Karnataka - Bommi's Bitcoin Crisis
THE WEEK|November 28, 2021
In his first big test as chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai seems to be more worried about his own partymen than the Congress
Prathima Nandakumar

THE BJP PULLED OFF a ‘smooth transition’ in Karnataka in July when it replaced B.S. Yediyurappa, its tallest leader in the state, with Basavaraj Bommai as chief minister. Though a surprise pick, Bommai seemed the party’s best bet to retain power in the crucial state owing to his proximity to Yediyurappa (who still holds sway over the politically important Lingayat community), amiable nature, administrative experience and clean image. Even Union Home Minister Amit Shah gave him a rare endorsement when he announced that the party would go to the 2023 assembly polls under Bommai’s leadership.

Though he managed to steady the ship in four months, Bommai has now sailed into a storm with the opposition Congress alleging that his government protected those involved in an unfolding Bitcoin scam.

Srikrishna Ramesh alias Sriki, 26, a self-proclaimed hacker from Jayanagar in Bengaluru, was arrested on November 4, 2020, by the Bengaluru Police’s Central Crime Branch (CCB) under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. He was accused of procuring drugs using Bitcoins and peddling them to high-profile clients. During interrogation, the CCB found that Sriki was involved in several other crimes, including the 2016 Bitfinex hack—one of the largest Bitcoin heists in the world— and the hacking of the Karnataka government’s e-procurement portal. Bommai was the home minister when he was arrested.

The Congress alleges that Sriki, who was arrested along with associate Robin Khandelwal, was kept in prolonged police custody by slapping different cases on him. He was released on bail on April 17, 2021. But despite Sriki confessing to his involvement in the Bitfinex hack to a magistrate, the Yediyurappa government did not inform Interpol for five months. The Bengaluru police commissioner asked the Interpol Liaison Officer (CBI) to inform Interpol and other agencies only on April 24, 2021.

“The BJP government did not inform the ED, CBI and SFIO, too,” said Randeep Singh Surjewala, Congress general secretary incharge of Karnataka. He demanded a Supreme Court-monitored SIT probe into the scam and alleged that the Karnataka government was preoccupied with “Operation Bitcoin Cover-up” instead of conducting a fair investigation.

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