Narcotics & Bitcoins: Was Hacker Sriki Kept Medically 'Drugged' in Custody?

Srikrishna Ramesh had given a statement in a Karnataka court that he was given Alprazolam when in police custody.

5 min read
Narcotics & Bitcoins: Was Hacker Sriki Kept Medically 'Drugged' in Custody?

(This is the third in The Quint's five-part series on the Bengaluru Bitcoin Scam. The first and second articles can be accessed here and here.)

On 11 January 2021, Srikrishna Ramesh alias Sriki, when he was produced before a Karnataka court, said that he had consumed a synthetic drug Alprazolam when he was in police custody.

Alprazolam is not a prohibited drug but a prescription drug which when administered by doctors helps with panic disorders. However, excessive use of the drug can result in addiction to it.

Sriki's allegation that he took the prescription drug in police custody, draws attention to what the 25-year-old’s life as a hacker has been – easy access to drugs and a luxurious life in five-star hotels, all allegedly powered by his cyberthefts. The allegation also elicits the question, did the Karnataka police use illegitimate means, including administration of addictive prescription drugs, to influence Sriki?


‘Marijuana to MDMA’

In a ‘voluntary statement’ to the Bengaluru police, Sriki writes that he, “picked up the habit of smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and consuming various other narcotic substances,” when he was in Pre-University (Classes XI and XII). He writes that he abused narcotic substances including marijuana, cocaine, Salvia Divinorum and Kanna. He also used to abuse synthetic drugs including MDMA, LSD, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, Ritalin, Adderall and Ayahuasca, the statement reads.

How did the teenaged Sriki get a hold of such drugs? Here’s where bitcoins come in.

Sriki, according to his statement, procured drugs on the international darknet market, Silk Road-1.0. The “pseudo-anonymous status” of bitcoins helped him import drugs, he observes. “I initially imported drugs to India for personal consumption…I ordered several packages in two years all of which successfully cleared customs.”

Sriki says he was “addicted to the lifestyle of drugs and crime” and used to “drop acid” at rave, psychedelic parties.

This habit may have done the 25-year-old in and led to his arrest.

Drug Bust and ‘Stomach Wash’

Sriki came under the police scanner in a drug bust case. On 4 November 2020, Bengaluru police with the help of customs officials, seized 500 grams of hydroganja and a case was registered at KG Nagar police station. The parcel was imported by Prasidh Shetty, one of Sriki’s friends, who had come to Bengaluru from London. The parcel had hydroganja mixed with coffee powder. Shetty had taken the help of Sriki in procuring the drug on the darknet.

Sriki was arrested on 14 November and was produced in court on 17 November. He was then sent to police custody till 30 November 2020. Perhaps, his undated confession was given between 17 November and 30 November 2020. Through this statement, the police realised that they have their hands on a cybercriminal with transnational connections.

What made bitcoins, in Sriki’s case, easy currency for drug imports?

Speaking to The Quint, Tobby Simon, president of Bengaluru-based think-tank Synergia Group says, “Cyptocurrency is secure, decentralised and anonymous and that is what helps darknet markets become a safe haven for illegal activities.” Drawing from the chargesheet, Simon said that Sriki managed to access the darknet through the onion router, TOR.

In TOR, data is encrypted in layers just like the layers of an onion. Using encryption, TOR keeps the identities and IP addresses of people accessing the darknet untraceable. “Sriki chose drugs because profit margins are high and cash is generated through commissions. It is the fastest cash business."

Did Bengaluru police take Sriki’s drug habit and trade seriously? Prima facie, the police’s case seems murky.

In a writ filed before Karnataka High Court in February 2021, Sriki's father Gopal Ramesh, accused the police of getting a stomach wash medically performed on Sriki to prevent detection of drugs in his body. The police, however, say that this writ was dismissed by the High Court.


Effort to Hide Drug Intake?

The Quint has learnt, by accessing his medical records at Victoria hospital, how Sriki was administered this stomach wash on 12 January 2021. Since Sriki told the court that he had consumed drugs while in police custody, the magistrate ordered a blood and urine test. The police took Sriki to Victoria hospital to perform the court ordered test, they claim. However, at the hospital, instead of testing him for drugs, a stomach wash was performed on Sriki. As per the medical report, the stomach wash was performed, "to rule out poisoning".

A stomach wash is usually performed to remove harmful chemicals from the body, especially in the case of poisoning. It is a purging medical procedure.

Two days later, on the court's further direction, Sriki's blood and urine samples were collected at Bowring hospital.

Was this 'inadvertent' stomach wash at Victoria Hospital done to conceal the fact that Karnataka police may have been 'feeding' Sriki’s drug habit in custody?

The Indian National Congress, which is the Opposition party in Karnataka, however, has been demanding a probe into Sriki’s alleged drug use while in custody. “If he were indeed under the influence of such a drug, as alleged in the writ which is now mysteriously withdrawn, the police could have influenced Srikrishna to move the bitcoins which were in his possession. We suspect this has happened,” Congress MLA Priyank Kharge said, adding, the police did not produce prescription from a psychiatrist when the court questioned them about administration of the drug.

Meanwhile, in the chargesheet, there is no indication of any probe into busting Sriki's international drug connections.

When The Quint reached out to Bengaluru police commissioner Kamal Pant for a comment, he said, "The allegations are baseless as the FSL (Forensic Science Laboratory) has cleared the police. As per the FSL report, there was no such substance in his body. The Opposition should not act like the defense lawyer of the accused."

Where the Case Should Ideally Lead

According to cybercrime experts, the drug case in which Sriki is accused number 10, should have ideally opened up a clear link between drug trade on the darknet, bitcoins thefts and tech-savvy criminals.

But inexplicably, this link remains unestablished. “I had alerted the Bengaluru police about the alarming misuse of darknet in 2015. But the police thought it’s fiction and six years down the line, here we are,” cybercrime expert Simon said, adding, the axis between drugs, money and counterfeit currency, has been in existence since the past 40 years.

Simon further said that all the accused or those involved in Karnataka bitcoin 'scam' happen to be engineers with B-Tech degrees. The Karnataka police, however, has not delved into the sophisticated nature of the crimes.

There is, however, a way to nab Sriki in the drugs case. “If you want to chase Sriki, chase the money. See where the money is flowing, you will find him,” Simon said.

(With inputs from Nikhila Henry)

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