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Monday, August 15, 2022

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan admits knowing Swapna Suresh as noose tightens

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) investigating the gold smuggling ring using the diplomatic route in Kerala confirmed in the charge sheet filed with the court that Pinarayi Vijayan, the Kerala Chief Minister knew that Swapna Suresh was an employee of the Government and that he himself had recommended her for the job.

She was employed with the Information Technology (IT) department headed by Vijayan himself. Swapna has confirmed that she met the CM several times at his official residence in Thiruvananthapuram. She has also added that the CM introduced her to his Principal Secretary and IT secretary, M Sivasankar (IAS) and instructed her to contact Sivasankar in the future.

Vijayan had till now denied knowing Swapna.

Swapna accompanied the UAE Consul General and had multiple closed-door meetings with Vijayan during those visits. She was the UAE Consulate’s secretary then. Vijayan, in turn, recommended the now suspended IAS officer as the point of contact between the UAE Consul General and his government. 

Towards the middle of 2019, KT Rameez, the kingpin in the gold smuggling network, approached Swapna to help him smuggle gold into Bharat using her contacts. Swapna had managed to infiltrate the UAE Embassy and was working there then. She along with her accomplice Sarith (another ex-UAE embassy employee) then forged documents and started smuggling in the contraband using the diplomatic route allegedly with help from UAE nationals employed at the embassy.

It is further alleged that with the aid of corrupt customs officials, Swapna and Sarith arranged for expedited clearance of the gold which was then handed over to another accused Sandeep who arranged transport to various destinations. Prominent among them was a small town near Kozhikode called Koduvally. Koduvally has a long tradition of dealing in smuggled gold and many local jewelers have now been arrested. The local CPM councilor Karat Faizal too has been questioned by the customs department allegedly for his involvement and is under the scanner now.

Swapna then felt the need for bigger things, and using her connect with both the CM and another accused minister KT Jaleel (ex SIMI cadre), decided to penetrate the CMO. She had built close contacts with Vijayan, Sivasankar, and Jaleel amongst others which facilitated an easy route for her ambitions. Sivasankar informed Swapna that he had discussed her appointment with the CM who was looking into the matter. In October 2019, Swapna received a call from a special officer attached with the IT department who asked her to join the Space Park project headed by Sivasankar as an operations manager.

Thiruvananthapuram airport was reportedly used 21 times for smuggling gold before central government investigators smashed the operations. 

As the money started to flow, Swapna wanted to hide her ill-gotten wealth in the form of fixed deposits. It is alleged that she was working in partnership with Sivasankar. The rest of her crew were being paid and settled directly. 

Sivasankar and Swapna approached  a chartered accountant named P Venugopal who had been advising Sivasankar for the past 25 years. By now Swapna and Sivasankar had become so close that he used to party all night long at her flat.

The CA apparently advised Sivasankar to open a joint bank locker. Sivasankar cunningly asked that the bank locker be acquired jointly between Vengugopal and Swapna – Sivasankar was to be consulted before operating the same. 

By July of this year, when the gold smuggling racket was smashed, all bank accounts and lockers of the accused had been frozen. The case was handed over to the NIA and the accounts and lockers were opened. Sleuths found a little over one crore in currency and a kilo of gold from the said locker. The ED in its charge sheet has specifically mentioned that the role of Sivasankar has to be thoroughly investigated. He has also been questioned multiple times. 

Incidentally, the above-mentioned locker was maintained at the same bank and branch where Swapna, Sandeep, and the UAE Consulate all had separate bank accounts. The UAE Consulate account was being handled by Swapna and monies were transferred from the UAE account to Swapna’s account. The withdrawal limit was found to be exceeded multiple times.

The bank manager has given a statement that he was threatened by Swapna when he confronted her in this regard. She threatened that the UAE account would be closed and moved to another bank. Since the UAE account was anyway being handled by Swapna, the manager kept quiet. The manager has since been interrogated thrice. Swapna also has six other bank accounts with other private and cooperative banks.

Swapna, as an employee of the Kerala Government, had active cooperation of the bureaucracy. This was evident when on December 2nd, 2019, she took a day off to participate in the UAE day celebrations. Swapna was in fact the organizer of the event. Last week, the UAE embassy abruptly stopped its Thiruvananthapuram consulate operations. The official reason given is that it’s a temporary shutdown since the employees could not report to work due to Covid-19 restrictions. This begs the question about how they operated from March till now, when the first cases of Covid were discovered in Kerala?

The ED has submitted a 303-page charge sheet which also lists 25 witnesses. Charges have been filed under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and considering the magnitude and gravity of the investigation needed, the court agreed to file charges against Swapna under the more strict Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA) which has provision of preventive custody for up to a year without trial. 

Swapna is trying hard to divert the investigation into the locker, in different directions. If it is proven that the money confiscated is ill-gotten wealth from smuggling operations, Sivasankar too could become an accused. She is now claiming that the amount recovered was received as commission for real estate deals.

All these revelations show that the earlier argument of the CPM that the statement of an accused is not trustworthy, is now worthless. Vijayan had earlier said that he came to know about Swapna and her appointment at Space Park only after the gold was confiscated and she was arrested. Now, he himself has contradicted his statement by admitting to having met Swapna multiple times since 2017. 

Local police has been kept away from the investigations by central agencies for good reason. Police is still dragging its feet on the case about Swapna’s fake degree certificate that she submitted to get the Kerala IT Department job. In fact, local police has been accused of destroying or blocking access to evidence. The Vigilance Department of the Kerala Police seized all documents relating to the earlier mentioned diversionary real estate deals on the 25th of September and RTI applications given a week before (on 16th September) are being denied access.

The legal noose seems to be tightening around the CM, and as far as citizens of Kerala are concerned, he will not be missed. For Delhi-based Lutyens’ media though, Pinarayi Vijayan still remains their blue-eyed boy. 

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