August 2020
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Woman wanted in gold smuggling case booked under UAPA: NIA to Kerala HC
Kochi: A former woman employee of the UAE consulate, key suspect in the gold smuggling bid through diplomatic baggage, has been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) informed the Kerala High Court. Making the submission while opposing the anticipatory bail application of Swapna Suresh, who is on the run, the counsels for the Centre and the NIA said she had criminal antecedents and was ''involved'' in arranging diplomatic papers for the smuggling of the over 30 kg gold seized by the Customs recently in Thiruvananthapuram.

Custodial interrogation of the woman was required to ascertain her role in the smuggling bid through the Thiruvananthapuram international airport, they said. In a written submission, the Customs said that the involvement of higher government officials cannot be ruled out at this stage. The counsel for the NIA, which has been asked by the Centre on Thursday to probe the case, said there was a legal bar on high court entertaining anticipatory bail applications in cases investigated by the NIA. After hearing the submissions, Justice Ashok Menon declined the prayer of the petitioner seeking interim protection against arrest. He posted the plea of Suresh to Tuesday after her lawyer made a plea for adjournment, saying the decision to hand over the case to NIA was taken on Thursday evening only after the anticipatory bail petition was filed a day earlier.

Justice Menon directed the NIA to provide a copy of the FIR to the accused. Earlier, the central government counsel submitted the statements of R Sarith Kumar, also a former employee of the UAE consulate and arrested in connection with the case, and the wife of another absconding accused Sandeep had been recorded. Their statements revealed that Swapna, Sarith Kumar and Sandeep were involved in the gold smuggling, the counsel said. In a written submission on behalf of the Customs (Preventive) Commissionerate, the counsel for the Central government said that involvement of higher government officials cannot be ruled out at this stage which can only be unearthed if the investigating agency is permitted to interrogate Swapna Suresh.

"From the evidence gathered so far it appears Swapna is a pivotal member of a gang engaged in smuggling of large quantities of gold to India by defrauding government agencies and Customs Department using the cover of diplomatic protection and further she has conspired and actively participated to facilitate this act of smuggling," it said. Referring to the statement of absconding accused Sandeep''s wife, the agency said her husband used to smuggle gold inter alia with the help of Swapna, Sarith and other identified persons under the guise of diplomatic cargo. Swapna and Sarith used to smuggle gold for other smuggling gangs also. Swapna used to arrange papers for getting cargo of the consulate cleared from the air cargo complex, it said.

Swapna, on the run since her name cropped up after seizure of the over 30 kg gold sent through air cargo and addressed in the name of a diplomatic person in the UAE consulate, in her anticipatory bail application claimed she had no involvement in the smuggling. In the plea filed online, the woman alleged she contacted the Customs department on behalf of the present acting charge of the Consulate General of UAE in Thiruvananthapuram. She claimed the Consulate General of UAE had asked her to check with the Customs regarding the delay in delivery of "his consignment" that reached on June 30. "Thereafter I contacted the Assistant Commissioner of Customs with regard to the release of diplomatic baggage," she maintained in the bail plea.

The woman said she worked with the UAE Consulate General Office as Executive Secretary from 2016 and resigned from the post in September, 2019 before joining as a contract staff in Price Waterhouse Coopers Ltd (PWC) and dealt with the Space Park Project under the IT department of Kerala government. However, the woman claimed she has been working with the consulate on "Work on Request Basis" and "obeyed the directions" of the Consulate General of UAE, after the Consulate again sought her assistance in various administrative matters as she was having experience in consulate works.

The gold smuggling case has taken a political turn with the opposition Congress and BJP targeting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan after Swapna was found working in the state I-T department, a portfolio headed by him, and sacked. The NIA probe was ordered a day after Vijayan wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his "intervention for an effective investigation" into the seizure of gold worth about Rs 15 crore.

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