The arrests of M. Sivasankar, a high ranking IAS officer with the State government, and Bineesh Kodiyeri, State CPI(M) secretary’s son, hot up political climate in Kerala

Published : October 30, 2020 18:51 IST

M. Sivasankar being taken into custody by the Enforcement Directorate for questioning in connection with the Kerala gold smuggling case, in Kochi on October 28. Photo: PTI

Bineesh Kodiyeri, son of Kerala CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, arrives to appear before Enforcement Directorate officials, in Bengaluru, on October 6. Photo: PTI

The opposition parties in Kerala had a field day on October 29, with the Directorate of Enforcement (DoE) taking into custody the former Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, M. Sivasankar, in Kochi in connection with the gold smuggling case, and Bineesh Kodiyeri, the son of CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, in Bangalore, for allegedly providing sizeable funds to a person accused in a prominent narcotics case.

With the arrest of Sivasankar, the case relating to the seizure of 30 kilograms of gold worth Rs 14.82 crore from an airline baggage addressed to an official of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram on July 5, has taken a significant turn. The Principal Sessions Court in Kochi granted the DoE custody of Sivasankar for seven days for questioning on October 29.

On the same day, perhaps giving more ammunition to the opposition parties, the DoE arrested Bineesh Kodiyeri in connection with a case related to the sensational 'Bangalore ecstasy pills case', which rocked the Kannada film industry recently.

Bineesh was arrested in Bangalore under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002 for his alleged financial dealings with Anoop Muhammed, his long-time associate from Kochi who ran a restaurant in Bangalore and had been taken into custody by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in the Bangalore case. Bineesh has been remanded to the custody of the DoE for four days and the agency said in its report to the court, among other things, that it believed "Anoop is a ‘benamidar’ of Bineesh Kodiyeri and the former’s financial dealings were done on the instructions of Bineesh who had paid huge amounts of money to him."

The two arrests have prompted the opposition parties, including those in the Congress-led United Democratic Front, and the BJP, to intensify their separate agitations demanding the Chief Minister’s resignation “owning moral responsibility” for the involvement of a senior official in his office in the gold smuggling case, and of the State CPI(M) secretary, for his son’s actions. They held demonstrations at many places in Kerala.

Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala and BJP State president K. Surendran have alleged that there are links between the two cases and that the sources of funding in the two cases need to be probed further. Surendran has also alleged that two more officials in the Chief Minister’s office and two Ministers too had close links with the accused in the gold smuggling case.

Ramesh Chennithala alleged that the arrests of Sivasankar and Bineesh indicated the involvement of several important people in the government and the party in the two cases. “It is not Sivasankar and Bineesh Kodiyeri, it is the State government and the CPI(M) that are in the dock now. The Chief Minister’s party too is involved in the golds smuggling case. The party secretary’s son is involved in several cases. The CPI(M) is a party built up over the years with the sacrifices made by great leaders. The present-day leaders are dragging such a party into a cesspool of corruption.”

At a press conference on the same day, in reply to questions, the Chief Minister read a written reply in response to questions on the gold smuggling case, and left those on the arrest of Bineesh Kodiyeri, unanswered. He said the opposition was trying to interpret events in such a way as “to try and hurl the smell of corruption and make it stick, by putting the blame for an official’s personal deeds on the government.”

He also said that the State Government has no legal or moral responsibility for the relationships and personal interactions of an all-India civil service officer. “At no point has the government tried to condone illegal actions. Right from when it was known that the official had a closeness with the accused in the smuggling case he was removed from his post and later suspended after a preliminary inquiry. A departmental inquiry is progressing. How can you blame the government then? The Opposition is being led by the thought that by raising baseless allegations it can bury the developmental activities and welfare measures undertaken by the LDF government,” he said.

LDF convener A. Vijayaraghavan also said that the CPI(M) could take responsibility only for the actions of its party secretary and not for those of his son. “Bineesh Kodiyeri is not a CPI(M) leader and the party has no moral responsibility for the wrongs committed by him. The Chief Minister and the CPI(M) will not tolerate any irregularity. The son himself should pay the price for his mistakes. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has made this clear from the very beginning,” he said.

