A case against high level gold smuggling probe panel
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, investigating corruption scandals and major crimes through high-level probe panels has been a recurrent practice in Nepal. These panels have ostensibly yielded reports advising government action, yet these documents have largely remained hidden from the public eye, and their recommendations conspicuously unheeded.
In some disconcerting instances, these very panels have appeared to function as protective shields for high-profile individuals entangled in corruption and other ignoble scandals.
This prompts a glaring question: why form such so-called high level probe commission and to what end? Also, what is the point of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), the constitutionally mandated body meant for probing corruption cases?
On Wednesday, political parties represented in the Federal Parliament decided to form yet another high-level panel, this time to investigate all known and unknown gold smuggling incidents. The decision is connected with the gold trafficking incident that took place via Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu last month.
The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of Nepal Police is tasked with the investigation of the case, but the main opposition, CPN-UML, looks askance, insisting on a separate high level commission for a fair inquest. The party resorted to obstructing the parliamentary proceedings to press its demand, and the ruling coalition parties led by CPN (Maoist Center) eventually relented.
Prominent legal figure and former Supreme Court Justice Balaram KC has emphatically criticized this cross-party consensus, deeming it a grievous misstep that threatens to establish a harmful precedent. He says formation of a high level probe commission must be reserved in the case of an unprecedented and complex incident. “Gold smuggling is not a new event in the annals of crime that have taken place in Nepal.”
KC fears that this approach of forming high level probe commissions might be applied to even minor issues in the future. And since this time-honored practice has repeatedly failed, he casts doubt on the prospects of this fresh commission diverging from its predecessors.
The latest agreement to create a new commission comes with the appointment of a sitting judge to lead the inquiry. The commission, formed under the legal purview of the Commissions of Inquiry Act of 1969, is slated to commence its operations on 22nd September.
Section 3 (3) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act provisions that the Judicial Council will recommend a sitting justice to lead the commission. Section 4 of the Act elaborates on the commission's functions, duties, and powers.
As per the Act, the commission can be given more authority if required. According to Section 5 (a), if the commission has reasonable grounds to believe that any item or document pertinent to the investigation is in possession of a person or situated in a specific place, it can conduct searches, adhering to prevailing laws. The commission can authorize a gazetted officer to execute searches and, if located, seize relevant items or documents, or procure full or partial copies of such documents.
The commission also holds the prerogative to penalize non-compliance with its directives or extend clemency. Notably, the commission's mandate pertains not only to gold smuggling through Kathmandu airport but also encompasses a separate case involving the illicit transportation of gold concealed within e-cigarettes. In the latter case, former Home Minister and Vice-chairman of CPN (Maoist Center), Krishna Bahadur Mahara, and his son Rahul have been implicated. It was revealed in the investigation carried out by the CIB of Nepal Police that the father-son duo had repeatedly held telephone conversations and met the Chinese national involved in gold smuggling.
The formation of this commission, operating under the imprimatur of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, vests it with considerable jurisdiction. Beyond influencing policy matters, the commission possesses authority to conduct rigorous investigations, encompassing inquiries, depositions, and searches relating to gold smuggling offenses. Earlier, the ruling parties, particularly the Maoist Center, was reluctant to form the inquiry commission, fearing its authority to summon even high-ranking officials, including the prime minister and ministers, for statements.
The Maoist-led coalition government had to acquiesce to the demand for a powerful commission to probe the gold smuggling case, after the opposition UML and primary coalition partner, Nepali Congress, pressed Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
UML and Congress are not pleased with the arrest of their senior leaders and former ministers—Top Bahadur Rayamahi and Bal Krishna Khand respectively—in connection to another case. Now with one of the Maoist senior leaders implicated in the gold smuggling incident, UML and Congress want the prime minister to take strong action, even if that means arresting his own party leader.
These developments have also engendered a palpable schism between the coalition partners Maoists and Congress. However, skeptics argue that the latest commission formed to investigate the gold smuggling incident will not bear any fruit. As history has borne witness, a litany of investigative commissions has been convened to scrutinize diverse incidents and irregularities, without any action.
These encompass tragic occurrences like the Dasdhunga accident and the Royal Palace massacre, as well as inquiries into procurement discrepancies, medical supply mismanagement, land allocation issues, and the procurement of wide-body aircraft. Despite the painstaking efforts of such commissions, the ultimate fate of their reports has invariably been obscurity.
However, retired police officer Hemanta Malla Thakuri contends that the prudent course would be to constitute high-level panels following the culmination of Nepal Police investigations.
“While police investigations are primarily concerned with criminal dimensions, multifarious bureaucratic and political intricacies necessitate a broader investigative ambit,” he says.
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