duty certain articles for their official use, with prior approval of the Protocol Special Section (of the state government). Articles meant for donation are not import duty-free. Goods imported duty-free are not to be sold/disposed until three years from the date of import.
The Consulate has to get a duty-exemption certificate from the State Protocol Officer (SPO) every time it wants to import cargo without Customs examination. The Customs found that the SPO had granted the Consulate a duty-exemption certificate during 2016-18, but not granted exemption from Customs examination or assessment in 2019-20. Swapna and her accomplices have reportedly confessed to Customs that they had misused the diplomatic route on 21 occasions to smuggle in 168 kg gold. As per the Customs Act, the Consulate can import through diplomatic cargo only items for their use. Since these imports cannot be sold outside or donated, the Customs registered a case of illegal imports of religious texts and dates for outside use.
The Customs Department has found that the imports to the Consulate violate the Customs Act, Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, and Prevention of Money Laundering Act. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Where Jaleel figures in this
Jaleel has claimed that the Consulate approached him through Swapna for facilitating distribution of consignments. Jaleel sent a government vehicle from CAPT to pick up these packets from the Consulate. One packet was opened and Quran copies were distributed among the staff of CAPT, while 31 packets were sent to Malappuram and kept at two religious institutes, although these had not asked for the Quran copies. Customs weighed the consignment and found some weight “missing” compared to the inventory of the cargo. Investigating agencies are looking into chances of contraband accounting for the missing weight. Also, the probe has found that the GPS of the vehicle that took the Quran copies to Malappuram was disabled. Customs found that the government vehicle with religious text had even gone to Karnataka.
Probe agencies have found that Jaleel violated protocol by directly interacting with the mission of a foreign country. Customs officials are of the view that several key functionaries, including Jaleel, have been in direct touch with the UAE and its mission.
Jaleel has argued that the government incurred no loss in the import or distribution of religious texts or food kits, that it is a goodwill gesture from the UAE during Ramzan, and that no diplomatic issues were involved in his links with the Consulate. Facing protests, he has dared the Indian Union Muslim League, a Congress ally, to say the Quran should not be distributed. The CPM has alleged the Congress and BJP are targeting Jaleel for distributing the Quran and food kits among the poor. Muslim religious leaders have criticised the CPM for dragging in religion.
Why Jaleel matters to CPM
Jaleel started as a firebrand SIMI leader and later became an office-bearer of Youth League, the IUML youth wing. But strained relations with the IUML leadership, particularly P K Kunhalikutty, led to his ouster in 2005. The CPM fielded Jaleel as a party-backed candidate against Kunhalikutty in 2006. A good orator, Jaleel could whip up community sentiments on anti-US, anti-Israel campaigns, the then planks of the Left. He won in 2006, and again in 2011 and 2016. For the CPM, which has been trying to make inroads into the Muslim vote bank, Jaleel is important in pulling anti-IUML votes and votes of fringe Muslim outfits opposed to the UDF. He has had close links with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan since the time the latter was party state secretary.
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