A day after 30 kg gold, valued at Rs 15 crore, was seized at Thiruvananthapuram airport from a diplomatic cargo addressed to a person in the UAE Consulate-General here, a local resident who had earlier worked with the Consulate-General’s office as a public relations officer was arrested by the Customs and a woman employee of the state IT Department was dismissed from service on 6 July. With Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan holding the IT portfolio, Opposition INC and BJP alleged that the CM’s Office (CMO) has links with the gold smuggling racket.
Swapna Suresh, who worked as a marketing manager with Space Park, under the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL), was terminated from service after the arrested main accused, Sarith, said during questioning, she was allegedly involved too.
Swapna, who had also worked at the Consulate earlier as executive secretary, is reportedly absconding and Customs officials have examined her apartment in the city.
Trivandrum airport sources said the diplomatic baggage and consignments including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits were used to be delivered here through diplomatic channels. Normally, these consignments will not be subjected for detailed scrutiny as it was diplomatic baggage. A detailed investigation is on to find out who sent the consignment carrying gold and who the consignee was.
Dismissing the allegations, Vijayan said Swapna had been appointed without his knowledge. “I don’t know under which circumstances she was appointed. It was not with my consent,’’ he said.
The UAE Consulate General office has disowned the cargo and “promised to cooperate with the investigation”, Customs Commissioner Sumith Kumar said.
Kumar said the gold was found concealed in the form of small cylinders in the cargo, comprising plumbing items, water taps and door locks.
“Diplomatic cargo has protection, and normal checking cannot be done (on them), but we took special sanction to examine it,” he said. Kumar said the Customs suspects a well-organised syndicate is behind the smuggling.
“The Consulate General office has told us that the mission was not involved and they have nothing to do with the consignment. However, we will look into whether anyone from the mission was involved in the racket,” he said.
Kumar said Swapna is “also involved” in this case. “We hope she will appear before the Customs to give her statement. If she fails to do so, we will explore legal options,’’ he said.
Officials said the UAE consulate has informed the Customs that Sarith was not authorised to collect any diplomatic cargo addressed to the mission.
The case took a political turn after Sarith took Swapna’s name. Swapna, who was an HR manager with Air India Sats Airport Services before her stint with the UAE Consulate, faces a criminal case in connection with fabricating a false case against an Air India staffer. While the case was pending, she was recruited with KSITIL.
The chief minister’s principal secretary M Sivasankar, also the state IT secretary, is chairman of KSITIL.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala of the INC said the Chief Minister cannot remain silent on the issue. “Misuse of diplomatic immunity has international ramifications. For the first time, the office of Kerala CM has come under the shadow of such a serious allegation. Names of two senior officials of CMO are being linked in the media. The whole issue needs a CBI probe,’’ he said.
BJP state president K Surendran also alleged that the CMO is involved. “The Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary has been a frequent visitor at Swapna’s residence. She had been involved in criminal cases in the past. Such a person was appointed in the IT Department with the connivance of the CMO,’’ he told the media.
Responding to media questions after his daily briefing, Chief Minister Vijayan said Surendran is looking for issues to link the CMO. “The BJP president should not be under the delusion that he can tarnish the CMO’s image by uttering any rubbish,” Vijayan said.