Strongest hint yet two ex-PMs will be spared in land scamInstead of grilling as suspects, CIB recorded statements of Nepal and Bhattarai as government witnesses.
The government is apparently not ready to prosecute former prime ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai over their roles in the Lalita Niwas land scam.
The government was forced to record their statements after the Supreme Court on August 6 ordered an investigation into those involved in making decisions related to the transfer of land of Lalita Niwas, Baluwatar in the name of private individuals in addition to those involved in recommending the transfers.
The court order paved the way for police to investigate the two former prime ministers who were earlier spared by the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) when it had filed corruption cases against 175 individuals in February 2020, stating that former prime ministers’ decisions were collective ‘policy decisions’ of their respective Cabinets.
Section 4 of the CIAA Act-1991 does not allow the anti-graft body to investigate policy decisions of the Cabinet and the committees under it.
But the recent court order built pressure on the government to investigate the two former prime ministers as well. The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of Nepal Police was also widely criticised for not interrogating the former prime ministers even as the bureau was preparing to submit its report to the district attorney.
Then, the CIB officials on Sunday evening interrogated them on the issue.
On Monday, Bhattarai announced on X (formerly known as Twitter) that he had given his statement on the issue, to the CIB. “I have fulfilled my duty by giving a statement to the CIB regarding the questions raised about the decisions taken by my Cabinet on the Lalita Niwas scam,” he wrote on the social media platform.
A close aide to the former prime minister Nepal, too, confirmed to the Post that the CIB had questioned Nepal.
Both the former heads of government gave their statements without a government attorney in attendance, a vital step required to prosecute someone being probed for a criminal offence.
Currently, the CIB has initiated a criminal investigation against those allegedly involved in the Lalita Niwas land grab, for organised crime and forgery of government documents.
Police have so far arrested more than a dozen and a half people including former election commissioner Sudhir Shah and Bhatbhateni Department Store’s owner Min Bahadur Gurung.
“I can confirm that the statements of the two former prime ministers were taken as government witnesses,” CIB spokesman Superintendent of Police Nawaraj Adhikari told the Post.
As per section 16 of the National Criminal Procedure (Code) Act, 2017, the investigating authority may take deposition (statement of potential offender) from the accused in relation to any offence, in the presence of the government attorney.
In taking deposition, the government attorney shall have the right to ask questions with relation to the offence.
“There was no presence of the government attorney when the former prime ministers were questioned. So there has been no deposition [a statement of potential offender] of the former prime ministers,” said a source at the District Attorney Office, Kathmandu. “If somebody is expected to be a defendant in an offence, deposition of such a person is taken. Otherwise, the statement is taken as the government’s witness.”
The source said that earlier, the government attorneys had taken depositions of those arrested including Gurung, the owner of Bhatbhateni Supermarket. “Normally, when a case is filed in court, somebody whose statement is taken as a government witness is presented only as a witness rather than as a defendant in the case.”
Critics called the CIB’s decision not to record statements of former prime ministers as possible offenders an effort to shield them from prosecution.
“The police seem to have taken their statements just to honour the Supreme Court’s order. But they are actually undermining the order’s spirit,” said the CPN-UML leader Agni Kharel, who is also a former attorney general.
“The spirit of the court order is that both Nepal and Bhattarai should be investigated and their statements taken in the presence of a government attorney. If the government attorney does not find any strong evidence against them, they will not be prosecuted.”
In early August, the court had ordered investigation against all those directly involved in the Cabinet decisions of April 11, 2010, May 14, 2010 along with August 13, 2010 and October 4, 2013, as well as those involved in implementing the decisions—in addition to those making minister-level decisions and executing them.
The verdict had opened the doors for a police investigation against Nepal and Bhattarai who head two ruling parties, the CPN (Unified Socialist) and the Nepal Samajbadi Party, respectively.
The Nepal Cabinet had allowed the transfer of government land to individuals. Similarly, the Bhattarai Cabinet had permitted the land’s registration in the name of an allegedly fake trust named Pashupati Tikinchha Guthi.
Nepal was prime minister from May 25, 2009 to February 6, 2011. Similarly, Bhattarai was prime minister from August 29, 2011 to March 14, 2012.
Lalita Niwas covers some 300 ropani (around 15 hectares) of land and includes the prime minister’s residence, Nepal Rastra Bank central office and some other residences of key government officials.
Former attorney general Kharel said the police seem to be under the influence of ruling parties, raising questions over the CIB’s investigation into the gold scam as well. “This also justifies the House obstruction carried out by our party demanding a high-level committee to investigate the gold scam.”
The CIB, in a recent report, had included the names of former Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara and his son, Rahul, flagging their constant communication with Chinese nationals accused in the gold smuggling case that happened last December.
The Department of Revenue Investigation seized a large quantity of gold outside the Tribhuvan International Airport last month too.
Immediately after the latest seizure, some pictures and video clips showing Maoist Centre leaders including Deputy General Secretary Barshaman Pun and former Vice-President Nanda Bahadur Pun posing with ‘gold smugglers’ were circulated on social media. Though the leaders rejected having dishonest dealings with the ‘smugglers’, the public remains unconvinced.
Even the ruling Congress leaders have started questioning the government’s ‘double standards’ in its harsh treatment of Nepali Congress leaders while protecting Maoist Centre leaders allegedly involved in criminal offences.
Former Home Minister and Nepali Nepali Congress leader Bal Krishna Khand is in judicial custody as per an order by the District Court Kathmandu over his alleged role in collecting money in the name of sending Nepalis to the US as Bhutanese refugees.
Kharel said that efforts to shield certain ruling parties’ leaders from prosecution in the Lalita Niwas scam would convey the message that those close to power are safe from prosecution while the others will have to face consequences. “This will weaken people’s trust in the criminal justice system,” Kharel added.