Suspended bureaucrat and Kerala chief minister’s former principal secretary M Sivasankar was on Thursday (October 29) remanded in the custody of the Enforcement Directorate for seven days after his arrest in connection with a gold smuggling case.
The Enforcement Directorate, along with the National Investigations Agency (NIA) and the Customs Department, is investigating a smuggling racket that used the diplomatic channel to smuggle gold. The operation was busted on July 5 when the Customs Department at the Trivandrum International Airport found smuggled gold in a consignment addressed to the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.
Sivasankar was arrested around 10.30 pm on Wednesday (October28) after a day-long interrogation in connection with the case. The arrest memo served to Sivasankar makes a very serious allegation that he had called the Customs authorities at the request of Swapna Suresh, one of the key suspects in the case, to get the detained smuggled gold released. This is a new allegation and the ED had never mentioned this earlier. However, many legal experts have said this may not be sufficient ground for the ED to arrest him.
The sixth paragraph of the arrest memo (The Federal is in possession of a copy) states: “During your statements given to ED on 15.10.2020 you/Shri Sivasankar accepted to have spoken to a senior Customs officer and made the request as per the wishes of Ms Swapna Suresh. This clearly shows your active involvement in the offences committed by Swapna. This also amounts to misuse of public office and interference in the official working of other government departments. Analysis of whatsApp chats is also indicative of the fact that you/Shri Sivasankar in your official capacity might have called for the clearance of other diplomatic cargoes as well, including the ones containing smuggled gold, because nobody could tell what was inside such diplomatic bags once cleared un-examined.”
According to legal experts, ED’s contention may not hold water as the Customs Department has at no stage of the investigations raised the allegation that Sivasankar had called its officials on behalf of Swapna Suresh to get the consignment released.
Joint Commissioner of Customs Aneesh P Rajan, who was in charge of the investigation before he was transferred, made a public statement that no one from the chief minister’s office had called them in connection with the seized gold. The Customs has not mentioned any such calls in the documents submitted in court in the case. The NIA has also so far not said anything about Sivasankar’s involvement. In response to an anticipatory bail application that Sivasankar had filed, the NIA had informed the HIgh Court that it had no plan to make him an accused.
Before Wednesday, the Enforcement Directorate also did not make the allegation. It made no mention of it during the hearing on Sivasankar’s anticipatory bail plea on October 23. Neither did the agency make any such submission in a sealed cover as investigating agencies do when they have to share sensitive information with courts.
In its order dismissing Sivasankar’s bail plea, the High Court on Wednesday said, “Probably, there may not be sufficient evidence at present collected by the ED to implicate the applicant as an accused, and there also may not be sufficient evidence to suggest that he is guilty of the offences alleged. But they have sufficient material to interrogate him for which he is bound to cooperate as a senior Government official.”
“The Customs has never said Sivasankar had called its officials on behalf of Swapna. Then, how can the ED make a case that even the Customs has not made so far?” asks advocate Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer at the High Court of Kerala. According to Harish, ED has no mandate to look into the offences related to gold smuggling. “The ED is investigating a crime under Prohibition of Money Laundering Act. Their only role is to find who all are involved in the alleged money laundering. They are not supposed to investigate what happened with other independent investigating agencies such as Customs,” says Harish.
Sivasankar’s lawyer said the suspended bureaucrat has been interrogated by all the central agencies — Customs, ED and NIA — for more than 90 hours. “He has never showed any reluctance to appear whenever he has been summoned. None of the agencies has found any incriminating evidence so far to connect him with any of the offences under investigation,” the lawyer said..
Meanwhile, the opposition parties in Kerala have started agitations demanding the resignation of the chief minister Vijayan alleging the chief minister’s office had links to the gold smudging racket. Sivasankar had functioned in the office as the principal secretary to the chief minister.