Gold smuggling and gold-plated politics

Published On: July 21, 2023 03:50 PM NPT By: Tapendra Karki

KATHMANDU, July 21: Even though gold is reportedly smuggled into Nepal on a daily basis, most of the cases go unnoticed due to strong political intervention. Even when gold is seized, it is the gold peddlers who are sent to jail while the main players remain off the hook. 

About 100 kg of gold, which was supposed to be smuggled to India via Nepal, was seized from Sinamangal in Kathmandu on Wednesday. However, due to the suspected involvement of politicians, there is little hope of finding the real culprits behind this case of gold smuggling.  

Gold smuggled illegally into Nepal through the Tribhuvan International Airport from third countries has been sent to India for quite some time. Although gold smuggling is believed to be rampant in Nepal, the issue draws public attention only occasionally. 

A few days ago, Nawa Raj Dhungana, director general (DG) of the Department of Revenue Investigation (DRI), reportedly informed the authorities concerned about gold smuggling, but no one was arrested. Coincidentally, a huge quantity of gold was recovered on Wednesday due to the proactive measures taken by the DRI. 

DG Dhungana said that he had received the information about gold smuggling before he assumed his new role as the DG of DRI and informed the authorities concerned about it. However, no action was taken. At that time, he also informed the Department of Customs, Tribhuvan International Airport Customs Office, Ministry of Home Affairs and its subordinate agencies about this. But a large amount of gold was recovered only after Dhungana himself became the head of the DRI. 

Dhungana, who was working in the Prime Minister's Office, was appointed as the head of DRI only last month. After he became the DG, he received a tip-off that a large quantity of gold had arrived at the airport on Tuesday evening, substantiating the information he had received earlier. The operation to seize the gold being illegally smuggled began thereafter.

The gold was brought from Hong Kong in the name of Kathmandu-based Ready Traders. Although it is said that a Chinese national is the mastermind behind the gold smuggling, it is not clear who that person is. It is suspected that high-level leaders of various parties, government employees and even police officials might have colluded with organized gangs involved in gold smuggling. Security officials also claim that no one would have the guts to smuggle such a large amount of gold without political protection and support.  

Police and the DRI have not been able to confirm the involvement of political leaders in gold smuggling yet. However, the reports submitted by various commissions or probe bodies in the past indicate that political party leaders and activists are behind the gold smuggling that appears on the rise in Nepal.

DG Dhungana said although smugglers  are found to have brought the gold from Hong Kong, further investigation is underway to find the persons who brought such a large amount of gold in Nepal. “Investigation is underway. The gold has just been seized. People are being arrested and investigated," he said. He informed Republica that whether there was political involvement in the gold smuggling will be revealed only after a thorough investigation.

The report given by the committee formed to investigate the Sanam Shakya murder case and 33 kg gold smuggling in 2018 has not yet been made public. Upon the instructions of the then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, the Council of Ministers had formed a nine-member committee under the coordination of Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs Ishwar Raj Paudel to investigate the smuggling of the 33 kg of gold on April 3, 2018. The government remained silent on some of the issues raised by the committee, and the investigation was stopped when it reached a certain stage.  

At that time, Indian businessmen, real estate businessmen and some influential political figures in Nepal were reportedly involved in the smuggling of gold. Some police officers had to wash their hands off the job after being arrested for being involved in the gold smuggling racket. But the investigation was halted after a businessman who was also a major donor of one of the main political parties in the country was found involved in the gold smuggling scam. 

"The committee formed to investigate the smuggling of 33 kg gold tried to bring out the smugglers, from real estate businessmen to leaders, but it is not yet clear whose interests stopped the investigation," said former DIG Hemant Malla, who is monitoring the investigation from outside. According to Malla, the investigation was stopped at the directive of the highest level of political leadership after many leaders and businessmen were exposed. Bimal Poddar, Mahaveer Golyan, Rajkumar Daruka, Sanjay Khetan, Prabhat Agarwal and other businessmen were arrested for their involvement in smuggling 33 kg of gold.  

