She was young, ambitious and loved fast money. When she first came to Delhi four years ago, she came with a group of Uzbek nationals. She was no tourist in the conventional sense. The 27-year-old Olga Kozirava and her group would bring in foreign goods and go back with medicines, cosmetics and footwear, which, back in Uzbekistan, sold at a premium.
It didn't take long for Olga to branch out on her own. She made friends with customs officials by providing them with liquor and women. It's said that on her trips to India she would bring Uzbek girls with her for the "benefit of friends" in the customs.
Soon Olga tied up with two Afghan nationals—Mamoor Khan and Del Agha. The trio had a free run at the Indira Gandhi International airport. They had no difficulty in getting their illegal consignments past the authorities. This they managed by paying off, mostly in dollars, over 40 customs officials, including six deputy commissioners, who facilitated the entry of large quantities of smuggled goods.
In fact, says a cbi official, the customs people followed the example of the chairman of the Central Board for Excise and Customs (cbec), B.P. Verma, now in the dock for amassing ill-gotten wealth. Says a cbi official: "Verma's activities were well-known among the junior officers. That is why this racket was thriving."
Olga's wheeling and dealing worked with clockwork precision. The contraband was either brought in through the green channel, or "declared" at the red channel and a token fine paid. The officials pretended that her baggage had been X-rayed.
Between October 1999 and August 2000, Olga made as many as 67 trips to the capital, an average of six trips a month, or one trip every five days. She would often take the evening flight to Karachi and return the following day.
She was first picked up on August 28 last year, following warnings from the Indian mission in Tashkent that a well-entrenched smuggling and prostitution racket was thriving. When she was arrested she had 4,300 kg of Chinese silk. "That consignment alone was worth just Rs 1.5 crore but the payoffs to the customs would have been about Rs 10 lakh," estimates a senior Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (dri) official. A diploma holder in medicine, Olga is now in Tihar jail, booked under the cofeposa.
Piecing together Olga's modus operandi, investigating officials point out that she would be on the mobile phone as soon as she landed in Delhi. "She would talk to both Khan and Agha in their local dialect, to negotiate the dollar bribes to be paid," reveals a customs official.
From the brief conversations, they found out exactly which customs officials were placed where. Depending on the size of the consignment, an average of $400-$800 was paid to clear each bag. Investigations of the vigilance and intelligence departments of the dri showed that protocol and preventive officers of the customs would play-act their roles perfectly.
Says an official: "It is from her luggage at Hotel Yes Please in Paharganj that we managed to get hold of her recharge cellular coupons." From that, the dri obtained the numbers of all the customs officials Olga was in touch with.
The cbi, which has now taken over the probe, believes the syndicate was dealing with far more expensive contraband than reams of silk. Says a cbi official: "We know Olga was just a carrier. We're trying to find out whether she was part of a bigger smuggling syndicate. " Moreover, since Afghan nationals were also involved and a pattern of visits to Pakistan has been established, narco-trafficking and gun-running angles are also being looked into.
The cbi believes that customs officials not only turned a blind eye to the warnings from diplomatic channels but also tried to cover up their actions. After being routed to the external affairs ministry and IB, the letters from Tashkent were finally sent to additional commissioner, customs, V.K. Singh Khushwah.
Officials say Khushwah issued a circular backdating the embassy's warnings. The cbi has proof that Khushwah issued the circular only a day after Olga's arrest. With 42 customs officials suspended and a host of vital documents recovered from raids, the cbi believes the racket is much wider and likely to expose bigger names.
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