CIAA traps small fish, lets big ones go

Last September, contractor Sujan Poudel filed a complaint at the Commission for the Investigation for the Abuse of Authority (CIAA) against police deputy superintendent Shyam Kumar Rai, accusing him of soliciting a bribe. The CIAA decided to catch Rai red-handed in a sting operation.

A month later, Poudel went to Rai’s office and surreptitiously planted Rs140,000 in cash in the police officer’s drawer. Immediately after, officials from the CIAA who were hiding outside barged into the office and arrested Rai.

The media ran the news: ‘DSP Rai arrested with Rs140,000 bribe money’. The CIAA took Rai under custody and filed a corruption case at the Special Court. In his statement, Rai accused Poudel of framing him because he had taken action against the contractor for illegal sand mining and quarrying.

As evidence, the CIAA had submitted a video footage of the cash in Rai’s drawer. But when police examined the video, they found that the CIAA team seemed to know exactly where to look for the cash. “Take out money from the drawer,” a member of the CIAA team is overheard saying.

The Special Court analysed the video, and ruled that Rai had indeed been framed by Poudel. The justices said in their judgement: “It seems the CIAA has worked at the behest of special interest groups unhappy with a strict ban on illegal sand extraction,” said one of the judges of the fast-track court established to deal with corruption cases.

Pralhad Dhital, an assistant forest officer of the Kavre District Forest Office, was attending a training organised in Kathmandu last month when Jagatlal Tamang, an entrepreneur of Kavre, repeatedly telephoned him asking for a meeting. Tamang came to Kathmandu and the two went out to a cafe. At the table, Tamang abruptly put Rs20,000 in Dhital’s hand, and suddenly CIAA officials lurking nearby pounced on Dhital.

The media reported: ‘Kavre Forest Official Caught Red-handed accepting Bribe’.

Tamang later confessed that he had indeed decided to frame Dhital after he refused permission to fell 56 pine trees in a private property. He added that CIAA officials helped him write his application and showed him how to carry out the sting operation. As with many other cases, Tamang framed Dhital with the active collusion of the agency mandated to fight corruption. Dhital was suspended from his job.

Not only does this show that media headlines about corruption may be misleading, it has also exposed questionable practices at the CIAA. Records show that the anti-corruption agency is regularly using sting techniques in petty offences to catch small-time criminals. Last November the agency arrested traffic policeman Nabin Kumar Jha of Dhanusha, while receiving a Rs1,000 bribe. Jha was arrested shortly after receiving ‘bribe’ planted on him by a CIAA driver.

In Kaski the CIAA’s Pokhara Regional Office acting on a complaint, planned a sting operation against land revenue officer Dipak Subedi by getting an official posing as someone needing a job done. Subedi was caught while accepting a Rs3,000 bribe from an undercover CIAA official, and agency filed a case against him.

The CIAA has even conducted a sting operation to arrest a messenger at the Land Reform Office in Itahari. In a clear case of entrapment, it offered Arjun Mandal Rs2,000 for a service, which he accepted. He was arrested and charged.

Instead of going after officials and politicians who embezzle billions with impunity, critics say, the CIAA is targetting corruption. They say the agency is carrying out these operations so it can boast about the number of corruption cases it has cracked. Indeed, the CIAA’s annual report for 2018-2019 cites ‘a record number of corruption cases’.

At a press conference in January, CIAA spokesperson Pradeep Kumar Koirala patted himself on the back by saying that the agency had performed “a great achievement” by busting so many corruption cases. Out of 351 graft cases filed by the CIAA last year, 147 were bribery and of these in 40% the accused was apprehended using sting tactics. This year, the number of sting operations has shot up to 181 cases – of which half were cases involving less than Rs25,000 in bribes. Of the total 277 arrested 69 were junior civil servants and 16 were messengers and peons.

“Previously, cases of fake academic credential used to top other corruption cases,” said Gauri Bahadur Karki, former chair of the Special Court, ‘these days, they have been replaced by sting operations.”

