Crime and/or Punishment in NepalBig heads roll for the first time in corruption crackdown, but bigger heads are being deliberately spared
A former deputy prime minister, an ex-home minister, an erstwhile election commissioner, a senior government secretary and dozens of others are behind bars in a sweeping government crackdown on corruption.
Big heads have rolled, but are bigger heads being deliberately spared?
The fake Bhutan refugee scandal and the organised crime behind the Lalita Niwas real estate scam have shown that Nepal’s media, investigation agencies, law enforcement and court system are all playing their check and balance roles.
However, there is a whiff of political vendetta in some of the arrests, and concerns that even bigger fish are being let off the hook. There is also apprehension that loopholes in existing laws will be used for the guilty to get away, and some of the innocent who were duped by middlemen will be made scapegoats.
“Politicians have made a mess of our legal and judicial system, they are strategically introducing and amending laws to suit their purpose,” says Padmini Pradhananga of the Nepal chapter of Transparency International.
“The government has proposed a five-year time limit for prosecuting corruption,” she adds. “There can never be a statute of limitation in corruption cases, this is just unacceptable”
Eyebrows are also being raised about why a coalition government in which both the prime minister and home minister are from the Maoist party has chosen to prosecute these two high profile corruption cases so doggedly. Not a single senior Maoist figure has been implicated in either scandal, and the first senior politicians to be named were Top Bahadur Raymajhi and Ram Bahadur Thapa, both former Maoists who defected to the UML in 2021.
Independent observers say that although there is evidence against most of the accused so far in both cases of corruption in high places, there does not seem to be the same eagerness to probe alleged embezzlement by Maoist leaders of government allowances to the nearly 20,000 former guerrillas being demobilised in UN-supervised camps after the ceasefire.
Hari Bahadur Thapa, author of the 2017 book Rajagj which examines corruption cases in Nepal’s recent history, says both the fake refugee scandal and the Lalita Niwas scam are manifestations of a corrupt bureaucracy that is rotten to the core and has contaminated the polity.
The twin scandals rocking the highest levels of the Nepal government come at a time when the nine-party coalition of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is looking increasingly fragile. Part of the reason is Parliamentary arithmetics, but it is also because of the prime minister’s proclivity to ad lib.
Read also: Political trash, Shristi Karki
Coalition members themselves have been critical of the new budget, but Dahal managed to pacify them by offering pork-barrel funds. And when news leaked of the opposition UML making overtures to dissidents within the Nepali Congress, the prime minister responded by bringing together five leftist parties (except the UML) to form a loose Socialist Front.
Prime Minister Dahal is facing flak for an unscripted remark at a book launch this week in which he said a Sikh transport tycoon had gone to New Delhi to try to make him prime minister. A video clip of the remark lit fireworks on social media that led to opposition parties disrupting Parliament and demanding Dahal’s resignation.
All this brouhaha is distracting attention from the ongoing investigations into the two scandals. Most of those charged appear to have been involved in varying degrees of wrongdoing. After last year’s elections in which independent and alternative candidates made a strong showing, the Maoists may have read the writing on the wall and want to clean up their image to distinguish themselves from other established parties in the coalition and the opposition.
It was the media that first exposed the fake refugee scam and has been uncovering some of the sordid details in the Baluwatar land scam. The Nepal Police and the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) also appear to have been given a free hand in pursuing the cases.
“Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha has repeatedly reassured people that no one involved in the scam will be spared. Let’s give him the benefit of doubt, at least he is cracking down on the culprits,” says former government secretary Khem Raj Regmi.
He adds: “This gives the public a real hope that other corruption cases like the wide body scandal will also be investigated. But we have to keep prosecuting corruption cases right till the end, we can’t be complacent.”
However, this has not absolved Home Minister Shrestha from allegations that his party is pursuing political vendetta, and at the same time trying to limit the investigation to mid-level political figures.
Read also: Nepal Populist Party (Balenist), Editorial
When the police dragnet started to widen in May, the three top leaders of the Maoist Centre, Nepali Congress and the UML circled their wagons and held lengthy meetings in Baluwatar in what was seen as a damage control exercise to ensure that the investigation did not reach the highest echelons.
