Persistent smuggling incidents at Tribhuvan International Airport spark security concerns

Tribhuvan International Airport. TIA immigration - gold smuggling case
Main building of the Tribhuvan International Airport.

On December 23, 2023, officials from the Customs Department received information indicating that an individual would be arriving with four kilograms of gold on a Fly Dubai flight. The authorities also obtained the passport number of the person travelling on flight number FZ 1133.

Sources at Tribhuvan International Airport Customs Office revealed that individuals arriving in Nepal via business class tickets were supposed to undergo checks on the plane. However, this did not occur due to a lack of coordination between the plane’s staff and customs officials.

That meant no gold was found in the possession of the individual during inspection. Customs officials suspected that the gold may have been placed somewhere, considering that a separate vehicle is typically used to pick up business class passengers. Additionally, the individual’s travel history raised suspicions.

“We were not in a position to say anything, since we could not find the gold with him,” a senior officer of the Tribhuvan International Airport Customs Office said.

Recently, the customs office started search operations within the aircraft before passengers leave. This proactive measure was adopted due to numerous instances where illegal products were discovered and concealed within the aircraft’s interior immediately after landing. Despite these efforts, officials are facing challenges in detecting illegal goods even within the confines of the aircraft.

Operating an illegal consignment

Illegal gold

The findings of an investigation on a recent 14-kilogram gold case is an example of how smoothly illegal goods are transferred once the plane has landed.

The Airport Customs Office arrested Chandra Ghale with 14 kilograms of gold based on a tip. Following his arrest, during the statement given to authorities, the individual revealed that he had a method of concealing the gold in the toilet and retrieving it just before reaching the immigration checkpoint.

After the international flight lands, there is no screening process before reaching the immigration desk. Additionally, for foreign nationals, there is a provision for issuing visas on arrival. There is also a designated room for Commercially Important Persons (CIP). The arrested individual disclosed that he used to leave gold in the toilet located in that CIP room.

The restroom inside the CIP room, designed to be disabled-friendly, features a small door. During his trip to the UAE, the individual had the key to that door. Upon his return, he claimed that he was instructed to deposit the gold in that room. The responsibility for confirming the arrival of the gold after it was placed rested with plumber Sher Bahadur Basnet.

After investigating in line with the responsibilities assigned by Ramesh Deula, another employee of the airport, it was determined that the gold had been extracted using the process typically used for transporting the dead. The group also sought help from the AC mechanic and other airport employees to smuggle gold into the country.

Officials say that to have such a structure inside the toilet of an international airport itself is suspicious.

“There is another room like a storeroom in the toilet, the whole design of the structure seems to be smuggler-friendly”, says an officer who investigated this case.

The officials of the immigration department say that they cannot restrict the passengers from going to the toilet because the passengers reach the immigration desk only after crossing the toilet.

“We cannot tell them not to go to the toilet and the responsibility of CIP room does not come under the immigration department,” says an official from the immigration department.

The investigation was hindered by the fact that the committee was only provided with CCTV footage spanning 21 days. Despite requesting a three-month archive for a more comprehensive analysis, the committee was informed that the CCTV system’s storage capacity was limited to only 21 days. This restriction has posed a challenge to the thoroughness of the investigation. The committee also found out how the CCTV on the stair leading to the VIP room in the airport was not in operation raising further suspicion of a larger racket.

During the investigation, Lek Bahadur Tamang, who was arrested on charges related to gold smuggling, declared that after leaving the VIP room, he headed to the toilet located a floor above the VIP room. It was here that he handed over the smuggled goods to Radha Krishna Shrestha.

Former AIG of Nepal Police, Uttam Raj Subedi, said that the practice of concealing gold in toilets is an age-old strategy used by smugglers.

“But everyone has to think about why the smugglers are confidently using the same style even today,” he says.

Former AIG, Rajendra Singh Bhandari also agrees with Subedi’s. “The structure of the state encourages smuggling,” he says. “We only catch people when we lay a trap.”

No police presence

File: Tribhuvan International Airport

According to Subedi, who is also the former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CIB), other countries use technology to detect people involved in a crime even if they disguise their identity by analysing the CCTV footage.

However, Nepal has not even done the bare minimum to security measures, he says.

“Even though there are some CCTVs in Tribhuvan International Airport, they don’t function, and some seem to work but are not functional,” he says.

The same problem is seen in the metal detectors used at the airport.

Not only gold but also illegal drugs that successfully passed airport security checks have been consistently seized. On December 28, the Dillibazar Post and Customs Office confiscated 1,160 grams of marijuana that had managed to pass through all the checks at the airport.

Due to suspicions, marijuana was discovered in a parcel sent from the USA. Furthermore, on December 16, the airport customs seized 55 kilograms of marijuana from the US. The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) has taken charge of investigating this case.

Officials from the NCB smell something fishy as they do not think the trafficking of large quantities of marijuana from the US is ordinary smuggling.

“Marijuana is something that can be found easily in Nepal, the question is why are they bringing such large quantities?” questions an official of the NCB. “Are they trying to check something? If the marijuana can come in with ease, they might try other drugs too.”

