Gold smuggling via international airport hints at big collusionThe Department of Revenue Investigation has started its own probe but police have yet to join the effort.
Nepali Congress lawmaker Sunil Sharma has demanded resignation of Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat over the latest gold smuggling scam.
“It seems that the Customs Department under the Finance Ministry and the police under Home Ministry could not stop repeated smuggling of gold at the airport,” he said speaking at the meeting of the Law, Justice and Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives on Friday. “They should resign to pave the way for investigation and support the prime minister’s drive [against corruption].”
On Tuesday, the Department of Revenue Investigation (DRI), which falls under the Prime Minister’s Office, seized gold estimated to be worth over a billion rupees and arrested six individuals. Two days later, on Thursday, four persons including a Chinese national were apprehended.
“So far, the DRI has arrested 10 individuals and they are being investigated in judicial custody after taking permission from the High Court, Patan,” said Nawaraj Adhikari, information officer at the DRI.
The gross weight of the smuggled consignment, which includes motorcycle brake shoes and electric shavers, is 155 kg, according to officials at the Mint division of the Nepal Rastra Bank, which has now been entrusted with the consignment.
The gold was concealed inside motorcycle brake shoes and as the metal (gold) was covered by another metal, it was difficult for the X-Ray machine to differentiate the two metals, according to the customs department.
The DRI said that the central bank is yet to determine the actual weight of the smuggled gold.
According to the DRI, a taxi cab carrying the gold, which had passed the airport customs undetected, was seized at Sinamangal, a location close to the Tribhuvan International Airport.
Since the busting of the 33-kg gold smuggling scam in January, 2017, Tuesday’s is the biggest seizure of gold that passed through the TIA at a time, according to officials.
As highlighted by lawmaker Sharma, officials and experts say that it is unusual that both the customs office and police failed to detect such a huge amount of gold despite the presence of X-ray devices, which are capable of detecting even small quantities of metals. The customs staff usually check the cargos brought from abroad when they arrive in the customs area.
“It is highly unusual that the customs office failed to detect such a large quantity of gold,” said Punya Bikram Khadka, director at the Department of Customs.
The customs department has formed a six-member probe committee to look into the lapses that led to the passage of the gold without detection. “We have suspended one staff involved in customs clearance and sought approval from the Finance Ministry to suspend another,” said Khadka.
Non-detection of large quantities of smuggled gold hints of collusion among the smugglers, customs officials and others at the top level. “Collusion is an obvious possibility,” said former deputy inspector general of Nepal Police Hemanta Malla Thakuri. “The condition of the customs infrastructure including X-ray machines and competence of human resources at the customs office at TIA are other factors to be considered during the investigation.”
He said that capable human resources should also be deployed at the customs office considering the high likelihood of illegal activities taking place there.
“The Nepal Police have for long deployed specialised human resources with expertise in narcotics and counter-terrorism at the TIA. Capable customs staff should also be deployed considering the high volume of potential illegal trade through the customs,” Malla said.
Officials at the DRI said that they had to keep the operation secret to control possible leakage of information to the smugglers and those helping them.
Nawa Raj Dhungana, director general at the DRI, told the Post that it was his office’s top secret mission. “I had shared the information that we had received about the gold smuggling, as well as my plan of action with the prime minister,” he said. “The prime minister ordered me to go ahead with the mission—and we did so.”
Dhungana, however, refused to discuss whether any other political figure besides the prime minister was aware of the smuggling plan before the gold was seized. “Now, the investigation is underway and it will identify those connected with the smuggling,” he said.
The DRI has initiated investigation into the case through a five-member probe team. It is yet to take the help of the police.
“The DRI has not requested for our help officially,” said Superintendent of Police Sanjya Singh Thapa, who is also the spokesman at the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB). “We are ready to help if a request is made.”
Former DIG Malla, however, called for involving the police in the investigation. “It is an organised crime with international dimension as gold has been brought from another country,” he said. “Besides investigating revenue leakages, there should also be a probe on organised crime.”