While Bineesh’s arrest was a surprise development, IAS officer Sivasankar’s association with the one of the key accused in the gold smuggling case, Swapna Suresh, and his alleged acquaintance with some other accused in it, which is being probed by the DoE, the Customs Department and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), has been a matter of intense political controversy in Kerala for several months now.

Sivasankar had earlier held several key posts in the State Government and had earned a reputation for being ‘one of the most trusted officers’ of Pinarayi Vijayan. But the Chief Minister said at his press conference that he had not known the officer earlier and met him only while searching for competent IAS officers after coming to power. The officer had been placed under suspension from July 16, when he was first taken in for questioning by the Customs Department following media reports and Opposition claims about his association with Swapna, who was found to be a facilitating link in a well-knit smuggling network.

The DoE’s arrest order said that it “had reason to believe that Sivasankar has been guilty of an offence punishable under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (15 of 2003).”

“Analysis of evidence gathered so far and statement of various persons under Section 50 of PMLA, 2002, clearly establishes that “you are guilty of offence of money laundering as defined under Section 3 of PMLA, 2002 punishable under Section 4 of PMLA, 2002,” the order issued to Sivasankar said.

Among the grounds for Sivasankar’s arrest, the DoE has said that Whatapp chats between him and Swapna Suresh have revealed that he had intervened on her behalf “to clear the diplomatic baggage without examination by Customs” at the Thiruvananthapuram airport, and that in a statement given to the DoE, Sivasankar has accepted that he “spoke to a senior Customs officer and made the request as per the wishes of Swapna Suresh.”

“This clearly shows his active involvement in the offences committed by Swapna. This also amounts to misuse of public office and interference in the official working of other government departments. Analysis of Whatsapp chat also indicate that Shivasankar, “in his official capacity, might have called [the official concerned] for clearance of other diplomatic cargos as well including those containing smuggled gold and nobody could tell what was inside such diplomatic bags once cleared unexamined,” the arrest order said.

The DoE said it had found that 21 consignments were sent between 2019 and 2020 and that “Sivasankar’s involvement” has helped in the commission of the offence. “This clearly shows that you knowingly assisted in the process of activity connected with the proceeds of crime and therefore committed the offence of money laundering,”

The DoE further said that Sivasankar had in his statements to it affirmed that he had “instructed his chartered accountant Venugopal to help Swapna Suresh manage her finances.” He had also further admitted that “Swapna was not financially well off and he tried his best to help her and also secure a good job for her.” The order said that Whatsapp messages sent by the chartered accountant to Sivasankar show that he had kept Sivasankar informed about the cash deposits/withdrawals from the bank locker of Swapna.“ On being questioned about it, “Sivasankar had remained evasive,” the arrest order said. However, Sivasankar denied this charge in court.

According to the DoE, during a search by the NIA, an amount of Rs 64 lakh (approximately) was seized from this locker and Rs 36.50 lakh was seized from another locker in Federal bank, Thiruvananthapuram. “All this money belonging to Swapna Suresh represents proceeds of crime [PoC] as defined under Section 2(1)(u) of PMLA, 2002. This PoC was generated by Swapna with Sivasankar’s active support,” the arrest order said.

In its custody application, the agency said: “Considering the materials available with this Directorate, it is revealed that M. Sivasankar has knowingly assisted Swapna Suresh in layering and usage of proceeds of the crime on the pretext of untainted money.”

In a most damning statement, the agency’s arrest order alleged that “from his conduct it is clear that Sivasankar was overseeing and managing the finances of Swapna Suresh in joint account with the chartered accountant who was also introduced to her by Sivasankar. It is clear that Sivasankar has an interest in the finances of Swapna, the prime accused, which includes the proceeds of the crime seized by NIA from her locker and it is even possible that the proceeds of the crime belongs to Sivasankar.”

The progress of the two cases, whether or not the investigation agencies are able to prove their statements before the court in the coming days, is expected be a crucial factor influencing the results of the elections that are to follow in a few months to the local bodies and the State Assembly.