File photo of gold smuggling case accused Swapna Suresh at an event with Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan
File photo of gold smuggling case accused Swapna Suresh at an event with Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan
Write-In

Terrorism Through “Diplomatic” Gold

A scandal like never before rocks Kerala, with honey traps, diplomatic bags & terror all thrown in

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

Even the most imaginative and innovative script writer in Bollywood could not have conjured up the drama being enacted in Kerala since 05 July 2020.

It is a clear case of facts becoming stranger than fiction.

A highly explosive cocktail has been made with a generous mix of honey traps, a “diplomatic bag” from a friendly country with solid gold, the collusion of the right hand man of the Chief Minister and rising concern about super spread of the pandemic.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is engaged in defusing the explosive, identifying the guilty and saving the country from terrorism and an economic disaster. The opposition Congress Party and BJP are gearing up to bring the Communist coalition down in the elections early next year, if not this year through a forced resignation.

Diplomats, diplomatic immunity and diplomatic bags are rare in the media vocabulary of Kerala as the state had no resident foreign missions till very recently. They had come up briefly at the time of the “ISRO spy case” in which two Maldivian women were alleged to have compromised a scientist to extract the cryogenic engine secrets.

But the most discussed issue in the hyper active Kerala media today is the “diplomatic bag” as it is alleged that gold was being smuggled into Thiruvananthapuram through the diplomatic bags of the UAE Consulate which was set up recently.

The UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram has a larger than life image in the city as it is the first resident mission of a major country. The glitterati of Kerala spare no effort to get close to the Consulate and the Consul General and his officers are much sought after by official and social circles.

Getting employment in the Consulate is a status symbol and a mark of political and a bureaucratic influence. The Consulate generally keeps a low profile, perhaps to avoid pressure on consular services.

But they had employed a vivacious Indian woman, born in the UAE as the most visible face of the Consulate, who was mistaken in the official and social circles as a “diplomat.”

The customs officials at the airport in Thiruvananthapuram seized a diplomatic bag addressed to the UAE consulate on July 05. The bag, which arrived on a chartered flight from the UAE, addressed to the Attache in the Consulate, contained 30 kg of gold in cylindrical form hidden within some equipment.

Police in Kerala have named two former employees of the UAE consulate – Sarith Kumar and Swapna Suresh – as suspects in the case. Sarith was arrested after he allegedly went to the airport with a fake ID card to collect the diplomatic bag. After a week in hiding, Swapna and other accomplices were arrested in Bengaluru and brought back to Kerala and remanded to NIA custody.

What was essentially a criminal case became a sensational one as the two former employees of the Consulate were linked to a senior bureaucrat in the Chief minister’s office, who was removed from office.

Considerable evidence has emerged to show that Swapna Suresh had cultivated politicians and bureaucrats when she was the secretary of the Consul General. Moreover, when she was sacked by the Consulate, she was appointed to a senior position in the Kerala Government and continued to work informally for the Consulate.

A statement issued by the UAE embassy in New Delhi said the mission in Thiruvananthapuram and its diplomatic staff had no role in the matter. The embassy “condemns the attempted misuse of diplomatic channels by an individual engaged in smuggling activity” and “firmly rejected such acts”.

“Initial inquiries conducted by the mission revealed that a former locally hired employee of the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram was responsible for this act. The employee in question was fired for misconduct long preceding this incident,” the statement said. “At this time, it appears that this individual exploited his knowledge of the mission’s channels to engage in criminal activity,” it said. “The UAE looks forward to fully cooperating with Indian customs authorities to thoroughly investigate this matter and urges stringent legal action against those involved,” the statement concluded.

The key question is whether the bag containing the gold had the required authorisation as stipulated by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Article 35 provides that freedom of communication between the consul and their home country must be preserved, that “consular bags" shall be neither opened nor detained"; and that a consular courier must never be detained.

The Convention provides that "consular officers shall be free to communicate with nationals of the sending State and to have access to them. The packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use."

The UAE authorities declared quite formally and categorically that the bag was not sealed by its foreign office and the NIA concluded that an Indian in Dubai had forged the seal and official documents of the UAE Government to despatch the bag with the gold.

The UAE Ambassador to India told Gulf News that a locally recruited public relations officer of the UAE consulate, who was fired some months ago as “he was not doing his job”, used different means and ways to misuse the name of the consulate,” he said. With these developments, the incident may not have any impact on bilateral relations unless some other evidence of the complicity of the Consulate emerges during the investigation.

The issue of the case against the addressee of the bag will have to be dealt with under the provisions in the Convention regarding his immunity. The Consular immunity is a lesser form of diplomatic immunity. Consular officers and consular employees have "functional immunity" (i.e., immunity from the jurisdiction of the receiving state "in respect of acts performed in exercise of consular function"), but do not enjoy the broader "personal immunity" accorded to diplomats.

The diplomatic aspects of the incident have been drowned out by the raging controversy about the role of the Kerala Government in the matter of its patronage of the accused and a senior official who was involved with one of them.

The Chief Minister has absolved himself of any responsibility by removing his own Principal Secretary, but the opposition is continuing its relentless fight against the Government. The pictures appearing in the social media have also sought to involve many celebrities in the “undiplomatic bag” scandal.

Thiruvananthapuram is under triple lockdown on account of the rising curve of COVID-19 infections, but there seems to be no lockdown on charges and counter charges.

The NIA has been exceptionally swift in establishing the identity of those involved in despatching, receiving and distributing the gold. The shocking revelation is that gold smuggling through “diplomatic channels” has been going on for nearly ten years and that it was used to fund extremists and terrorists, endangering national security and economy.

The expectation is that the whole exercise would be traced to high level politicians and bureaucrats, who were honey trapped.

Diplomats have been caught in stray smuggling incidents in different capitals, but none so extensive and systematic.

In this particular case, the evidence seems to be mounting high enough to be one of the biggest cases of funding of terrorism through “diplomatic” gold.

The Lede
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