For example, Arzoo Deuba, the wife of NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba, has not been investigated despite being implicated, as others who were arrested were, in testimonies on the fake Bhutanese refugee scandal. Likewise, former prime ministers Babauram Bhattarai and Madhav Kumar Nepal have also been spared so far in the Lalita Niwas scam even though their Cabinets allowed ownership of government land to be transferred to private entities.
‘If they do not go after people like Arzoo Deuba, Baburam Bhattarai and Madhav Kumar Nepal, they cannot accuse those lower down who were just following orders,’ argued senior advocate Balkrishna Neupane in an interview with Everest News. ‘All this boils down to the involvement of politicians post multi-party democracy in organised crime.’
The two scandals have also bolstered the argument of monarchists who have been engaged in a heated debate in the public sphere about whether Nepal was better governed during the Panchayat days. They say the fake refugee scandal is high treason, and the real estate scam is indication that the rot goes right to the top.
However, it could also be argued that the scandals have been exposed and investigated precisely because Nepal has a free media, functioning rule of law and independent investigations.
The concern now is the politicisation of the judiciary and the CIAA (Commission on the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority) and whether they are being restricted to investigating only mid-level bureaucrats and selected politicians. Indeed, the CIAA in 2020 had under political pressure quashed the investigation into the forgery of land titles of Lalita Niwas, and the CIB revived the case only after Shrestha became home minister.
“In Nepal, we have national unity only in high level corruption cases where the top leadership are hand in glove with each other,” says Khem Raj Regmi former secretary who also served as president of Transparency International Nepal. “For example, in the Sudan APC scam, there was no paper trail to implicate politicians, and the police took the fall.”
In 2017, three former police chiefs were jailed for misappropriating Rs288 million while purchasing armoured personnel carriers and other logistics for the Nepal Police peacekeeping mission in Sudan’s Darfur. The kickbacks would not have been possible without collusion at the highest levels of government.
Unlike in the Sudan Scam, the Lalita Niwas case has files with signed documents by ex-prime ministers Bhattarai and Nepal but the CIAA cited a legal provision that policy decisions by the Cabinet are out of bounds to shelve the probe. The anti-graft body was investigating the case after former secretary Sarada Prasad Trital led an investigation committee on the Lalita Niwas land scam at the behest of the UML government at the time.
“We have now reached a point where corruption is taking a dangerous form of organised crime,” says investigative journalist and author Hari Bahadur Thapa. “There are also indications that political rivalry is driving some of the investigations.”
Read also: The tragedy of Tek Nath Rizal, Editorial
The CIAA also spared those who returned Lalita Niwas property, including senior UML politician Bishnu Poudel. But others who also returned land they bought were not accorded the same concession and are in the CIB dragnet. Those who innocently bought property from real estate agents but were not otherwise involved are also being investigated.
Explains Regmi: “Not all Cabinet decisions are policy decisions, the CIAA should have allowed the court to decide that. The fact that they did not means that there was political interference.”
There have been many complaints over the years that the CIAA has been used by politicians to go after rivals and for extortion. Calls for it to be headed by independent and credible individuals have never been heeded.
“It is clear for everyone to see that major players were being protected with the excuse that they made policy decisions in Cabinet. If only the CIAA had worked more honestly, we would not be in this mess,” adds author Thapa.
Pradhananga of Transparency International agrees that politicians want to call everything a ‘policy decision’ so that no one can challenge them. She says: “This is the same as saying we are not allowed to question them once they are elected. In that case, what is the use of the CIAA? Policy decisions are supposed to be for the public good, not for personal gain.”
Prime Minister Dahal has been using the anti-corruption crusade launched by Home Minister Shrestha as proof that his party is committed to root out corruption. He has vowed that senior political figures will not be spared.
Even critics give Dahal and Shrestha credit for re-opening the corruption files. The fake refugee scandal has further dented Nepal’s international standing and the Lalita Niwas land grab has shown that Nepal has been hollowed out by corruption.
“Nepal has lost the goodwill and trust of the world,” says Pradhananga. “We have damaged our reputation for loyalty and bravery. It will have consequences for big projects in Nepal and our diaspora.”
The investigations into the two scandals demonstrate that there is political will to set things right – but only if the probes are free from political interference.
Read also: Real refugees want to go back to Bhutan, Sujata Dhungana