Ex-minister, sitting officials implicated in refugee scamInvestigators suspect more government officials and relatives of political leaders could also be involved.
In the latest in a series of arrests, Nepal Police on Wednesday apprehended Tek Narayan Pandey, current Secretary at Vice President’s Office and former Home Secretary, in relation to a case where many Nepalis were swindled out of millions of rupees in return for sending them to the United States as Bhutanese refugees.
Pandey was arrested on the charge of taking bribes from the people who were earlier arrested in the same case.
Similarly, the District Court, Kathmandu, at the request of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Range, has issued an arrest warrant against CPN-UML Secretary and former minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi; his son Sandeep; and Prateek Thapa, the son of former home minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, in connection with the scam.
Sandeep was arrested from Butwal on Wednesday evening, Nepal Police has said. Sandeep is accused of taking Rs 10 million in a bribe for assisting the racketeers to prepare the documents.
Rayamajhi, who was in Arghakhanchi on Wednesday, is reportedly coming back to Kathmandu after the Kathmandu District Court issued an arrest warrant against him and his son. Talking to journalists in his home town in Arghakhanchi, Rayamajhi refuted the charges against him.
The Nepal Police had intensified a search against Pandey after the arrest of six people including Indra Jit Rai, adviser to the former home minister Ram Bahadur Thapa. The police in court have claimed that Pandey; Rayamajhi and his son Sandeep; Prateek; and Rai and his son Niraj helped the racketeers obtain fake documents from the home ministry in order to send Nepali nationals to the US as Bhutanese refugees.
Rai, who served as security adviser to Thapa when the latter was home minister, was arrested on Tuesday for his involvement in the refugee scam.
“After recording the statement of the people including Rai, we arrested Pandey from Kathmandu,” SP Sitaram Rijal, spokesperson of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Range, said.
After his arrest, Pandey was taken to the District Police Court in Kathmandu, which remanded him to judicial custody for investigation. A team from the Kathmandu Police Circle arrested Pandey from Jadibuti in the Capital. The police said that he will face criminal charges. Probably Pandey is only one high-profile sitting secretary who is facing criminal charges while serving in the position.
Pandey is being held at the Kathmandu Police Circle office at Teku. The police obtained an arrest warrant for Pandey from the court on Wednesday itself. Pandey worked as a secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs from August 11, 2021 to September 18, 2022.
The string of arrests involving high-profile individuals is believed to have instilled fears in politicians across party lines.
“Any punitive action against those involved in the refugee scam is welcome,” UML leader Mahesh Basent said. “There are several more cases related to corruption and all those found guilty should face action.”
As per the preliminary investigation by the Kathmandu Valley Crime Division, Rai was directly involved in criminal activities.
On June 14, 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Nepal Police had launched an investigation into a criminal group involved in a case of fraud. The group had allegedly been scamming people for years by promising to send them to the US as Bhutanese refugees.
The government action was in response to a case filed by the victims at the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority against the group a few months earlier. The case was brought to the Kathmandu Valley Crime Division only in June 2022 after which the investigation was launched.
The group has allegedly swindled over 875 people from different places in Nepal of millions of rupees.
The police earlier arrested Keshav Dulal, Sanu Bhandari, Sagar Thulung Rai, Tanka Gurung and Sandesh Sharma Pokhrel as suspected prime accused in the case. All of them had strong political connections.
According to police, the suspects have admitted to collecting between one to five million rupees per head from many Nepalis by promising to send them to the US as Bhutanese refugees.
Rai, who was arrested on Tuesday, had reportedly taken a total of Rs50.5 million from the racketeers with a promise to help them prepare fake documents from the home ministry. The court has issued an arrest warrant against Rai’s son Niraj, who is now absconding.
“We suspect more government officials, mostly working in the home ministry, could be involved in the scam,” a senior Nepal Police officer said, adding, “we will make more arrests in the days to come.”
Kantipur daily, the Post’s sister publication, had first unearthed the refugee racket allegedly led by Dulal.
As per the Kantipur report, the racketeers prepared a list of 875 Nepali nationals under the pretext of sending them to the US through forged or fake government documents.
After 1990, Nepal saw a huge influx of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese nationals who were expelled from their country by the Bhutanese government in a massive ethnic cleansing drive. The refugees were kept in several refugee camps in Morang and Jhapa districts. After a series of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed, the international community led by the UN refugee agency started resettling the refugees in third countries, mostly in the US and Europe.
Between 2007 and 2016, the UNHCR helped resettle more than 113,500 Bhutanese refugees in eight countries in one of the largest resettlement programmes globally.
The home ministry had formed a task force led by joint secretary Bal Krishna Panthi in order to suggest an amicable solution for the remaining refugees in two camps in Morang and Jhapa.
Rai influenced the Panthi-led committee to add a number of “left out” refugees for third-country settlement. By using the report prepared by Panthi, which is yet to be public, the Dulal-led racket had collected money from many Nepalis to send them to the US as “left out” Bhutanese refugees.
Investigators told the Post that names of some more high-profile sitting and former officials and relatives of some leaders have emerged during the interrogation of those arrested. “We cannot name them,” one investigating official said, “we are looking for solid proof in order to unearth the nexus between the racketeers and other high-profile officials and relatives of political leaders.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha told the Post that he has instructed senior police officials to thoroughly investigate the case. Those who are guilty should be booked, Shrestha said, “but those who are not involved should not be dragged into the scam as it will damage their career and image.”