Congress, BJP attack CM’s office over gold smuggling case

Swapna Suresh

Thiruvananthapuram: The Opposition on Monday unleashed verbal attack on chief Minister’s office after the details of the friendship between senior officials of IT department and the accused woman in gold smuggling case, Swapna Suresh came to light.

Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala sought a CBI probe into the matter alleging that the Chief Minister's Office had "become a den of criminals".

"A criminal gang is operating in the CM's office. The chief minister should clarify about the persons from his office who allegedly tried to interfere in the investigation. The IT department is directly under chief minister. How does a person facing a crime branch probe get a job in the department? I demand a CBI probe to bring out the matter," Chennithala said.

KPCC President Mullappally Ramachandran said that CM’s office has become a care home for mafias.

BJP state president K Surendran alleged that Swapna has links to CM’s office and the customs authorities had received a call from the CMO soon after the seizure.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Swapna Suresh to IT department has also come under scanner. It is alleged that she was appointed as operation manager at IT Park after rejecting many qualified people. An IAS officer at IT department who has close links with CM’s office had facilitated this, it is claimed. A picture of Swapna with the said official was also posted on social media by Congress leader Jyothikumar Chamakkala.

However, the IT department immediately expelled Swapna from the job.

The IT department, under the Chief Minister and his Principal Secretary M Sivasankar who holds additional charge of Secretary of the department, has come under more trouble with the gold smuggling case.

Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport had seized 30 kg of gold from the diplomatic baggage addressed to the UAE consulate on Sunday. The baggage was supposed to contain food items. Growing suspicious, customs officials checked the baggage after getting permission from the Ministry of External Affairs.

Swapna Suresh, is the alleged key conspirator in the case. A former employee at the UAE consulate here, Swapna was working as an operational manager under the IT Department. She has been absconding ever since the gold smuggling case came to light on Sunday. The Customs department has intensified the search to nab her.

Following this, the customs officials took Sarith, who was known to the PRO at the UAE consulate, into custody.

It is learned that Swapna along with Sarith were spearheading the smuggling operations. The duo was reportedly earning up to Rs 2 lakh in each transaction. They had smuggled gold in similar fashion earlier also.

Investigations revealed that Sarith was no longer an employee at the consulate. Sarith, who had worked there, had been dismissed. However, he continued to contact people introducing himself as the PRO at the consulate. It is learned that Sarith had accepted many baggages addressed to the UAE consulate from the airport.

Customs officials said Sarith appeared to be involved in the "illegal trade" and "handled fictitious kinds of documents" in connection with the case.

According to them, Sarith did not cooperate with the agency in the investigation, which is a criminal offence.

"Law says if somebody is guilty of offence in an illegal trade involving over Rs 1 crore, then he has to be produced before the magistrate for judicial custody. We are doing that," Customs Commissioner (Preventive) Sumit Kumar told PTI.

Officials said he had not been working for the consulate for at least one year.

"Prior to that he claims to be an employee of the consulate. He had some fake, old identity card. But during the process he had been operating on behalf of the consulate, misleading people. He even had called senior officials using his fake ID," official sources said.

Earlier in the day, a senior customs official, who spoke to PTI on condition of anonymity, said they were also investigating how unauthorised people can be associated with the clearance of the cargo.

The investigation would also look into the possible role of any employee of the consulate, the official added.

"Right now we are investigating how can unauthorised people be associated with official clearance of diplomatic cargo. How come former employees of the consulate handled the consignment, who sent it from outside and whom it was meant to be given to", the official said.

Noting that suspected smuggling of gold worth over Rs 15 crore was not by "a small chain", the official said it was very clear that the cover of diplomatic consignment was being used for the purpose.

"Even then they had done deep concealment. Without information no way we could have made the seizure", the official said.

Airport sources had said the gold was concealed in a baggage consisting of bathroom equipment.

After the seizure, Customs Commissioner (Preventive) Sumit Kumar had said: "We suspect scamsters have used the name of the consignee with diplomatic immunity... it is understood the syndicate operating behind this has filed the papers for the consignment in the name of a person with diplomatic immunity."

When the media sought his response to the charges of the opposition leaders, the Chief Minister said he was not aware about the factors behind the woman's appointment and the matter would be looked into.

"This was a major haul that happened in the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport. I would like to congratulate the Customs team that monitored the smuggling activity and seized the gold. It seems like they have details of those involved in the matter and the Customs will act soon," Vijayan said.

Dismissing the BJP chief's charge that the CMO was involved in the matter, Vijayan said his office had never entertained anyone involved in any sort of corruption and the people of the state know that.

He also said that those involved would not be able to escape and would be brought to justice.

(With PTI inputs)

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