Thiruvananthapuram airport
Thiruvananthapuram airport | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Diplomatic link to gold seizure triggers high political drama in Kerala

The seizure of 30 kg gold from an air cargo consignment that came through a diplomatic channel from the UAE, at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport on Sunday, created yet another storm in Kerala amid the pandemic showing signs of community spread.

  • Whatsapp
  • Telegram
  • Whatsapp
  • Telegram
  • Whatsapp
  • Telegram

The seizure of 30 kg gold from an air cargo consignment that came through a diplomatic channel from the UAE, at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport on Sunday (July 5), created yet another storm in Kerala amid the pandemic showing signs of community spread.

This seizure is, however, only the tip of the iceberg, according to sources in the Customs Commissionerate. The incident has triggered high political drama with the removal of the chief minister’s principal secretary and IT Secretary M Sivsankar, a senior IAS Officer, for his alleged connection with those involved in the smuggling case.

Swapna Suresh, the operations manager with Space Park PMU of Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL), was sacked after her name surfaced in the case. The action against her followed media reports that alleged her involvement in the smuggling case. She is still at large.

Sivasankar, who was the chairman of KSITIL, allegedly had a role in her employment. Sarith PS, a former employee of the UAE consulate, has been arrested in connection with the seizure of the illegal consignment.

This is how the story unfolds, as per the remand request submitted by the Superintendent of Customs before the additional chief judicial magistrate of economic offences, seeking the custody of Sarith.

According to the remand request, a copy of which The Federal has access to, the officials had visited the air cargo complex of Thiruvananthapuram International Airport on Sunday, “based on intelligence” that a bill entry, claiming the Charge d’Affaires of the UAE Consulate as consignee, had some discrepancies.

The supporting documents for the bill claiming benefits of exemption from the payment of customs duty was not in the prescribed format under ‘notification 3 of 1957’, and were not signed as stipulated under rule 3(1) of the Foreign Privileged Persons (Regulation of customs privileges) Rules, 1957. This gave the officials enough reasons to believe that the goods liable for confiscation were secreted in the said consignment.

Related news: Gold smuggling case: Kerala CM’s Secretary Sivasankar removed

With permission from the foreign ministry, the consignment was unboxed in the presence of the Charge d’Affaires of the UAE Consulate, on whose behalf the consignment had arrived. A few food items along with some other goods were found in the consignment.

Among non-food items, the officials found cylindrical portable max volume compressors that are used in heavy vehicles. Upon dismantling those, the officials found shining yellow colour cylinders ascertained to be 24 carat gold, weighing 30 kg and valued at ₹14.82 crore.

The Charge d’Affaires clarified that Sarith helps him clear his cargo in India. Sarith used to be the public relations officer of the consulate, but wasn’t anymore a staff there. However, he still took his help in personal capacity for “odd jobs since he is not familiar with the rules and procedures in India.”

According to the Customs Commissionerate, Sarith has confessed that he played an active role in bringing the consignment, containing gold, under the guise of diplomatic baggage. However, he has refused to disclose the names of his accomplices, prompting investigating officers to seek his custody.

Meanwhile, a statement from the UAE embassy in India said that the UAE authorities too have launched an investigation into the case. The authorities have stressed that the culprits, who not only committed a major crime but also sought to tarnish the reputation of the UAE mission in India, will not be spared. We remain committed to cooperating with Indian authorities in getting to the root of the crime, it said.

Opportunity for Opposition

Meanwhile, in Kerala, the opposition leaders and the BJP, who were on the back foot for quite some time, grabbed the opportunity with both hands to fire a fresh salvo at the Left government in the state.

The chief minister’s office, however, took no time to act; it sacked Swapna Suresh, whose name surfaced in the media and was echoed by the opposition leaders for having “unholy” connections. Interestingly, she has been named neither in the FIR, nor in the remand request. However, non-stop prime time debates continued on the ‘dream girl’ and her connections.

Sivasankar, meanwhile, was removed from both the positions: the principal secretary and the IT Secretary, and he has sought an option to go on a long leave. Sources close to his office confirmed that he wanted to quit, but later changed his mind as that would have amounted to his admission of guilt.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday said that his government is open to any kind of investigation into the smuggling case. “It is the prerogative of the Centre to decide on it. Let them decide what agency to be entrusted with the investigation,” he said in his regular media briefing, conducted via video conferencing due to the triple lockdown in the state capital.

“The woman in question has to do nothing with the state government, let alone the CMO, as she has been working as a contract employee with a project run by the IT department. She was recruited by a placement agency, not directly by the government,” said the chief minister referring to Swapna Suresh.

“Customs officials have clarified that nobody from the government tried to intervene in their investigation. They are doing their job, and the state government is happy to help them if and when needed. Principal Secretary Sivasankaran was sacked since he got embroiled in the controversy with his alleged relationship with the woman in question,” he said.

Diplomatic immunity

Apart from the spicy stories of alleged involvement of a woman and that of CM’s office, the illegal consignment coming through a diplomatic channel opens up a Pandora’s Box. Highly placed sources in the Customs Commissionerate disclosed that this is not the first of its kind.

However, the core question is what would be the legal remedy when a State agency finds an illegal consignment passing through a diplomatic channel. “Options are very limited. This is not very uncommon either,” said Dr TP Sreenivasan, a former diplomat and an international relations commentator.

Diplomats enjoy absolute immunity as per the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961. According to Article 27 of the convention, a diplomatic bag must never be opened even on suspicion of abuse. And a diplomatic courier must never be arrested or detained.

According to Dr Sreenivasan, the options to take legal action against a diplomat or even the chances of investigating his alleged involvement is near to impossible unless it’s a heinous crime, like murder or rape.

MK Bhadrakumar, another former diplomat and author, told The Federal that the passage of illegal consignments are not that uncommon, but once unearthed, it becomes a diplomatic issue between the concerned countries. According to him, further progress in such cases can be made only with the active involvement and cooperation by the nations involved.

The investigation into the case is in its primary stage, and it seems that Sarith is only a go-between while the real players are yet to be exposed. However, the question now is how the investigation would proceed as the entire process is eclipsed by diplomatic immunity provided by an international convention.

Read More
Next Story