Photo/IllutrationThe red circle marks the area of the toilet where gold bars were concealed in this Japan Airlines plane. (Provided by customs office at Chubu Airport)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGOYA--Police have arrested six people in connection with an elaborate scheme to smuggle gold bars in an airplane toilet to avoid paying taxes.

Aichi prefectural police said Jan. 29 the six suspects are accused of violating the Customs Law for an attempted unauthorized import of gold bars, as well as attempting to dodge consumption tax payments.

However, police suspect a much wider ring could be involved in the operation, given the number of incidents last year in which gold bars were found hidden in airplane toilets.

The ringleader is believed to be Muhammed Rafieque Muhammed Rezane, 48, a Sri Lankan national who is president of a used car dealership in Nagoya’s Minato Ward.

Police did not reveal whether the six have admitted or denied the allegations.

The suspects are believed to have tried to smuggle five gold bars weighing a total of 5 kilograms and worth about 22.8 million yen ($209,000) on July 23, 2017.

The suspects would have had to pay about 1.82 million yen in consumption tax on the gold bars if they went through customs.

To avoid the levy, the group members all played different roles in the scheme, according to police.

One man started the operation by carrying the gold bars onto a Japan Airlines flight in Taiwan that was bound for Chubu Airport near Nagoya. During the flight, he hid the gold bars under a panel at the back of a toilet on the plane, police said.

The same plane was scheduled to be used for a domestic flight to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport after the passengers had disembarked at Chubu Airport.

Another member of the ring boarded the flight to Tokyo. Under the scheme, that passenger was to retrieve the gold bars from the toilet and carry them out of Haneda Airport. Passengers on domestic flights do not need to go through customs.

However, that passenger would have found nothing under the panel.

Customs officers were on alert, and one officer working at Chubu Airport discovered the gold bars in the toilet before the plane took off for Tokyo.

The member on the domestic flight was not arrested.

Police believe the six suspects have used a similar method to repeatedly smuggle gold bars into Japan and are continuing their investigation into other possible charges.

Two Japanese in their 70s were given the task of selling the gold bars for cash. From December 2016 to summer 2017, they made dozens of sales to a Nagoya dealer, according to police.

After the two Japanese took their cuts, they gave the remaining money to a 38-year-old Malaysian man in charge of managing the funds, police said.

Between July and August 2017, gold bars were found in the toilets of planes used for international flights that landed at Chubu Airport and Kansai International Airport.

Those planes were also scheduled to be used for domestic flights after landing in Japan.

Japan Airlines Co. officials said the company does not release information about which international flight planes will be used for domestic travel after landing at a Japanese airport.

However, aviation industry sources said it is possible to make an educated guess on the schedules of such planes based on flight information that is readily available to the public.

Other airlines used in the gold smuggling attempts have taken measures to determine if treasure has been hidden in their plane toilets.

For example, Vanilla Air found gold bars hidden in restrooms on a plane that landed at Kansai International Airport. The airline now places seals over screws within the restrooms to confirm if the toilets have been tampered with.