Clear to run(?)

About 6 weeks ago, at a press conference, the prime minister claimed that the Election Commission of Bhutan should disqualify the opposition party from taking part in the next round of elections for failing to clear its debts by the 30 June deadline.

Remarkably, the prime minister also suggested that the two members in opposition should not be permitted to run in the next elections … not as members of their current party, not by starting a new party, not by joining another party.

As it turned out, the election commission, having reviewed the status of the two existing parties, decided that both PDP and DPT continue to enjoy their status as registered political parties. That means that PDP will be able to participate in next year’s elections. That also means that the two members in the opposition will be able to run in the next elections.

Okay, that’s clear.

But what’s not clear is if the prime minister, some of the other DPT ministers, and the speaker will be allowed to take part in the 2013 elections?

The prime minister, the speaker and other ministers have all been implicated in the Gyelpozhing “land grab” case. The Anticorruption Commission investigated the case and concluded that 67 of the 99 plots allotted in Gyelpozhing were “illegal”.

The ACC has already issued a “freeze notice” forbidding any transactions on 75 of the plots.  And they have forwarded the case to the Office of the Attorney General in keeping with the Anticorruption Act, Section 128 of which states that OAG “… shall undertake prosecution of persons on the basis of the findings of the Commission for adjudication by a Court.”

But can OAG prosecute members of the government? Chapter 3, Section 12(a) of the OAG Act states that OAG shall “… represent the Government in civil litigation and criminal prosecution before the Courts of Law …”. Furthermore, Chapter 4, Section 20 of the OAG Act declares that, “The Attorney General shall be accountable to the Prime Minister”.

In fact, the OAG Act does not prevent the attorney general from prosecuting the persons charged in this case, as they are being charged as private individuals, and not as members of the government.

But what if OAG is unwilling to prosecute? What if they feel intimidated? And what if they drag their feet? Then what?

That should not happen. But in the unlikely event that it does, ACC is empowered to conduct its own prosecution. According to Section 128(3) of the Anticorruption Act, the ACC may “… carry out its own prosecution of a person charged with an offense under this Act or take over the prosecution process from the Office of Attorney General when the case is:  (a) delayed without valid reason; (b) manipulated; or (c) hampered by interference.”

So whether it’s by OAG or by ACC, the persons implicated in the Gyelpozhing case will be charged.

But that’s not all. According to Section 167(2) of the Anticorruption Act, “ A public servant who is charged with an offense under this Act shall be suspended with effect from the date of the charge till pending the outcome of any appeals.”

That means that once the prime minister, speaker and other the ministers involved are charged in a court of law, they must be suspended.

But even that is not all. Section 179(g) of the Election Act provides that “A person shall be disqualified as a candidate or a member holding an elective office under the Constitution, if he/she: has been accused of felony in a pending case and the competent Court has taken cognizance and charges have been framed against him/her.”

That means that once they are charged, and if they are accused of felony, they must be disqualified from their offices, not just suspended.

That also means that, unless they are acquitted by the courts of law, they cannot take part in next year’s elections.

The first Parliament will complete its term in April 2013. And according to the Constitution, elections must be conducted within the next 90 days. That means that elections must be conducted by July, at the latest. And that means that, to take part in the elections, the accused must be acquitted by June 2013.

That’s just nine months from now. Nine months for the speaker to prove that he didn’t break the law in the way he allotted land to influential people. And nine months for the prime minister, the minister for works and human settlement and the minister of finance to prove that they did not break the law in applying for and accepting large tracks of land in Gyelpozhing.

DPT leaders

Allegations that Dasho Chang Ugyen had illegally acquired 10 acres of community and government land in 1987 has drawn widespread outrage and public condemnation. The allegations come even as the Gyelpozhing land grab case is still being investigated.

Both the land cases involve the senior most DPT leaders. The president, both vice presidents and several senior members of the DPT are alleged to have acquired large tracks of land illegally.

Some commentators here have pointed out that the land was acquired many years ago, much before DPT was established, and that, as such, DPT should not be linked to the allegations. They are right. The DPT party should not and cannot be held responsible for what their members did long before the party was established. But the members, if they broke the law then, must be punished now, even if it has been many years since the misdeed.

Instead, DPT leaders seem to be using their party to shield themselves from scrutiny. First, after the Gyelpozhing case was reported, the prime minister went on record to suggest that the allegations were politically motivated as they had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”.

And now, after Chang Ugyen’s case was reported, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba has asserted that, “… It is sad to see that a personal issue is being politicized.”

I agree. The cases should not be politicized. But for that, DPT leaders must accept that they, like everyone else, must be investigated for alleged wrongdoings. And when that happens, DPT leaders must themselves refrain from misleading the public to believe that the allegations are politically motivated.

Gyelpozhing: who’s right?

People's land

Almost six months ago, Tenzing Lamsang exposed the Gyelpozhing land grab case, and explained how laws of the land had been broken to acquire public land and redistribute them to influential people.

