Karnataka’s bitcoin controversy, which has been in the news for the past week, gathered pace on Friday, with Congress citing case records to accuse the Bangalore police of lapses while investigating Srikrishna Ramesh, the 25-year-old hacker from whom they claimed to have recovered bitcoins earlier this year.
While the police were not able to recover bitcoins from Ramesh, there was also a delay in informing central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Congress legislator Priyank Kharge said in a press conference on Friday.
Kharge, citing the panchnama (witness testimony) of one of the cases, said that investigators had made an attempt to transfer 31 bitcoins in January, which Srikrishna had allegedly claimed access to, when he was arrested last year, to a police wallet for safe custody. But the records showed that the transaction was not successful. “Where are these bitcoins now?” Kharge asked. “Why aren’t they able to give answers?”
Kharge said that while a forensic consultant and a cryptocurrency exchange were called in to help with the seizure and transfer of the 31 bitcoins to the police wallet, the panch witnesses on one occasion included a junior lineman and a power man. “It is difficult for a lot of us to understand terms like cryptocurrency and digital wallet. And, they bring in these hapless people as witnesses,” said Kharge, adding that a second panchnama had commercial taxes officials as witnesses.
Recent newspaper reports quoting police sources say that no bitcoins had been seized from Ramesh as he had apparently tricked investigators by leading them to an exchange while claiming it was his wallet.
Kharge said that the handling of the bitcoin investigation ‘highlights the inefficiency of the police department and the government.’ Kharge also sought answers from the government on a claim by Ramesh’s father that his son had been drugged while in police custody.
Political sparring between Karnataka’s ruling BJP and the opposition over the bitcoin case investigation had intensified this week when Kharge, a former state IT minister, commented that the bitcoin scandal will unseat Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. The BJP’s spokesmen hit back, pointing out that the hacker Srikrishna had also been acquainted with a Congress legislator’s sons. This incident too place when the CM was heading to Delhi on an official tour.
Bommai later told reporters that when he tried to bring up the topic in his meeting with the PM, the latter advised him not to worry about it and to focus on running the government.
Srikrishna Ramesh, alias Sriki, whom the Bangalore police arrested last November in a case relating to narcotics bought via the darknet, is currently out on bail.
Following his arrest, the police filed other cases relating to hacking into online gaming portals. In his statement to the police, Ramesh had claimed that he had hacked into bitcoin exchanges and had access to 5000 bitcoins.
Separately, Ramesh is also being investigated by the Karnataka CID in a 2019 case relating to hacking into and siphoning off ₹11.55 crore from the bank account of the e-procurement cell of the state’s Centre for E-Governance, which the ED is also probing for money laundering.
The cases involving Ramesh hit headlines last month when Leader of the Opposition Siddaramaiah tweeted about the involvement of ‘influential politicians’ in these cases.