Nepal risks being blacklisted on money laundering

Nepal will be evaluated for international money laundering activities by the APG (Asia Pacific Group) of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) during 2019, and may be blacklisted if the government does not adequately crack down on illegal cross-border money transfers.

If Nepal is not able to come up with a workable mechanism to identify criminal activities and bring offenders, including prominent businesspersons and politicians, under the purview of the law by the end of 2020 it faces the danger of being blacklisted by the task force.

The FATF was established in 1999 to track down and stop money laundering and funding of terrorist activities around the world. Nepal is a member of its associate organisation APG, which investigates regional member countries. With an investigation due, Nepal had hastily passed the Money Laundering Prevention Act in 2008, but took 2 years to implement it.

An APG working committee evaluated Nepal, and concluded that its attempts to control money laundering were not effective enough. On February 2010, it put Nepal on an international monitoring list. Nepal then established a Money Laundering Investigation Department. With the help of the IMF and World Bank, the government created legal structures and adopted policies to prevent money laundering. After it took these steps, it was removed from the international monitoring list, which meant that it was not prohibited from doing financial transactions with other countries or international organisations.

Though Nepal improved its legal stance on money laundering after the first international investigation, it does not seem to have made much progress since then in actually preventing tax evasion and money laundering.

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In the past, the APG had evaluated Nepal on the basis of its legal safeguards and policies. However, in future it will be looking for concrete action to see if Nepal implemented the 40 suggestions and 11 results that it made in 2010. “The next evaluation will be focused less on laws and more on implementation and results,” admits Binod Lamichhane, spokesperson of the Money Laundering Investigation Department. “So if our implementation remains as weak as it is, it could create problems for us.”

Experts say the government will find it very difficult to implement its own laws because so many of those involved are powerful businessmen enjoying political protection. “If the Money Laundering Prevention Act is implemented, then politicians and officials will have a hard time showing the source of their earnings. Which is why implementaction of the Act never became a priority for Nepal. Clearly, it was created only as a showpiece to assuage foreigners,” a former director general of the department confided.

Indeed, although everyone agrees that corruption and tax evasion are rampant in Nepal, there is no record of prominent persons being investigated for it. However, since the APG will be investigating on its own next year, the department has been forced to conduct its own secret probes. Director General Rup Narayan Bhattarai says he cannot speak about the investigations at the moment but according to sources, well known Nepalis, including a businessman who is expanding outside Nepal, another tycoon who created an international business network after the 2006 movement, a prominent trader accused of gold smuggling and an industrialist who suddenly switched to tourism, are under investigation.

However, the going is not expected to be easy, because the Money Laundering Investigation Department lacks coordination with other powerful agencies, which is international practice and considered essential to investigate money laundering. Though the law states that Nepal Rastra Bank should coordinate with other agencies and provide information to the department about suspicious financial transactions, the implementation of this law is weak.

“Since our mechanism for identifying illegal wealth is weak, we are not able to figure out if the money, property, shares, gold, etc, deposited in banks are legal or not,” says an official of the bank. “So at the moment we are unable to effectively pass on useful information.”

Currently, FATF has blacklisted Iran and North Korea, while 12 countries, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Syria, are currently on its international monitoring list. Nepal risks joining these countries if the APG evaluation does not meet international criteria for transparency.

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