KATHMANDU- Sagun Thakurathi and his friend swiftly entered Chhabiram Kafle’s room and placed Rs 30,000 on his table for what they said was a “khaja kharcha”. Surprised by the proposal, Kafle, a non-gazetted officer at Kathmandu District Administration Office, requested them to leave his office, taking the money with them. But they did not listen and exited quickly. Kafle, who was in a hurry to do up some of the remaining things for the day as he wanted to return home early to celebrate Teej, tried to reach them on their phone, without success.
Kafle says he put the money into his desk-drawers and was thinking about returning it to them. But no sooner had the bundle of money been kept inside than a squad deployed by the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority entered Kafle’s room and arrested him on the charge of bribery, and seized the money.
Investigators checked the marked money and compared it with a photocopy of the notes, which they had made earlier–the notes, according to the CIAA officials, constituted bribe. This was not the first time that the CIAA had homed in on Kafle.
Thakurathi, who was facing a case at the Kathmandu DAO on the charge of illegal arms possession, had earlier complained to the CIAA that Kafle was seeking bribes in return for settling his case. Following Thakurathi’s request, the CIAA provided Rs 30,000 to Thakurathi–the money that was offered to Kafle, in order to catch him red-handed in the act of taking a bribe.
Kafle was not the only target on CIAA’s crosshairs. Over the past few months, dozens of junior-level civil servants have been taken into CIAA custody after it carried out sting operations “to control corruption”. The CIAA considers sting operations as the most effective tool to combat bribery. In most cases, the CIAA provides marked money to the person who has been asked to pay a bribe. When the bribe is paid, the CIAA arrests the bribe-taker, in possession of the marked money.
The CIAA often conducted such operations in the past, but in their early years they targeted big fish–politicians and ministers’ aides–when they asked service-seekers for bribes. Lawmaker DB Karki and then Forest Minister’s Personal Assistant Nagendra Yadav, the personal secretary to the then Forest State Minister Laxman Mahato, were caught red-handed with the technique.
But the stings they conduct today, say experts, are of a slightly different nature. They are not guided by a standard ethical code, nor are they regulated by certain standards of operation. The CIAA admits it is conducting such operations randomly, on a daily basis.
They can do so, according to CIAA officials, because Article 30 of the CIAA Regulation allows them to.
The Article has a provision that says the “CIAA may provide bribe to service seekers if required”. The regulation, however, lacks standard procedures for telling whether the case is genuine or one designed to frame an individual.
There are two courses of action that the CIAA follows when initiating sting operations: either service-seekers approach them with complaints and they act on that lead, or they deploy sting squads after individuals whom they suspect of taking bribes. Once they determine their target, the CIAA provides money to service-seekers, install CCTV camera at the target’s office or relevant premises, conduct the bribe deal, and pounce, television cameras in tow, and take the official into custody after rechecking the marked money.
But there’s a fine line between what constitutes a legitimate sting operation and what constitutes an act of entrapment.
For their part, CIAA officials say they know how to tread that line. Shreedhar Sapkota, CIAA spokesman, says the anti-graft body carries out such operations only after they have conducted a thorough background check on the targeted officials. “Then we study the case and try to examine the relation between the two parties, official and service-seeker. If things don’t pan out, we do not initiate the operation,” says Sapkota.
Because the CIAA believes in the efficacy of sting operations–they believe nothing comes close for producing evidence and dragging the accused to court–the CIAA has come to rely almost exclusively on sting operations. And it’s not just at the centre. Their regional offices have also been directed to adopt similar tactics in their working areas, and the central office aims to arrest at least one person each day.
In fact, Sapkota sees nothing wrong with what they are doing. “Such operations are useful in discouraging corruption. We need to create fear among culprits in society,” says Sapkota.
Those charged in bribery cases, however, beg to differ. They argue that they were either lured into receiving bribes or tempted into corruption.
Refuting the bribery allegation, Kafle has defended himself against the CIAA’s charges, at the DAO. In his conversation with CIAA investigators, Kafle said Sabin Thakurathi was solely responsible for making sure he was arrested and that the CIAA should interrogate Thakurathi instead for details about the case.
“Bring him here and ask why he left abruptly after placing the money on my desk. If you were to allow me to frame anyone, I too could do it easily,” said a visibly riled but confident Kafle, in a recorded video, before his arrest.
On the basis of similar operations, the CIAA has rounded up dozens of junior-level civil servants and many of them have been taken to court thereafter. Low-ranking employees have been terrorised after the anti-graft body intensified operations targeting them. According to the law, civil servants are automatically suspended from their positions once they are accused by the CIAA.
So is there a way to check corruption by sticking to fair means of trial? Based on their experience, anti-corruption experts suggest that absolute care must be taken when trying to haul in corrupt officials.
“Sting operations are useful provided that they do not amount to entrapment,” says Bertrand de Speville, former commissioner, Independent Commission against Corruption, Hong Kong. Bertrand, an experienced corruption prosecutor who has handled cases across the world, is in Kathmandu to assist anti-corruption bodies in Nepal. He stresses the need for working within protocol while dealing with corruption cases.
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