Details of the CIAA’s own annual report reveal that the powerful constitutional body that is entrusted with controlling graft and malfeasance in government and ensure good governance is busy with petty bribes, and arresting junior-most government employees.

The CIAA is obviously taking the easy way out to fulfil its case quota, while trying not to ruffle any feathers. It is not going after powerful officials involved in tax evasion, investigating ill-gotten wealth, or following the money trail in corruption involving senior officials. It is enticing low-level officials who put their hands in the honey pot.

“CIAA has not followed the instructions of parliamentary committees to go after big fish in high-profile cases like the Airbus deal, Ncell tax and Yeti Holdings. None of those scams were investigated, but it is targeting petty corruption just to show that it is meeting targets,” said Karki.

The sting operation has raised ethical issues of whether entrapment is an acceptable way to nab public officials. Should the CIAA even be tempting junior bureaucrats by using a bribe as a trap. Is it even legal?

As per Article 239 of the Constitution the CIAA can investigate wrongdoings of any public position holder and file corruption case against them if charges are established. Section 30 of the regulation states that the CIAA can provide money to informers if any public position holder seeks bribe. But there is no provision of legal action against bribe receivers and providers.

The CIAA has been using this Section to conduct sting operations whereas Section 3 of Corruption Prevention Act-2002 clearly states that both bribe receivers and providers should be punished for bribery. Ironically, this may actually make the CIAA also liable for corruption.

“CIAA can file corruption case if someone is caught taking a bribe,” said constitutional expert Bhimarjun Acharya, “but a constitutionally empowered body’s involvement in using cash to trap someone is not really acceptable matter in any civilised society, and it goes against the rule of law.”

Another advocate Bishnu Prasad Ghimire argues that the CIAA’s sting operation is guided with the intent of improving its success rate in controlling corruption by trapping citizens.  “State agencies should not be involved in such activity, and the use of state coffers to entrap citizens is not acceptable,” said Ghimire.

Ghimire says sting operations by a state agency is actually illegal and objectionable. As per Nepal’s criminal law, only Parliament can determine which act is a crime and which is not.

Acharya recalls that sting operations have been used in the United States and India, but the courts there have set a precedent by annulling the provision of providing money to trap criminals. He says as democracy with the rule of law, Nepal should follow that practice.

The US Supreme Court in an order issued on April 1992 states: ‘In their zeal to enforce the law, government agents may not originate a criminal design, implant in an innocent person's mind the disposition to commit a criminal act, and then induce commission of the crime so that the government may prosecute.’

In a ruling, India’s Supreme Court has also raised moral questions about sting operations with the order: ‘Being essentially a deceptive operation, though designed to nab a criminal, a sting operation raises certain moral and ethical questions. The victim, who is otherwise innocent, is lured into committing a crime on the assurance of absolute secrecy and confidentiality of the circumstances raising the potential question as to how such a victim can be held responsible for the crime which he would not have committed but for the enticement.’ ,” states the

In Nepal, too, a case has been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the CIAA’s use of stings. However, Pradeep Koirala at the CIAA defends the practice saying the agency provides money to victims of corruption to break the chain of bribery. “We facilitate it only when service seekers do not have the money for the bribe and approach us with an application,” he added.

Even former police chief Hemanta Malla who has worked at the CIAA says the agency’s use of stings goes against the basic principle of ‘secret action’. He admits that sting operations can be used to expose serious crimes like match fixing, human trafficking and drug trafficking, but says the use of sting operations against petty crime is ‘overkill’.

“The target of secret action should be to break organised crime networks, but the CIAA’s operation seems just focused on arresting junior-ranking officials. This should be stopped because the sting tool can be misused,” Malla added.

Advocate Bhimarjun Acharya is clear about how to complain about corruption in Nepal: “There are so many ways citizens can lodge complaints against bribery, but entrapping someone as part of an investigation is not the way in a civilised society.”

Center for Investigative Journalism-Nepal

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