Not only gold and drugs but rare wild animals and birds are also being smuggled through the Tribhuvan International Airport. In an operation carried out by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CIB) on October 17, 2017, it was revealed that two chimpanzees, eight monkeys, seven golden pheasants, two ringnet pheasants, 38 pigeons, and 65 parrots were illegally brought into the country via the airport.

According to SSP Jivan Shrestha, who was working in CIB at that time, the endangered chimpanzee listed in Schedule-1 of the International Convention on Trafficking in Flora and Fauna (CITES) was smuggled alive from Nigeria to Nepal via Turkey.

In connection with this incident, a case of organised crime was registered against 14 employees of Tribhuvan International Airport.

Loopholes for smugglers

Tribhuvan International airport customs office gold gold smuggling case
Tribhuvan International Airport Customs Office

In 2018, the high-level committee to investigate a gold smuggling case led by co-secretary Ishwar Raj Paudel submitted a report saying that many loopholes in the airport pose security challenges and it was pointed out that they need to be improved immediately. According to Basant Lama, who was a member of the committee at that time, the report put forward suggestions addressing the security weaknesses identified at the airport after a thorough examination.

“If only the suggestions were implemented, smuggling would have been controlled to a large extent,” he says. “But the government did not pay attention to implementing the suggestions.”

The government committees do not know where the report of the gold committee is now. The team led by former High Court judge Dilli Raj Acharya, which was formed recently to investigate gold smuggling, did not find the 2018 report.

UML leader and former lawmaker Dipak Prakash Bhatta says that such incidents show that the Prime Minister, Home Minister or other state structures are not ready to strengthen Tribhuvan International Airport’s security.

“In some cases, the chief of police or other employees working at the Tribhuvan International Airport are not doing well,” he said. “It is necessary to have some decision in policy form, but the latest developments show that the government body itself is not ready to improve it.”

According to a member of the Acharya-led committee, the Tribhuvan International Airport has haphazard entry and exit routes.

“The vehicles of the construction company come and go regularly, they are checked only during the entry,” said the member, “They are not checked when they exit via Pepsi Cola.”

This concern was also highlighted by the 2018 committee. Despite its identification, there has been no noticeable progress to date. The recently formed 14-kilogram gold investigation committee has similarly recommended the closure of International Runway No. 1. This recommendation is based on the observation that vehicles heading to the offices of airlines and other establishments are moving without adequate restrictions, indicating a potential security vulnerability.

According to committee officials, if this route is used, it will necessitate passing through the parking area near the Oil Corporation office.

“It should be ensured that vehicles carrying cargo should be contactless with other vehicles while commuting in and out from the airport premises,” says a committee member.

The committee suggests that vehicles used by a team of engineers for plane inspections should undergo checks both before heading towards the aeroplane and upon their return from the inspection, as these vehicles are in close contact with the aeroplane after landing.

No coordination

Nepal Police personnel on duty at the Tribhuvan International Airport.
Nepal Police personnel on duty at the Tribhuvan International Airport.

According to the Director General of the Immigration Department Rudra Singh Tamang, 170 agencies are active at Tribhuvan International Airport.

“In the airport, we have immigration, customs, security agencies, including banks, money exchange counters, etc., totalling 170 entities,” he said. “In such a scenario, it is wrong to solely attribute any illegal activities within the airport to the immigration department.”

Dilli Raj Acharya, coordinator of the high-level gold committee formed by the government after the 60-kilogram gold smuggling case and the gold found in electronic cigarettes (vape), says that there is no coordination between the Immigration Department, Customs Department and the police inside the Tribhuvan International Airport.

According to Acharya, the customs or security agencies may not be aware of individuals who are frequent flyers and should be subject to monitoring.

Uttam Subedi, the former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CIB), also says that immigration only gives information when the police ask for it. “By then it will be too late”, he says.

The 14-kilogram gold investigation committee formed by airport customs pointed out that arrangements should be made to coordinate information immediately by establishing a joint coordination room at the airport.

According to the suggestion given by the committee, a coordination and control room should be established at the Tribhuvan International Airport to solve the problem on behalf of the agencies according to their scope and responsibility. Arrangements should be made to give/take the information on the passengers.

Officials say that Tribhuvan International Airport also does not disclose the passenger list of the aircraft unless requested. The committee said that arrangements should be made to send the passenger list to the police and customs.

In cases including the 14-kilogram gold smuggling case, it has been found that employees of various agencies came into the airport and assisted in smuggling even when they were not on duty.

The committee in its report said – “The airport should make arrangements to monitor the airport pass of service providers such as eateries, money exchange Counter, CIP Lounge and other employees when they do not have airport duty.”

In the ‘Country Report on Terrorism’ released by the US in 2021, it was said that Nepal’s airport security system is very weak and inadequate.

The United States report pointed out that Nepal could become a ‘transit point’ for international terrorists due to the weak security arrangements at the international airport.

According to the experts, even the southern neighbour India does not trust the security check of Nepal’s airport.

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Pokharel is an Onlinekhabar correspondent covering security and crime.

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