Leaked audio clip of judge, lawyer talking kickbacks exposes rot in the judiciaryJudge Koirala and lawyer Pokhrel are heard discussing taking a cut totalling Rs20 million to secure release of Ichchha Raj Tamang on a bail of Rs100 million.
An audio clip of a district court judge and a lawyer discussing kickbacks to secure the release of a businessman accused of embezzling public money has once again put the spotlight on the country’s judiciary, which has already been facing a credibility crisis.
That corruption is rife in Nepal’s courts and that judges can be “bought” are something that are reported in the media once in a while, but this is probably for the first time such a damning audio recording has made it to the public domain. In the audio, Kathmandu District Court Judge Raj Kumar Koirala and Rudra Pokhrel, a lawyer, are heard discussing at what price Ichchha Raj Tamang can be released.
News24 TV on Tuesday evening aired the 10-minute audio recording involving the judge and the lawyer.
After the conversation between the duo was widely reported by several media outlets, the Judicial Council on Wednesday formed a three-member panel led by Judicial Council member Ram Prasad Shrestha to probe the audio.
“A three-member investigation team has been formed. It will dig out the reality,” Law Minister Govinda Sharma Bandi, who is also a member of the Council, told the Post. “The accused [judge] will not be assigned any cases until the probe report is out.” The committee has been given 45 days to complete the investigation.
He said the audio recording seems to be from the time when the court hearing of Tamang and other accused was being conducted last year.
In October last year, the Central Investigation Bureau of the Nepal Police had arrested Tamang, the founding chairperson of Civil Cooperatives, after several complaints about embezzlement of deposits at the cooperatives were registered with the police.
After an investigation for 60 days, the Bureau, in December last year, filed a case at the Kathmandu District Court against Tamang, who is also a former lawmaker, along with 41 others associated with the cooperative, on charges of embezzling public money totalling Rs5.59 billion.
After the audio was leaked, Acting Chief Justice Deepak Kumar Karki had called a meeting of the Judicial Council for Wednesday afternoon. Karki heads the Judicial Council. Ram Prasad Shrestha represents the Nepal Bar Association in the Council as member while two other members are law minister Bandi and Ram Prasad Bhandari, who was appointed by President Bidya Devi Bhandari on the government’s recommendation in June last year.
In the audio, the lawyer and the judge are heard discussing taking a cut totalling Rs20 million if Tamang can be released on a bail of Rs100 million.
Judge Koirala appears to be giving his consent, while he seeks assurance from lawyer Pokhrel if there would be a green signal for the deal from “higher-ups.”
Pokhrel then assures that he would “fix” everything up from the chief justice to the “No. 1” judge of Kathmandu District Court.
Cholendra Shumsher Rana, who remains suspended since February this year after an impeachment motion was filed against him, was the chief justice at that time. The “No. 1” judge who Koirala and Pokhrel are referring to is Raju Kumar Khatiwada.
Former judges say the audio comes as yet another blot on Nepal’s judicial system at a time when people’s faith in courts and judges has been on the wane.
The suspended chief justice Rana also faced charges of corruption.
An impeachment motion filed by 98 lawmakers of three ruling parties—Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Centre) and CPN (Unified Socialist)—accuses Rana of using his relatives and people in his close circle to commit corruption.
Even Supreme Court justices last year had launched a crusade against Rana, demanding that benches be assigned to judges through a lucky draw. Their demand for a random system to assign cases was an indication that Rana, as the master of the roster, was picking cases and assigning them to ensure a favourable order.
In the audio also, the lawyer, who pleaded on behalf of the accused, is heard saying that he would make sure that the chief justice and the No. 1 judge would inform Koirala regarding the judgement he was supposed to pass.
It appears that Koirala decided not to release Tamang. In December last year, Judge Koirala sent Tamang to custody until the final investigation on the fraud charges. Keshav Lal Shrestha, chairperson of the Civil Cooperative who was arrested along with him, was also sent to custody.
Pokhrel, a lawyer for over two and a half decades, runs a law firm called RP Pokhrel and Associates in Kathmandu. He was a treasurer of the Nepal Bar Association until a new leadership was elected about two months ago. He is considered close to the CPN-UML and had won the bar elections from the ‘progressive panel.’
He is considered close to UML chair KP Sharma Oli. He had argued on behalf of the government when Oli had dissolved the House of Representatives.
Pokhrel had also denounced the protests by justices and lawyers against Rana.
The Post’s repeated attempts to reach Pokhrel for comments were not successful, as his mobile phone was switched off.
The Bar Council has sought a written clarification from Pokhrel.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Judge Koirala posted a message on Facebook saying despite different influences and pressure he had performed his job fairly. “I seek an investigation from the Judicial Council. I commit to full cooperation in the investigation,” he has written.
Koirala entered the judicial service as a section officer and later got promoted to district judge. He was posted in the Kathmandu District Court around two years back, according to an official at the court.
Former Supreme Court justices say the audio clip that has surfaced is just the tip of the iceberg and that corruption is deep-rooted in Nepal’s judiciary.
“This case has come out in the public, but there are so many such cases that never make it to the public domain,” Prakash Osti, a former justice at the Supreme Court, told the Post. He said corruption is rampant because of impunity as there are no proper investigations and actions.”
“There is protection from the top level, therefore, corruption is not going to end unless those holding top positions are clean,” he said.
Osti also questioned the judges appointment process, calling it faulty and one of the reasons for incidents like the current one.
“You won’t get to hear about such incidents if competent and people with high integrity are appointed as judges,” he said. “We cannot expect good results from those who are appointed through a faulty process. You reap what you sow.”
Experts say the audio tape clearly indicates Rana had some sort of involvement in the case.
They say the audio tape comes as a blow to the judiciary which was expected to regain its lost credibility after Rana’s suspension.
“The Judicial Council must take strong action against the judge while the Bar Council should do the same to advocate Pokhrel,” Balram KC, a former justice at the Supreme Court, told the Post. “The Judicial Council must also introspect the judges appointment process.”
Bandi, the law minister, said they are serious about appointing right persons as judges.
The Judicial Council, according to him, is drafting a directive to guide the appointment process.
“The faulty process of judges appointment is a major problem in the judiciary. We at the Judicial Council agreed that political interference in the appointments must end and only those competent and with high integrity should get a place in the judiciary,” Bandi had told the Post in a recent interview.