It was revealed that this group alone smuggled up to 38 quintals of gold in Nepal. Bhujung Gurung also reportedly joined this group later. The leader of the gold peddlers was Chudamani Uprety, alias Gorey. Bhujung and Poddar were often involved in gold smuggling together. It was revealed at that time that Bhujung was close to the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). 

Bhujung was also found involved in the case of Indian citizen Binod Kumar Soni, who was caught with 12.5 million foreign currency on October 5, 2012. After Soni's arrest, it was revealed that the money he was carrying was for smuggled gold.

Poddar of Silver City, Murari Lal Jamalia of the then Ebisu Jewelers of Durbarmarg were also involved in this incident. Rajkumar Daruka, Rajendra Shakya of RK Jewelers were also involved in the gold smuggling. As the investigation into the smuggling of the 33 kg of gold was progressing, the committee was instructed to stop the investigation from the highest political level after the arrest of Poddar. 

“Let's look at the current situation, the customs department and the security cordon at the airport have been breached and the gold has been released. Not just once, but many times. The question has started to arise if it is possible for only one person, one businessman, one employee to do this work," said former DIG Malla.  

In 2042 BS, then Rastriya Panchayat member Chandra Bahadur Budha (Surkhet) and in 2043 Rastriya Panchayat member Nar Bahadur Gurung (Lamjung) illegally brought gold from Hong Kong. They were caught bringing gold illegally. After that, the business of gold smuggling in Nepal seems to be on the rise with both direct and indirect involvement of political leadership and powerful people. In the year 2044 BS, Bharat Gurung, the bodyguard of the then Prince Dhirendra, and the then IGP, DB Lama were arrested on charges of gold smuggling. 

Even after the restoration of the multi-party system in the country, there has been much news about gold smuggling from TIA. Smuggling is increasing instead of decreasing.

Prakash Tibrewal gave a statement to the commission formed to investigate the murder of the then media entrepreneur and businessman Jamim Shah that high-ranking people were involved in gold smuggling. Tibrewal said Jamim smuggled gold from the airport when Moti Lal Bohora was the IGP (2049-53 BS). It is mentioned in the statement that Anees Ibrahim (Dawood's brother) used to send gold from Dubai to Kathmandu and it was managed by Jamim. He also took the name of the then Home Minister Bamdev Gautam, alleging him of being involved in gold smuggling.  

Tibrewal made a statement that the gold smuggling group worked from forming the government to overthrow it. Then Nepali Congress leader Khum Bahadur Khadka was also allegedly involved in gold smuggling. Lokman Singh Karki, the then chief commissioner of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), was also involved in gold smuggling. After he became the head of the anti-graft body, Karki is accused of facilitating the smuggling by deploying a CIAA team at the TIA.  

Among other politicians, Rabindra Nath Sharma, who was involved in smuggling gold from the airport when he was the finance minister, was found guilty by the court posthumously. After the people’s movement in 2063 BS, both the leaders and workers of the CPN (Maoist) also got involved in gold smuggling when the former rebel party joined the government. 

In August 2017, the then head of Sindhupalchok Bhotekoshi Rural Municipality Rajkumar Poudel went out of contact after the CIB seized 15 kg of gold. He was close to the Maoists. Not only him, but also the top Maoist leaders were involved in gold smuggling. But the police could not make an arrest due to lack of evidence. Reports have suggested that Maoist Center Vice Chairman Krishna Bahadur Mahara and his son Rahul Mahara were involved in the smuggling of 9 kg of gold brought to the TIA on December 25 last year. But the police did not dare to take statements from them.  

The government formed after the parliamentary elections in 2048 BS, issued a special order which made it possible to bring some gold with customs exemption while returning from abroad. After that, gold smuggling under political patronage has been going on unabated. Since then, there have been revisions to this special order, popularly known as Jhitugunta order, on various occasions.  

