Police, attorney in a rush to file charges in refugee scamAs per the law, all 32 accused must be tried in court by Wednesday, but investigators have yet to conclude probe.
Anup Ojha & Prithvi Man Shrestha
With police taking time to conclude the investigation into the Bhutanese refugee scam, the District Attorney Office Kathmandu is struggling to bring criminal cases against the accused.
Nepal Police, which is investigating the high profile scam, had earlier said that it would be submitting the investigation report to the District Attorney Office by Sunday for legal verification. But it failed to do so. This will leave very little time for the District Attorney Office to study the investigation report, because as per the law, cases must be filed in the court by Wednesday.
Police are preparing to file cases against the accused under the Organised Crime Act-2013, among other relevant statutes. As per the Act, a person accused of organised crime can be placed in judicial custody for a maximum 60 days.
Based on this provision, the deadline for keeping those accused in the scam in custody expires on May 24.
“We were expecting the police to submit the investigation report by Sunday considering the limited time available to us for verifying the legal provisions to be applied for prosecution. But police said they are still investigating,” said Achyut Neupane, chief of the Kathmandu District Attorney’s Office.
“Legally, we just have two days left to file a charge sheet against the accused in the court. It is going to be hectic for us to read and conclude the verification process if we receive the police investigation report very late.”
The District Attorney’s Office looks into whether adequate evidence has been collected to bring charges and it can order the police to collect more evidence if needed.
Thus, it plays the role of strengthening the charge sheet.
This office also determines whether certain charges are applicable against the accused, and more charges can be added based on the investigation report.
Nepal Police plans to prosecute the 32 accused and has already arrested 16 of them including former deputy prime minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and former home minister Bal Krishna Khand.
They are being investigated for collecting millions of rupees from hundreds of people by promising to send them to the US as Bhutanese refugees.
Also, other top officials including former home secretary Tek Narayan Pandey, who was working as a secretary at the Office of the Vice President until his arrest, former home minister Ram Bahadur Thapa’s security adviser Indrajit Rai, former home minister Khand’s personal secretary, former Nepali Congress lawmaker Aang Tawa Sherpa, and some middlemen, are among those arrested. Police on Thursday also apprehended Bhutanese refugee leader Tek Nath Rizal in connection with the scam.
On March 26, police had first arrested the accused, including Keshav Dulal from Morang, Sanu Bhandari from Lalitpur and Tek Gurung from Panchthar. The police can keep the accused in judicial custody for a maximum of 60 days from the day of their arrests.
Based on their statement to the police, the involvement of high profile people in the scam was exposed. Police said it was natural that it took longer than expected to conclude the investigation because of the magnitude of the scam.
“We are getting new complaints against the accused even now. So concluding the case is taking time,” said Kathmandu Police Range Chief Senior Superintendent of Police Dan Bahadur Karki. “Since it is a high profile case, we continue to investigate it.”
As investigations continue, police on Sunday asked the court to extend the remand of the accused.
“As requested by the police, the District Court Kathmandu has extended their judicial custody until Tuesday,” said Deepak Dahal, information officer at the Kathmandu District Court. “This is the second time the court extended their judicial custody.”
Earlier, the deadline was extended till Friday, but the accused remained in custody because of holiday on Saturday.
Kantipur daily, the Post’s sister publication, had first unearthed the refugee racket involving high profile political figures. As per the Kantipur report, the racketeers prepared a list of 875 people by promising to send them to the US as Bhutanese refugees by forging government documents.
In 2019, then government led by KP Sharma Oli had formed a task-force under the then joint secretary Bal Krishna Panthi to recommend ways to manage the Bhutanese refugees who remain in Nepal following the cessation of the third country resettlement programme in 2016-end.
“It has been discovered that the original report prepared by the Panthi-led committee has disappeared from the ministry. This could not have happened without the support of the home minister and home secretary,” a police officer told the Post earlier. “Only a duplicate report that had been tampered with in certain sections was found at the ministry.”
When the committee was formed, UML chair Oli was the prime minister and Ram Bahadur Thapa, currently the party’s vice chair, was the home minister.
Only 429 Bhutanese refugees living in two camps in Jhapa and Mornag districts had applied as leftover refugees and asked the Panthi-led committee to include their names on the list of those to be resettled in third countries. The list was then verified by the UN refugee agency and the Refugee Coordination Unit based in Jhapa.
During the same time, the Panthi-led committee received applications from 875 people who wanted to be included in the list of leftover refugees. As they were not verified refugees, the committee refused to accept their applications.
“Then a group of racketeers led by Keshav Dulal and Sanu Bhandari who are now in police custody, stole the committee report, removed the names of 429 verified leftover refugees and replaced them with another list of 875 persons,” the police officer earlier told the Post. “Backed by the political and bureaucratic leaders, the racketeers added 18 pages to the report and circulated it as evidence. The goal was to make people believe they were going to the US as Bhutanese refugees.”
The racketeers had allegedly managed to steal the Panthi report with the help of home ministry officials including the then home minister Thapa’s security advisor Indrajit Rai.
In the meantime, there was a change in government following Oli’s ouster. Khand became the new home minister. “Then the racketeers convinced him to form a new sub-committee to verify the new long list of refugees,” the police officer said.
The sub-committee was led by assistant chief district officer of Jhapa, Chomendra Neupane. “The then home secretary Pandey kept on extending the deadline of the sub-committee as the racketeers created the new list of refugees,” the officer said.
But that sub-committee was derailed by controversy and the work was abandoned, said officials.