The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) charged five men for smuggling gold worth USD 7M into the country from Thailand to the Paro dzongkhag court on September 22.

Police arrested the two men, businessman Sonam Tashi and an employee of Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) Dorji Phuntsho, with 11.04 kilogrammes (Kg) of gold at the Paro airport on August 27.

Following a tip-off, police had informed the customs officials at Paro airport, who had also observed suspicious behaviors, and arrested them. The two men flew in from Bangkok in Tashi Airlines at 11am.

Sonam Tashi was allegedly carrying 6.89kg of gold in his belt and Dorji Phuntsho allegedly had 4.115kg of gold in the money pouch he wore around his waist.

According to Sonam Tashi’s statement to police, they flew to Bangkok in Tashi Airlines on August 25. He claimed that while Dorji Phuntsho went on a private visit, he went to smuggle in gold.

Further, he alleged that two men, Thinley Wangchuk and Pema Dradul were also involved. The men were arrested in Thimphu.

The police investigating team found that Sonam Tashi flew to Bangkok nine times to smuggle in gold in small quantities, and three more times with Thinley Wangchuk and Pema Dradul since 2015 for the same purpose.

Sonam Tashi’s statement to police also stated that along with him, Thinley Wangchuk and Pema Dradul contributed money whenever any of them went to Bangkok for the alleged crime.

On this trip, the three pooled in money and Sonam Tashi carried USD 7 million (M) including USD 120,000 that he claimed Pema Dradul had given him to buy gold for him.

Sonam Tashi’s statement to police also stated that Thinley Wangchuk charged between Nu 100,000 and Nu 150,000 for a kg of gold smuggled from a non-Bhutanese individual called Suraj. “On August 24, Suraj handed over US Dollars and Euros to Thinley Wangchuk after the two met in Jaigaon.”

It was stated that after reaching Bangkok, Sonam Tashi bought 3.916kg of gold for Baht 5.4M on his visa. Another 4.154kg of gold worth Baht 5,73M for Thinley Wangchuk, and 2.971.02kg worth Baht 4.1M was bought for Pema Dradul on Dorji Phuntsho’s visa.

Sonam Tashi packed the gold in two money pouch belts and carried them in a bag until they disembarked at Paro airport. He then took them out and asked Dorji Phuntsho to put on a belt.

He told police that since he could carry only USD 10,000 on him, he paid a commission of Nu 10,000 to a Tashi Airlines technician, Norden, who helped him take the money inside the aircraft. Norden placed the money on seat number 10A. Norden had allegedly helped the smugglers on three separate occasions.

As per the Royal Monetary Authority’s (RMA) rate for gold, Sonam Tashi smuggled in gold worth Nu 33.81M. Police handed over the gold to RMA on August 29.

OAG’s attorney Sonam Dendup charged Sonam Tashi for gold smuggling, violating Bhutan Penal Code’s section 279. As per the code’s section 18A, the crime is graded a third-degree felony with a prison term ranging from five to nine years.

Dorji Phuntsho is charged with aiding and abetting the alleged crime for letting Sonam Tashi use his visa to buy the consignment and also helping him carry the gold out of Paro airport. He is liable for fourth-degree felony with a prison term between three and five years.

Thinley Wangchuk and Pema Dradul are charged for solicitation, which is receiving of smuggled goods and are liable to receive half the sentence pronounced on Sonam Tashi, the main accused in the case.

Tashi Airlines’ technician Norden is charged with official misconduct.

Tshering Palden