The Enforcement Directorate has registered a case in connection with the smuggling of 30 kg of gold via diplomatic channels at the UAE consulate in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram. The agency, which is the third to investigate what is a growing scandal, will probe money laundering allegations while the NIA will inquire into charges that at least two key suspects were "financing terrorism".
"WhatsApp chats involving Swapna Suresh (one of the key accused) indicate she had links in the establishment and was politically very well connected," a senior NIA officer said, adding, "We are going through these and trying to proceed".
According to the officer Ms Suresh had deleted several of the chats before they were retrieved, but much of that has been recovered. "There is a lot of data we have managed to retrieve and this is being scrutinised," he added.
Meanwhile, M Sivasankar, a senior IAS officer posted to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's office has been questioned by the Customs department. Mr Sivasankar, who has been suspended from the service, was earlier Principal Secretary to Mr Vijayan and had been linked to Ms Suresh by the opposition.
Call records leaked to the media by unidentified sources also showed several calls purportedly made by Sarith, another key accused, to Mr Sivasankar.
Sources have said the NIA is now next in line to question Mr Sivasankar.
In addition, the NIA has sought custody of another accused in this case - Ramees KT, a businessman currently in the custody of the Customs department.
Investigations so far have revealed that around 250 kg of gold was smuggled into the country over the past 12 months. "Each consignment - a diplomatic bag - had around 12 to 13 kg of gold. We suspect 19 trips were made in total," a source said.
The source said an individual identified as Faisal, a native of the state's Thrissur district, is a potential kingpin. Faisal is presently in the custody of police in Dubai, where he is being questioned.
"Faisal has a business in the UAE and is residing there with his family. He was picked up from his residence last Friday and is being interrogated by the police," an officer said.
Authorities believe it was Faisal who sent the 30 kg of gold - which was discovered - to the Charge d'affaires at the UAE consulate.
The NIA on Tuesday told a court that two key accused - Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair - conspired to "damage the monetary stability of India" and were suspected of "financing terrorism".
Customs department on Wednesday received court permission to question Ms Suresh and Mr Nair, who are in NIA custody. Customs have, so far, arrested 13; the NIA has arrested four.
The case has also exploded politically, with the opposition BJP and UDF set to intensify protests against the state government.
Bhupender Yadav, the BJP's National General Secretary, tweeted: "Kerala gold smuggling case linked to terror financing activities in India. They are in turn linked to those close to Chief Minister Pinaryai Vijayan. His PR agency in the media offers no condemnation. Yet another 'Kerala model' not worth emulating".
Accused in #KeralaGoldSmugglingCase linked to terror financing activities in India. They are in turn linked to those close to CM @vijayanpinarayi. Yet CM doesn't offer resignation. His PR agency in media offers no condemnation. Yet another ‘Kerala model' not worth emulating.— Bhupender Yadav (@byadavbjp) July 22, 2020
The Chief Minister has said: "This government is not going to shield any accused or anyone with links in this case. You have seen it".
Swapna Suresh, who has filed a bail petition, alleged she had been implicated in the crime without any basis. She also alleged the case was the offshoot of political rivalry between the state and centre. The bail hearing will be held on July 24.