‘Gold’ baggage UAE diplomat leaves India
The United Arab Emirates diplomat at the heart of the gold smuggling probe in Kerala quietly left the country last week, it emerged on Thursday.
Rashed Khamis Al Musaiqri Al Ashmia, an attaché with the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, had been the designated consignee of a “diplomatic” baggage containing 30kg contraband gold that arrived at the city’s airport on June 30. He had disowned any link to the racket, which has led to eight people being arrested so far.
On Thursday, a visit to his apartment by some journalists led to the revelation that he had left the flat on July 10. His designated consulate car, bearing the number 2-CC-12, was parked at the complex.
The gatekeeper’s records showed that Al Ashmia had left in another consulate car, 2-CC-2, around 3pm on July 10. He is suspected to have flown to Delhi and caught a flight to Dubai.
At a time the key accused in the gold smuggling case have been pointing fingers at him, the senior diplomat’s departure could affect the probe by the National Investigation Agency and the customs department.
Sources had indicated that the investigators planned to secure permission from the UAE authorities to record his statement.
No reactions could be obtained from the consulate, which has been closed during the week-and-a-half-old “triple lockdown” in the Kerala capital.
Al Ashmia had been in charge of the diplomatic mission since consul-general Jamal Hussein Al Zaabi left for the UAE shortly before the first nationwide lockdown began on March 25.
The cargo, booked in Dubai on June 25, had arrived at Thiruvananthapuram airport on June 30. Sensing something wrong, customs officials had detained the consignment, which weighed more than 70kg although the booking details suggested it only contained foodstuff sent by Al Ashmia’s family.
The NIA later told a court that fake stamps and stickers had been used to make the cargo look like diplomatic baggage.
Call data records unearthed by customs show that Al Ashmia and accused Swapna Suresh had exchanged 117 calls during the time the bag was detained at the airport cargo complex, sources privy to the investigation said. They said Al Ashmia had called Swapna 20 times on July 3.
The NIA has revealed that the diplomat went to the airport along with first accused P.S. Sarith on July 3 and, after failing to persuade customs officials to release the cargo, tried to send it back to Dubai.
But customs decided to wait for clearance from the UAE embassy in Delhi to open the carton. When it was opened on July 5 and the gold was found hidden inside hardware not listed in the airway bill, Al Ashmia disowned the contraband.
In a voice message circulated over WhatsApp before her arrest in Bangalore on July 11, Swapna had claimed that it was on the request of “the diplomat to whom this cargo was addressed” that she had contacted a customs official to enquire about the consignment.
Swapna had worked as executive assistant to the consul-general and Sarith was public relations officer at the UAE consulate until they were sacked in August last year.
Al Ashmia, however, had told the customs officials that he had assigned Sarith to pick his “diplomatic” bags since he knew the procedures, sources said.
Swapna is believed to have told the investigators that she had continued to run errands for the consulate after joining the Space Park, run by the state IT department, as an operations manager.
A former Indian ambassador to Italy, K.P. Fabian, told a TV channel that Al Ashmia’s departure was good for bilateral ties since consular officials do not enjoy the same protection that full-fledged diplomats like ambassadors do.
“The Vienna convention (refers to) two types — diplomatic and consular. The consular officials do not enjoy that much protection in their host nations,” Fabian said.
He cited how “an Indian deputy consul-general was arrested in New York”, alluding to Devyani Khobragade, who was charged in December 2013 with committing visa fraud to get her Indian maid to America and then underpaying her.
Fabian said the only option now was to seek the help of the UAE, which has already offered full cooperation in the case.
Former Lok Sabha member and senior CPM leader M.B. Rajesh slammed the Centre over Al Ashmia’s departure.
“Here is a man who is being named by the accused and the Centre simply allows him to go without even making an attempt to convince the UAE government of the need to have his statement recorded,” Rajesh said.
The Kerala government on Thursday suspended IAS officer M. Sivasankar, who has been linked to Swapna and Sarith, over alleged violation of the service rules for civil servants.
Sivasankar had been removed as secretary to the chief minister’s office and principal secretary in the IT department after media reports linked him to Swapna and the Opposition raised an outcry.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan told reporters that a departmental inquiry had found that Sivasankar’s activities had violated the service rules but did not elaborate.
After his removal from the posts on July 7, Sivasankar had been sent on a “long leave”. He attended a nine-hour grilling by customs that stretched from Tuesday evening to the early hours of Wednesday.