Anti-graft body in the spotlight as questions arise over its independenceThe constitutional body is largely failing to function as per its mandate because over-politicisation has meant officials often serve their political masters, analysts say.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
A government official’s acquittal on corruption charges by the court a year after he committed suicide over graft charges filed against him has put a spotlight on the country’s constititonal anti-corruption agency and stoked a debate on its independence, relevance and need.
The Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority on September 16 last year filed a corruption case against Ramhari Subedi, a non-gazetted official at Kalanki Land Revenue Office, for taking Rs1,000 in bribe.
A week later, Subedi killed himself on September 23 last year.
He was acquitted by the Special Court on July 14, about which reports surfaced on Friday.
Nepal’s anti-graft agency has long been facing charges of targeting the “small fry” and ignoring “big fishes”.
Anti-corruption campaigners say corruption in Nepal is organised and the fight against it is disorganised and non-coordinated. One of the major reasons is politicisation of the anti-graft agency, and as a result, it functions more as an arm of the executive rather than an independent constitutional agency, according to them.
“The commission was established as a constitutional body to avoid pressure from the executive branch of the state,” said Srihari Aryal, an anti-corruption campaigner and former chairperson of Transparency International-Nepal, an anti-corruption advocacy group. “But the commission’s leadership usually takes orders from those who appointed them, instead of following what the constitution mandates them to do.”
Even though it is envisioned as an independent constitutional body, appointments to the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority for years have been made on “quota basis”, with major parties handpicking the officials.
In 2013, celebrated cartoonist Durga Baral drew a cartoon for Kantipur daily, the Post’s sister paper, in which he showed Lok Man Singh Karki being carried by four top political leaders while he was being administered the oath of office by the President. The striking feature was: all the leaders—as they hoisted Karki—had their pants down.
The cartoon depicted how political leadership had, despite objection from various quarters of the society, had bulldozed their decision to install Karki, a controversial figure, at the anti-graft agency, not giving two hoots about the public opprobrium it attracted.
Many say Karki's appointment as the chief commissioner may not be the beginning of the downfall of the anti-graft agency, but it certainly was emblematic of how politicians help corruption thrive in Nepal.
“The commission’s leadership has developed a tendency to communicate to the executive head about who it is going to initiate action against,” said Gauri Bahadur Karki, former chairperson of the Special Court whose verdicts on corruption cases have received public applause.
Karki cited a recent example involving senior ruling party leader Bishnu Poudel and Supreme Court Judge Kumar Regmi. Both were spared in the Baluwatar land scandal on the grounds that “they will return the land to the government” while many others, including Nepali Congress leader Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar, are facing corruption charges for similar offences.
Karki said that the case related to the Baluwatar land is just an example of how the commission has been failing to perform its duty as an independent agency.
With the current chief commissioner’s tenure coming to an end, politicians, including the prime minister and the leader of the main opposition, are already in negotiations to find the successor. A person appointed based on party quota tends to serve the political masters, according to Karki.
Anti-corruption campaigners say the anti-graft agency has been more into arresting and initiating cases against junior-level government officials for petty scandals, while ignoring the cases in which politicians are involved.
While acquitting Subedi, the non-gazetted official at the land office, the Special Court said that the commission failed to furnish adequate evidence to support its claim that he had taken Rs1,000 in bribe. According to the anti-grant agency, Subedi was caught on CCTV taking the money.
The anti-graft agency often also conducts sting operations to “catch” corrupt officials, but on the majority of occasions, the accused are junior officials. At times, the commission has been involved in arresting government officials by offering money in bribes. Questions have also been raised over whether “entrapping” government staff by the commission providing the money itself is ethical and complies with the existing legal provisions.
When it comes to politicians or those who have better connections with the prime minister, the commission officials, however, are reluctant to even move the case forward. One recent case is Gokul Baskota.
Baskota was caught on tape negotiating Rs700 million with a local agent of an international firm attempting to set up a security printing press in Nepal. He was minister for communication and information technology then. After the tape was leaked, he resigned. According to a report by Kantipur, the Post’s sister paper, the commission is preparing to exonerate Baskota, a close confidante of Oli.
“In principle, you take one paisa or a billion rupees in bribe, both are corruption cases,” said Aryal, the former chairperson of the Nepal chapter of the Transparency International, the Berlin-based anti- corruption advocacy group which has in its annual reports pointed at how Nepali politicians fuel corruption. “But the question is why do we need a powerful constitutional body to investigate into a graft case involving a few hundred or thousands rupees. Even the police can investigate such cases.”
The Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority was formed on February 11, 1991.
Articles 238 and 239 of the constitution have empowered the anti-graft body to investigate and probe cases against the persons holding any public office and their associates who indulge in the abuse of authority by corrupt means.
The commission, on its website, describes itself as a distinctive anti-corruption agency in South Asia, which plays the role of an ombudsman, investigator and prosecutor as well.
“It aims to crack down the corruption issues at a national level with a system-based approach,” it reads. “It also focuses on detection and punishment of corrupt acts on the one hand and social, cultural and institutional reform on the other.”
Anti-corruption activists, however, say how the agency is functioning today is an aberration and that it is failing to fulfil its objective.
According to Khem Raj Regmi, chairperson of Transparency International-Nepal, the anti-corruption agency is gradually failing to prove its significance.
“Its objective is to initiate action on big corruption cases,” Regmi told the Post. “But its actions show it has been largely helpless when it comes to the rich and powerful.”
The anti-graft agency in recent years has been facing charges of becoming a tool which politicians in power often use against their opponents. Political parties had turned against Lok Man Singh Karki despite installing him as the chief at the commission after he launched a witch-hunt against leaders.
Lately, the commission has come to such a pass that even its commissioners are facing corruption charges, prompting anti-corruption campaigners to question if the anti-graft body can be trusted now for its fairness.
One of its commissioners, Raj Naryaan Pathak, is facing corruption charges for accepting Rs7.8 million “to settle” a case related to a private engineering college.
Its former chief commissioner, Deep Basnyat, also faces investigation by the Department of Money Laundering Investigation for allegedly transferring money to foreign countries. He also faces corruption charges in the Baluwatar land scam case.
“The commission’s leadership has failed to show courage to file cases when political leaders are involved, even when corruption is so apparent,” said Regmi. “In fact, a number of moves by the commission in corruption scandals involving political leaders have given the impression that it has become the government’s puppet.”