On Friday, the customs officials at Thiruvananthapuram airport seized a diplomatic baggage addressed to a diplomat in the United Arab Emirate Consulate in the capital city of Kerala. The bag, which arrived by a chartered flight from UAE, contained 30 kg gold, shaped into cylindrical tubes.
Two former employees of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram — Sarith Kumar and Swapna Suresh — have been named in the case. Customs officials who had already got a tip off that gold was being smuggled in the bag, were waiting to see who received the bag.
Sarith was arrested on Monday as he went to the airport with a fake ID card to receive the bag. Sarith, in turn, reportedly named Swapna, who was a contract employee of the Kerala government’s Information Technology (IT) Department, and is alleged to have close connection with people in the Chief Minister’s Office.
This is reportedly the first incident where the customs department seized illegal consignment from a diplomatic bag. And according to Indian government sources based out of New Delhi and UAE, the gold, which is reportedly worth Rs 15 crore, could not have been smuggled into the country without the help of insiders, both in UAE and Kerala.
For any diplomatic bag, two sets of authorisation are necessary — one from the Foreign Office of the country from where it is being sent and a letter from the diplomat or consulate receiving it. The big question is how did Sarith manage to procure this?
In this case, it is the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs department that handles such diplomatic bags and issues the authorisation letter to send the bag. This letter also essentially declares the contents in the bag.
Sources say the bag was officially approved, signed off, secured by a tamper-evident seal and couriered by the UAE government to their Consulate in Kerala.
Incidentally, the bag was addressed to the wife of a UAE Consular official in India. It is assumed that either the Consular official or his wife (if she has Consular authority) must have issued a letter to receive the bag.
Though it was Sarith who went to receive the bag at the airport, the Consular official was called to the airport to open the bag. This after permission was sought from the Ministry of External Affairs and it took two days to secure this permission.
“It is clear that they had the authorisation letters. Therefore, people in Foreign Affairs department in Abu Dhabi and Consulate here also need to explain. However, whether India will pursue to question them is doubtful,” a source who has worked closely with an Indian Consulate in the Gulf told TNM.
As per the Customs Preventive Manual and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the competent authorities cannot detain or open a diplomatic or consular bag.
Even if the customs officials at the receiving state — in this case, India — have serious reasons to believe that the bag contains something other than the correspondence, documents or article, they may request that the bag be opened in the presence of diplomatic or authorities of the sending state, which is UAE in this case.
Though they had received a tip-off, the customs officials waited for a member of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram to receive the baggage from the airport.
That is when Sarith Kumar reached the airport to collect the diplomatic bag. Sarith is a former public relations officer of the UAE Consulate in Kerala. When the customs officials inspected his id, they realised it was fake. It was then that the Consular agent was called to open the bag.
Although the bag was addressed to the wife of the UAE Consular agent, it is not known if it was meant for diplomatic purposes or personal use of the official's family. Either way, diplomatic bags can contain articles “for official use of the Mission or personal use of a Consular agent or members of his family forming a part of his household”.
Under various sections of the UN Conference on Consular Relations, members of the family of a diplomatic agent, if they are not nationals of the receiving state, shall enjoy the privileges and immunities allowed to diplomats. Hence, due to this diplomatic immunity, the Indian authorities cannot detain or arrest the UAE Consular official and his wife, even though the correspondence of the diplomatic bag was reportedly between the two.
“Now, the responsibility lies with UAE to prove what was in the bag as they sealed it. Their only defense can be that someone tampered with the sealed bag,” a source in the Kerala government told TNM.
Meanwhile, the UAE Embassy in India issued a statement condemning the misuse of diplomatic channels.
“The Embassy firmly rejects such acts and unequivocally affirms that the mission and its diplomatic staff had no role in this matter. 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. At this time, it appears that this individual exploited his knowledge of the mission’s channels to engage in criminal activity,” said the statement, urging stringent legal action against those involved.
Watch how the gold was packed in the bag