December 14, 2023
KATHMANDU – Nepal’s infamy as a hub for gold smuggling, which had reached a new high back in July after the seizure of 60kg gold, continues to grow.
And latest seizures have once again raised concerns if the government has taken any effective measures to control the smuggling of gold which has been making headlines for the last one year.
On December 7, Chandra Ghale of Barpak, Gorkha who arrived in Kathmandu by a flydubai flight, was arrested with 14 kilograms of gold at the airport. He had concealed the gold bars in a waistcoat-like vest that he had worn.
During interrogation, Ghale argued that he was only a carrier who was told to keep the illegally brought metal at the airport’s restroom-based dustbin from where sanitation staff would take it away to a predetermined destination.
Based on his statement, Min Bahadur Ghale, who allegedly recruited Chandra to transport the gold, has also been arrested.
The very next day, a special team of the Kathmandu Valley Crime Investigation Office arrested three people with two kilograms of the yellow metal during a security check at Thankot check post, Nagdhunga, on December 8.
Earlier, on December 6, police raided a gold shop at New Road, Kathmandu arresting the shop-owner while seizing nearly eight kilograms of illegal gold. According to the police, the shop-owner was unable to produce evidence of the origin and ownership of the gold.
“The seizure of smuggled gold is an achievement,” said former Nepal Police DIG Hemanta Malla Thakuri. “But the repeated incidents also suggest problems in our system, including at the international airport.”
After the December 7 seizure, the customs office at the TIA formed a six-member committee headed by Customs Officer Maniram Paudel to investigate the case.
Shovakanta Poudel, director general at the Department of Customs, said efforts are underway to break the nexus of those involved. “We have identified certain names but I cannot reveal them as they could escape,” he said.
In September, the Kathmandu District Attorney Office had filed a case against 29 people at the District Court, Kathmandu, on charges of smuggling 60kg of gold in July.
Police earlier revealed transnational and political ties in this case, with a number of Chinese nationals running gold smuggling rackets with an apparent backing of leading political figures.
Police found that Daojin Wang, a Chinese national, who has been charge-sheeted in a separate 9kg gold smuggling case, had multiple contacts with former Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara, who is also the CPN (Maoist Centre) vice-chair.
Daojin has been identified as a key member of the racket involved in the 60kg gold smuggling case. In October, the District Attorney Office, Kathmandu charged four individuals including Mahara’s son Rahul in the smuggling of 9kg gold, which was smuggled concealed in electronic cigarettes in December last year.
Even though police had questioned the senior Mahara after it was found that he had contacts with Chinese smugglers, he was not interrogated in the presence of a government attorney, with the goal of avoiding his prosecution. He was not prosecuted.
“Top political figures are always spared from investigation and prosecution,” said former DIG Malla. “It promotes a culture of impunity. Whenever an investigation agency starts investigating powerful political figures, they are made to discontinue the investigation and transferred.”
Officials and experts also questioned the integrity of customs officials and equipment at the TIA customs stations. Some customs staff were arrested in connection with the investigation into the 60kg gold smuggling case.
“Questionable integrity of some government officials is a major concern despite the busting of many rackets in the recent months,” said Nawa Raj Dhungana, director general at the Department of Revenue Investigation (DRI). This is the agency that first seized 60kg gold in July, leading to a probe and prosecution of people involved in the scam.
“Even if these government officials are not involved with the smugglers, they are doing their jobs well,” Dhungana added.
He also pointed to lack of proper investigation of top political figures accused of aiding such practices as contributing to continued large-scale smuggling of the precious metal.
Police have long faced questions over the prosecution of only those who act as carriers of smuggled gold while sparing those who are directing the smuggling and those who give them political protection.
Questions were also raised about the effectiveness of the X-ray machine at the TIA customs after 60kg gold passed through it undetected in July.
The government then allocated Rs68.5 million to the TIA customs to buy a more advanced X-ray machine.
Customs officials said that they plan to buy an X-ray machine that can more effectively detect concealed contraband. The existing X-ray shows black marks when iron, gold, battery and vermilion pass through it and it is difficult to distinguish a metal hidden inside another metal.
Customs DG Poudel said besides advanced X-ray machines, the country also needs to establish a high-tech passenger monitoring system known as Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), which is yet to be installed at the Tribhuvan International Airport.
The processing of API data aids advanced checks of air travellers. Bona fide travellers are expedited upon arrival, while more resources and time can be spent in identifying dubious travellers. Many developed countries have established such systems.
However, former police DIG Malla said people are more important than machines. “Machines just help people,” he said. “People involved in running those machines should be honest and capable.” Malla added that the tendency of political leaders to have their own people in lucrative positions was problematic.
Then, a probe committee is invariably set up after a smuggling case. “But priority should be given to preventive measures,” Malla said. “For this, a dedicated task force comprising relevant government agencies such as customs office, police, and revenue investigation department need to be deployed in order to control smuggling, particularly at the airport.”