Three former ministers among 175 individuals indicted over Lalita Niwas land scamBijay Kumar Gachhadar, Dambar Shrestha and Chandra Dev Joshi face corruption charges over the illegal transfer of government land into private hands.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
After a nearly year-long investigation, the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority on Wednesday filed corruption cases against 175 individuals at the Special Court, including three former ministers, over the illegal transfer of government land at Baluwatar in Kathmandu into the hands of private individuals.
Former deputy prime minister and minister for physical infrastructure and transport Bijay Kumar Gachhadar, and two former land reforms ministers Dambar Shrestha and Chandra Dev Joshi face corruption charges over the infamous Lalita Niwas scam.
Following the filing of a corruption case, Gachhadar, a senior Nepali Congress leader, has been automatically suspended as lawmaker as per the Corruption Prevention Act 2002. He was elected from Sunsari.
The anti-graft body, however, did not file cases against former prime ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai, despite the illegal transfers taking place during their tenures. The commission concluded that their decisions were the collective policy decisions of the Cabinet.
The commission said in a statement that it does not have the authority to prosecute the two former prime ministers as per the Supreme Court verdict of September 24, 1996 and Article 4 of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority Act. As per the law, the authority cannot investigate policy decisions of the Cabinet. The anti-graft body has long been demanding that ‘policy decisions’ be clearly defined in the law.
“How can a decision to register the land in the name of certain individuals be considered a policy decision? A policy decision should be in the interest of all the people,” said Khem Raj Regmi, president of the Nepal chapter of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption body.
Regmi also flayed the commission’s decision to let the former prime ministers and other high-ranking officials off the hook while prosecuting smaller fry.
Those who took the decision to illegally transfer the government land into private hands were spared while those who implemented the decision are being prosecuted, he said.
Prominent names missing from the commission’s charge-sheet are ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Secretary Bishnu Poudel and his son Nabin, in whose name two plots of land from Lalita Niwas have been registered.
Poudel had purchased the plots with a total area of eight anna (31.79 sq metres per unit) at Lalita Niwas from Madhabi Subedi and Uma Kumari Dhakalni in 2005. Subedi and Dhakalni had in turn acquired these two plots from Machababu Prajapati. Poudel had then registered the land in Nabin’s name.
The commission concluded that when the land came into Nabin Poudel’s ownership, it had already changed hands twice, which exempted Poudel from any wrongdoing.
However, Regmi asked why other private individuals needed to give up their lands as per the commission’s charge-sheet but Poudel did not.
“There appear to be double standards and political biases,” he said.
The commission, however, said that cases had not been filed against Nabin Poudel and Kumar Regmi, a serving justice at the Supreme Court, as they had agreed to give up the land in question. The commission has decided to write to the Ministry of Land Management to take back plot 511, which is owned by Kumar Regmi, and plots 309 and 315, owned by Nabin Poudel.
As per the charge sheet, the anti-graft body has only sought the confiscation of land from 65 out of 175 people indicted in the case.
Among the indicted are former government secretaries Deep Basnyat, Dinesh Hari Adhikari and Chhabiraj Pant. Basnyat was once the chief commissioner of the anti-graft body itself. He is the second commissioner to face corruption charges, after Raj Narayan Pathak, who was caught on videotape admitting to accepting Rs7.8 million to settle the ownership dispute at a Bhaktapur-based college.
Basnyat is also being investigated by the commission on the charge of illegally amassing property and by the Department of Money Laundering Investigation for laundering that property.
The commission has also filed charges against Rukma Shumsher Rana, son of late Nepali Congress leader Subarna Shumsher Rana, the alleged middlemen in the case—Ram Kumar Subedi and Sobha Kanta Dhakal—and prominent businessman Min Bahadur Gurung, owner of Bhatbhateni Supermarket.
Among the defendants, Subedi faces charges of financial irregularities of Rs525.14 million, the highest amount, while Gurung faces charges of irregularities worth Rs500 million and Dhakal worth Rs392.76 million each.
Among the former ministers, Gachhadar and Shrestha face charges of irregularities worth Rs96.57 million each while Joshi is indicted for Rs70.84 million. Former chief commissioner Basnyat faces charges of irregularities worth Rs96.57 million and former secretaries Pant Rs96.57 million and Adhikari Rs70.84 million.
According to the commission, it started investigations in the case in early 2019 based on the report of a committee headed by former secretary Sharada Prasad Trital that had looked into irregularities in the government, public, and guthi-owned land. The committee had discovered that 136 ropanis of government land had been illegally registered in the name of private citizens. Although these lands were initially owned by Subarna Shumsher, the late Nepali Congress leader, they were acquired by the government in the 1960s.
Those plots were illegally returned to Rana’s family after the restoration of democracy in 1990 on the grounds that the land had been occupied by the Panchayat government for political reasons, even though the land had been acquired legally by paying compensation, according to the commission. These plots were later sold and purchased in the name of different people.