A senior IAS officer has been been removed from Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's office hours after the opposition parties in the state targeted Mr Vijayan, alleging that his office attempted to shield an employee in a gold smuggling case reported last week.
The employee's contract stands suspended by the state government after alleged links to the smuggling of 30 kg of gold seized by the Customs department on July 4. The Chief Minister, however, had denied these allegations. The gold, which was a part of a diplomatic consignment, had arrived at the Thiruvananthapuram airport.
Sarith Kumar, an accused in the case and a former public relations officer (PRO) of the UAE Consulate at Thiruvananthapuram, has been remanded for 14 days in the case after he was arrested on Monday. However, sources in the Customs department have confirmed that another woman - Swapna Suresh - is also being seen as a "person of interest" and is among those who staked claim over the baggage.
Swapna Suresh was also a former employee at the UAE Consulate; she was also a liaisoning officer for one of the firms linked to the Information Technology department of Kerala government. "The contract of the concerned person has been terminated since the serious allegations emerged," sources at the Chief Minister's Office confirmed to NDTV.
Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala has sought for a CBI probe in the smuggling case, alleging connections between the accused and Kerala's IT Principal Secretary M Sivasankar. He was removed this morning from the post of secretary to the Chief Minister. Later during the day, a new IT secretary was appointed, as Mr Sivasankar was relieved of his post on account of a long leave.
"I demand a CBI inquiry in the gold smuggling case. The accused is closely connected with Kerala's IT secretary, who is also secretary of CM @vijayanpinarayi. It's quite clear now that CM's office and his secretary is involved in this case (sic)," Ramesh Chennithala had tweeted.
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr Chennithala alleged that the "diplomatic immunity to UAE Consulate has been misused".
"I solicit your immediate intervention to investigate into this nefarious act, which has serious implications on India's national security and the potential to irreparably damage the age old friendly ties between India and the UAE," the 64-year-old politician wrote.
"The main accused in this smuggling case Ms. Swapna Suresh has been appointed by Government of Kerala, disregarding reports of the state intelligence against her and not withstanding an investigation against her by the Crime Branch of Kerala Police," he claimed in the letter, adding that it "proves her deep-rooted links with the power centres at the office of Chief Minister of Kerala," read his letter.
"The UAE government has condemned the misuse of diplomatic channels of their consulate in an official communique and has unequivocally affirmed that its mission and diplomatic staff have no role in it. The issue of misusing diplomatic channels is a violation of the clauses of Geneva Convention of the UN which grants immunity to diplomatic baggage," he said.
BJP state president K Surendran, who was the first to raise this issue, has also linked the Chief Minister's office to the case. "Why were calls made from the CMO to protect this woman? Why was she given a prominent position despite earlier cases against her? If you probe the call records of Kerala CM's IT secretary, you will get the details of the calls mad," K Surendran said.
The Chief Minister has refuted the allegations of anyone being shielded by his office. "Some people are trying to drag Chief Minister, his office. The latest allegations by BJP state President are on similar lines. He should understand that Customs is probing this case... no one will be shielded in that regard. People here understand what Chief Minister's office stands for," Pinarayi Vijayan responded during his evening press briefing on Monday when asked about the remarks by the opposition parties.
"I don't know the details of the appointment of this person. Will have to look into this. However, no decision has been made in this regard with my knowledge," the Chief Minister added.