The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) presented evidence on Monday 27th June against four men on trial at the Chukha District Court accused of smuggling 7 kg of Chinese gold.
The accused were to relay the gold in turns from a Chinese national, Dawa, at the border of Haa, to Chunzom, and finally to Phuentsholing where it was to be delivered to a Nepalese national, Atma Ram. It was during the final stage from Chunzom that the Chukha police seized the gold at Tsimasham.
Chundu Wangchuk had been arrested around midnight of 15th November 2015, after Thimphu Police received an anonymous call informing that a person driving a Toyota Prado was carrying smuggled gold to Phuentsholing, and issued orders to set up road blocks along the highway.
Shortly after the tip off, a vehicle matching the informer’s descriptions was sighted at Tsimasham with three people in it. The driver, Chundu Wangchuk, was instructed to pull over and submit to a police search but broke through the barricade and a short car chase ensued. He, his pregnant wife and brother-in-law were arrested at the Tashi Gatshel junction.
The police could find nothing in the car but Chundu Wangchuk confessed under questioning to hiding the gold under a bush after he had driven through the barricade. Seven gold biscuits with Chinese inscriptions and serial numbers, weighing a kilogram each, were found in a camouflage bag the next day. Chundu Wangchuk, 51, also gave up the names of his accomplices Rinchen Dorji, 50, and Kinley Tshering, 32, who were arrested on January 7. All three are from Haa Throm. His wife and brother-in-law were also taken into custody, but were released two weeks later when police investigations found no evidence of their involvement.
Chundu Wangchuk wrote in his statement to the police that Atma Ram, a Nepalese national, had contacted him looking for “reliable people” to transport gold from the Chinese to Indian border. In statements, the suspects wrote that Atma Ram had required a security deposit of Nu 2.5 mn for each kilogram of gold.
Chundu Wangchuk had contacted Rinchen Dorji with the proposal, whereby the latter agreed to pay deposits for 2kgs, producing Nu 4 million from his own money and getting Nu 0.5 million loan from BDBL with the remaining Nu 0.5 million to be “topped up” by Chundu Wangchuk. He further contacted Kinley Tshering who also agreed to invest in the venture.
An internal agreement dated 18/10/2015 was then signed between Chundu Wangchuk, Rinchen Dorji and Kinley Tshering which read, “(We) agree to be carrier of gold from border to Phuentsholing…we will request Mr. Rinzin to bring from border to Haa.” The agreement mentioned that the gold was to be handed over to Mr. Pema in Phuentsholing. Police, however, found that the person was actually Ms. Tshering Pem, and found no evidence of her involvement.
Rinzin had been carrying yak fodder to his herd near the Chinese border on 11/11/2015 when he received a call from Chundu Wangchuk asking him to collect a package. At the border Dawa, a Chinese national, who spoke fluent Dzongkha, handed him a cello-taped carton. He reached Haa after “dodging and hiding from the Royal Bhutan Army” on the evening of 15/11/2015 and handed over the gold to Rinchen Dorji.
Rinchen Dorji then took the gold to Chunzom and handed it over to Chundu Wangchuk who opened the package and counted the biscuits “wrapped in a white cloth.”
The statements were, however, retracted claiming they were written under duress by the police. An earlier statement by Chundu Wangchuk saying he had delivered a consignment of four gold biscuits to Atma Ram in February 2015 was also retracted. The defendants had written about a total of 25 statements. The latter statements made no mention of the security deposits or Rinzin having to “dodge and hide”. The defense said there was no RBA camp on the route Rinzin took which can be seen through Google Earth.
Kinley Tshering was to take the place of Chundu Wangchuk in the later deliveries but wrote “I didn’t get chance as they caught on the first try.”
Tsimasham police called their claims of torture a desperate lie to escape justice. “We are not surprised. This is not the first and it won’t be the last retraction. Of course, there was no torture or duress of any sort, it is criminal to do so and our foremost duty is to uphold and enforce the law,” Major Chencho Gyeltshen said to The Bhutanese.
The Honorable Judge Dasho Gyembo Dorji said that the retractions would not be taken lightly.
“(The) circumstances will be viewed holistically. Each statement given to a court of law will be considered with the utmost seriousness, and if the defendants’ claims do not hold up under cross examination with the state prosecutor, defense counsel and the police they shall be held in contempt of the court,” he warned.
The defense counsel declined to comment on the multiple statements of the defendants.
“The crux of the matter is whether the gold was smuggled or not,” said the Honorable Judge Dasho Gyembo Dorji, and further added, “The evidences so far point to participation as carriers only, as the state cannot prove that the accused had themselves crossed the border or bought the gold with their own money.”
Section 279 of the Penal Code of Bhutan defines smuggling as secretly and illegally importing or exporting restricted or prohibited goods or substances.
The State argued that the accused had committed the crime of smuggling as the gold had crossed borders from China thus showing that “they (suspects) were part of a continuing smuggling ring” and so guilty of the crime of smuggling. “The accused possessed both mens rea (guilty mind) and actus reus (guilty act) as they were well aware of the illegality and risks of what they were undertaking and still chose to carry it out. Though they call themselves carriers, the act is unquestionably smuggling.”
The State further argued that the agreement of all statements of the accused upon the entry of the gold being from over the Chinese border in combination with its seizure from Chundu Wangchuk’s possession, who had neither an import license or special permission from RMA nor had declared the gold proved, beyond reasonable doubt, the crime of smuggling.
The defendants face the charges of smuggling, criminal conspiracy, obstruction of lawful authority, hindrance of prosecution and failure to report crime.
The defense is pleading guilty to only one count of traffic violation, in the case of Chundu Wangchuk,