A week after that, Dasho Neten Zangmo, the Anticorruption Commission Chairperson, was quoted as saying:

We will look into the case and if there is any element of corruption, abuse of power and conflict of interest and if land has been taken unjustly from private people then we will further investigate the case.

It’s been almost half a year since ACC’s assurances. So I was happy to hear that they have visited Gyelpozhing and that they “… are in the process of reviewing allotment procedure, eligibility criteria, details of all beneficiaries and even the rationale of acquisition.”

But I’m worried that the investigation is taking too long. And Dasho Neten seems to echo my concern by saying that, “It’s going to take a lot of time going one by one”.

I’m worried. And I’m worried for many reasons. But mostly I’m worried because some of those who are allegedly involved are “powerful and influential people”. They include the prime minister, cabinet ministers and the speaker. And in their case, I’m sure that, as politicians, they would want the investigation to be complete well before the 2013 parliamentary elections. It is in their interests that the investigations are over by then. It is also in the Election Commission’s interest. But mostly, it is in the interest of the electorate, our people.

Even so, Dasho Neten has warned that the investigations will “take a lot of time” and ruled that:

We just can’t investigate only a few powerful and influential people. We have to see and study the background of all the beneficiaries like whether there is a ‘nexus’ between the allotter and beneficiaries.

I agree. We need a thorough and complete investigation. An investigation that is not targeted to “a few powerful and influential people”, but one that examines all the people who were involved, one that is comprehensive in its scope.

That said, all the so-called “beneficiaries” cannot be lumped together; they cannot be treated the same.

I can see at least three types of “beneficiaries”. The first type is the beneficiary who developed a “nexus” with the allotter. That would be outright corruption, and both the allotter and beneficiary should be taken to task.

The second type is the beneficiary who applied for land, and was allotted land even though that beneficiary did not qualify to receive land. If that beneficiary did not seek to influence the allotter’s decision in any way, then the beneficiary cannot be held responsible. It was the allotter’s responsibility to check and to confirm that all recipients of land fulfilled all the criteria. So in this case, the allotter should be taken to task.

The third type is the beneficiary who should never have applied for land given the existence of serious conflicts of interest. Beneficiaries of this type would include all public servants (and their immediate family members) who were directly involved in the acquisition and distribution of land. And naturally, they would also include all cabinet ministers (and their immediate family members), but especially ministers who’s job it was to supervise the dzongkhag administration, or to approve the proposed township, or the authorise the land acquisition, or to endorse the allotment criteria.

We cannot excuse the misuse of inside information, the abuse of government power, or the disregard of conflicts of interest. They are the most damaging forms of corruption. So in this case, the beneficiary should be taken to task immediately.

Photo credit: Business Bhutan who also reported that Gyelpozhing residents protested the plot allotments, and that people who lost land were struggling

Observing anticorruption day

Here’s how I observed International Anticorruption Day yesterday:

One, I went through Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index report for 2011. Bhutan is rated 5.7 (10 means perceived to be very clean; 0 means very corrupt) and is ranked a decent 38 out of the 182 countries and territories that were studied. Bhutan’s rating of 5.7 remains unchanged from the 2010 corruption perception levels. Not bad, but we can, and must, do better.

Two, I tuned in to see BBS’s live debate on the topic “Is Bhutan doing enough in fighting corruption?” The debate, which was organised jointly with IMS, had six panelists, all honourable members of the Parliament. The debate would have been a lot more meaningful if the panelists were chosen to defend two different sides of the motion – one team contending that Bhutan is doing enough to fight corruption; the other arguing that Bhutan is not doing enough.

Three, I closed my poll that asked “Is ACC taking too long to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?” The big majority – 300 of the 352 who took the poll – answered “yes” the ACC is taking too long.

Four, I drafted a letter to the ACC encouraging them to investigate and resolve the Gyelpozhing land case as soon as possible. The case is significant as it raises serious questions on the conduct of our senior-most public officials, many of whom hold powerful offices. Did they, for example, violate laws in the way that land was acquired and distributed? And was conflict of interest standards compromised by senior officials who applied for and received land?

Five, I drafted a letter to the Royal Audit Authority requesting them for a copy of their report on the special investigations that they carried out on the lottery operations. I had asked for the report in June this year, but was denied it. I’m hopeful that, for the sake of transparency and accountability, the RAA is now prepared to make the report public.

Investigating Gyelpozhing

Last Saturday, more than two months after Business Bhutan broke their story about alleged land grabbing in Gyelpozhing by senior public servants, the Anticorruption Commission announced that they:

“… are in the process of studying laws related to land, policy issues, analysing and re- viewing the complaints they received with regards to Gyalpoizhing land case.”

The Gyelpozhing land case has raised serious questions about alleged corruption involving our senior-most public servants when land was acquired and redistributed in Gyelpozhing. This is a big case. And it is an important one. So the ACC is correct in studying the case carefully before they launch an all-out investigation.

But the questions remains: Is ACC taking too much time to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?

Please share your views here. And please take the poll that asks the same question.