Accused revealed Kerala CM, Speaker involved in dollar, gold smuggling cases: Customs dept to Kerala HC

The key accused in the case, Swapna Suresh, revealed during interrogation that they were involved in both the gold and dollar smuggling cases, Customs Department said in an affidavit

Swapna Suresh (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Swapna Suresh (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Ashlin Mathew

Putting the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in a tight spot, the gold and dollar smuggling case that was unearthed last year has come back to haunt Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan again.

The key accused in the case, Swapna Suresh, has allegedly revealed during interrogation to the Customs Department officials that the Chief Minister was involved in both the gold and dollar smuggling cases. Suresh said that Vijayan was in direct touch with the Consulate General.

She had served as executive secretary of Consul General Jamal Hussain Al Zaabi in UAE.

The Customs Department today informed the Kerala High Court in an affidavit that Suresh had revealed the names of the CM, three cabinet ministers and Kerala Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan who were involved in the gold smuggling case and they allegedly received kickbacks from various deals.

Accused revealed Kerala CM, Speaker involved in dollar, gold smuggling cases: Customs dept to Kerala HC

Suresh stated that she was aware of all these transactions and was a witness to these transactions as she speaks Arabic fluently and hence was forced to act as the translator between these ministers and persons from the Middle-East in all their crucial interactions.

Following the development, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said CM Pinarayi Vijayan had no right to continue in his post. “The agencies received this statement two months ago. But they did not take any action against the CM, Speaker or other ministers. It is a serious matter. The case has almost been frozen and that should be seen as a sign of complicity between LDF and BJP,” said Chennithala. He added that the probe into the CM’s involvement was stopped after Vijayan allegedly sent a letter to PM Narendra Modi.

However, CPI(M) Politburo member S Ramchandran Pillai said the Customs Department and the Enforcement Directorate were forcing Suresh to give statements. “She is an accused in a case. It is a political propaganda organised by UDF and BJP. There is no credibility to her statements,” maintained Pillai.

In June 2020, the Customs Department confiscated 30 kg of illegal gold worth Rs 14 crore from diplomatic baggage addressed to Rashid Khamis Al Sheimeili, the chargé d'affaires at the UAE consulate in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram. It was said to contain food, shoes and some equipment for the consulate. Several consulate officials including Suresh and the prime accused Sarith PS, a former Consulate employee, attempted to get the package cleared from the local Customs officers.

The Ministry of External Affairs informed the UAE ambassador in New Delhi about the issue and finally permission was given in the first week of July to search the baggage. During the search, the team found 30 kg of unaccounted for gold in the baggage. The Intelligence Bureau, the National Investigation Agency, the Ministry of External Affairs and the state Vigilance Department became involved in the case. It soon became clear that Swapna Suresh had close ties with then principal secretary to Vijayan, M Sivasankar.

While the Customs Department has been investigating the smuggling and FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) violations, the NIA is probing if the money earned from smuggling was directed to anti-national groups and the Enforcement Directorate is probing the operations under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. The CBI got involved at a later stage when the ED found Rs 1.08 crore in a bank locker jointly owned by Swapna Suresh and Sivasankar’s chartered accountant.

During investigation, Suresh allegedly revealed to the ED that the money was part of the ‘commission’ she had received from Unitac Builders for sealing a construction deal under the Kerala government’s LIFE Mission programme. She said she got Rs 4.48 crore as commission.

The LIFE Mission programme’s stated aim is to build and provide houses for homeless families. A charitable organisation based in UAE called Red Crescent had signed an MoU with the government to build 140 flats under the project. Through Red Crescent, Unitac Builders got the contract.

After the revelation, Sivasankar was named an accused in the case by ED officials. The CBI found that Unitac Builders violated FEMA while receiving UAE Dirhams equivalent to Rs 18 crore for the project.

As a part of the investigations, Kerala Higher Education Minister KT Jaleel was questioned by the Customs Department officials in Kochi after he was named as a ‘person of interest’. The minister agreed he had contacted Swapna as she was a part of Consulate staff, but claimed that he was unaware she had left the Consulate more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Friday, March 5, rejected ED’s plea to stay Kerala HC’s granting bail to Sivasankar in the gold smuggling case on January 25. The case will be listed in SC after six weeks, by when Kerala would have voted. Assembly elections are due on April 6 in Kerala.

The Kerala HC had granted bail to Sivasankar after observing that the former IAS officer had been in custody since October 28, 2020 and had been interrogated on several occasions. The HC also noted that he had serious ailments, which entitled him to exemptions under Section 45.

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