Security personnel have been mobilized to prevent gold smuggling, but no one has been arrested except the peddlers. According to the CIB, Guptalal (Roshan), Chabi Bhusal, Hari Khadka were among the group that smuggled 33 kg of gold. Bhusal is now living in Dubai, while Khadka runs the Yak & Yeti Nepali Restaurant and Yak & Yeti Jewellery in Dubai. Investors Chudamani Upreti (Gorey), Ram Kishan Agarwal (Kaley) and Arjun Kharel are key players of gold smuggling. Gorey is currently serving a jail term at the Central Jail in connection with the 33 kg gold smuggling scam.  

Where does the gold from Hong Kong go?

A question has been raised whether Indian traders actually buy the gold heading to India from Hong Kong airport via Nepal. Indian traders in particular do not buy gold that has been smuggled like this. Last December, India's Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) said that although the majority of gold comes to India from Myanmar and Bangladesh, recently there has been an increase in gold being brought to India from Nepal by land. It was said that the Nepali security agencies were negligent about it.

After that, DRI, which investigates revenue evasion, conducted operation 'Golden Dawn' in the mid-February, seizing 101 kg of gold passing through Nepal. The DRI indicated that the gold went directly to the 'underworld'. At that time, according to the DRI, 10 people involved were arrested when gold worth about INR 510 million was seized. Seven of them were Sudanese nationals. That gold came through Nepal’s route.

Since then, the Indian security authorities have been taking the issue of gold smuggling from Nepal with interest. It has been suspected that the seizure this time is due to external pressure rather than internal reasons. Since February, India has shown keen interest in this issue with Nepali security officials. 

Before that, the airport customs office seized 19 kg of gold from a Sudanese citizen during an investigation on December 23 and sent it to the Central Investigation Bureau for investigation. Mohamed Ahmed Dafalla Saraphildin, 27, a Sudanese national who had arrived on FlyDubai flight number F 2539, was sent for investigation after the semi-solid gold was seized. People from the same group were arrested by Indian authorities in India with 101 kg of gold. India’s DRI was giving information to the authorities in Nepal.

Nepali middlemen and porters have been getting Rs 200,000 per kg for the gold that came to Nepal from China for crossing the Indian border. They bring gold from the airport to India in a small quantity. Experts claim that they reach Pokhara, Bhairahawa, Sunauli through the airport from Nepal. Not only that, gold also goes to India via Kanchanpur. Because they get Rs 200,000 for taking the gold from the airport to the border of Nepal, it has been seen from the investigations conducted by the police at various times that Nepali middlemen and porters become accomplices of gold smuggling. Indian groups involved in gold and real estate transactions in Nepal are also helped by the police. Politically, the Indian gold smuggling group is associated with political party leaders. The Indian group became involved in smuggling after demonetization in India. They often smuggle, but in small quantities, in an organized manner, making arrangements from customs to police to transport gold to India.

Experts say that bribe-takers in India are more interested in gold than cash, and its smuggling has increased. A few months ago, the CIB disclosed that 9 kg of gold was smuggled by a Chinese citizen hidden in electronic cigarettes (Vape). In the past, smugglers brought gold to Nepal by hiding it in various goods and clothes imported from China.

Tatopani of Sindhupalchok was known as a transit point for gold smugglers. More than 45 kg of illegal gold which was recovered only from November to January 2015 was smuggled through the Tatopani customs point. If we look at history, the police seized one kilo of gold for the first time on January 7, 2002, from Barabise when it was being brought to Nepal through the Tatopani border. Since then, the gold imported through the same channel has been recovered several times in different quantities. Until January 2015, the police seized about 200 kg of gold illegally being brought to Nepal through that checkpoint. After 2015, so far, 150 kg of gold smuggled through the same checkpoint has been recovered.

Similarly, on September 4, 2017, the police team led by then Metropolitan Police Crime Division Chief SSP Divesh Lohani recovered 88 kg of gold. The investigation report has not yet come out. On that day, Manoj Adhikari, the driver of vehicle  with registration number BA17 Cha 6427, was arrested with that amount of gold from Chhetrapati of the capital. The gold was brought from the Kerung border point in Rasuwa.

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