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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Kerala HC intervenes to stop state government from sabotaging dollar smuggling case involving CM Pinarayi

The Kerala high court had to intervene and on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to investigate chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, ex-minister KT Jaleel, ex-speaker P Sreeramakrishnan and others (including foreign nationals) in the dollar smuggling scandal.

The state tried its best to accuse the central agencies of trying to discredit the state government and twist the smuggling of dollars to enrich themselves into one of public interest! Known to pick and choose court orders, CPI(M)’s acting secretary A Vijayaraghavan said the high court’s stay order is not a final verdict and promised necessary action, ie. move to a division bench or the Supreme Court. 

Clockwise from top. KT Jaleel, Pinarayi Vijayan, Sreeramakrishnan, Sartith, Sivasankar, Swapna and Sandeep

This is a classic example of using public funds to fight the judiciary after having indulged in gold smuggling that the NIA says was used to finance terror. Top lawyers will now be paid huge amounts totaling crores to defend the use of reverse hawala for personal enrichment and they might even succeed given the limitations our investigating agencies have over questioning or producing foreign nationals. Given such gross misuse of authority, little can be expected from local investigators attached to the state vigilance and crime branch other than to tamper with evidence since they directly report to Pinarayi Vijayan who is also the state home minister.

Pinarayi Vijayan’s name popped up in the July 2020 gold smuggling case when Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram airport seized a diplomatic bag addressed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consulate after a tip-off that it was being used to smuggle gold. The bag arrived on a chartered flight from the UAE and contained 30 kg of gold and many such consignments had reached our shores several times. Vijayan’s former principal secretary, M Sivasankar, was among those arrested in the case. Dollar smuggling came to light during the central agency probe into this case. 

In March, acting authoritatively against popular advice, Vijayan accused the Centre of intimidation by using central agencies and used the Kerala crime branch to book ED officers! For this, the communists used a purported voice clip said to be of Swapna Suresh that was circulated where she alleged that some ED officials had threatened her to give statements against Vijayan and some ministers. To justify these claims, Vijayan used two women civil police officers (who had been with Swapna when she was interrogated by the ED) who reportedly claimed that they had heard the ED officials forcing Swapna to name Vijayan. The ED has denied both claims.

Evidence submitted in court by the ED against the accused was so strong that the high court canceled the Kerala police FIR against ED officials and asked the Crime Branch to hand over all the details regarding the probe so far in a sealed envelop and barred them from any interference in future. This happened in April and Vijayan and his cabinet of ministers ‘appointed’ a former high court judge VK Mohanan to conduct a ‘probe’ under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 and filed a case against the same ED officials that was quashed by the high court in April!

Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the ED, told the court the state government’s decision to order the inquiry against a central agency was against the federal norms. He added the sections can be used only for the purpose of a matter of public importance and added that this inquiry was to prevent the ongoing investigation into the smuggling case. Kerala’s advocate general, Gopalakrishna Kurup, argued that the state has the right to protect its interest and the issue was of public interest! Accused no. 1 in the gold smuggling saga and Thiruvananthapuram UAE Consulate’s former staff P S Sarith’s statement too was submitted by the ED in the High Court.

In his statement, Sarith told Customs that in early 2017, he got a call from the General Administration Department (of the state government) saying the CM planned to travel to the UAE. The arrangements for the delegation visit were coordinated by the Consulate, with Swapna (working for the embassy back then) and then Consul General Jamal Al Zaabi handled the travel plans. According to Sarith, Swapna also sought the contact number of Vijayan’s aide Sivasankar in this regard.

In April 2017, after Vijayan left for the UAE, Swapna called Sarith and said that the UAE Consul General wanted him to collect a packet which the CM had forgotten to carry. Sarith said he accordingly picked up a packet from the Secretariat, from an employee of the General Administration Department. Sarith decided to put the packet through an X-ray machine at the Consulate and found bundles of currency and some other items and he informed Swapna. As per her directions, Sarith handed over the packet to Ahamed Al Doukhi, the admin Attache at the Consulate, who was traveling to the UAE, to hand over that packet to the Chief Minister, on the directions of the Consul General.

Swapna mentioned the same in her statement to the Customs, adding that Sivasankar had called her and said there was an important packet that had to be sent to the UAE to the CM. She too said Al Doukhi took the packet. Since when did counsel generals of not so friendly nations begin arranging travel and send embassy staff to carry dollars out of Bharat and why did Kerala communists fall for such honey traps is something the ED, NIA and Customs are interested in.

It was while probing the gold smuggling case that the Customs found that in August 2019 the reverse hawala route was used to illegally export $190,000 by the Consulate’s former financial head, Khaled Mohamed Al Shoukry. This went on for several years until this gold smuggling mafia ring was smashed. Customs submitted in court that during the investigation, incriminating evidence of illegal export of foreign currency was unearthed against former Consul General Jamal Husein Al Zaabi and Ali Shoukry. However, they could not be confronted as they escaped from Bharat immediately after Swapna was arrested. Investigations also revealed the involvement of persons holding constitutional posts.

In response, it is this judicial inquiry ordered by the state government against the ED that the Kerala high court has stayed. Justice PB Suresh Kumar issued the stay order and send notices to Vijayan, the state, and central governments.

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) rejected the affidavit and accused the central agencies of trying to discredit the state government. The party announced protest rallies outside Customs offices in several cities in response. Latest heard, ED is planning to question Vijayan and has sought the Kerala Governor’s permission. Both KT Jaleel and P Sreeramakrishnan have been questioned and let off. Now that the congress mukth Bharat mission has been fairly successfully achieved in Kerala, it is political will that will ensure justice.

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