Top politicians struggling with past baggage

Headline Politics

All three political parties – Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Druk Nyamdrup Tshogpa (DNT) have issued party tickets to candidates who had cases pending in the court of law before election

When the Thimphu dzongkhag court’s criminal bench I convicted Home Minister Sherub Gyeltshen to two months in prison for claiming false vehicle insurance worth Nu 226,546, many observers were quick to point out that he is not the first elected minister to find himself on the wrong side of the law.

A couple of elected leaders from both DPT and PDP also found themselves in a thick legal soup. Is the trend an indication that political parties do not seem to hesitate to nominate candidates who could potentially be indicted by the courts of law?

The first case started with former National Assembly speaker Jigme Tshultim from the DPT camp. He was given a prison term of two-and-half-year by the Monggar district court on March 3, 2013, for official misconduct, fraud, forgery, and deceptive practices in connection to the Gyalpozhing land scam. He was guilty of illegally allotting plots to 23 individuals during his term as the Monggar Dzongda and Chairman of the Plot Allotment Committee in 2001 and 2002.

Along with him, former Home Minister Minjur Dorji was given a year of imprisonment for the offence of official misconduct in allotting plots during his tenure as the Monggar Dzongda in 2005 and 2006 and also as the Chairman of the Plot Allotment Committee. However, both the former ministers completed their term.

The second case started after the second elections. This time it was the PDP. Former foreign minister Rinzin Dorje was acquitted by the Haa court back in 2015 for the Lhakhang Karpo case and convicted to a year in prison when it reached the High Court for misusing the dzongkhag DCM truck to transport his private timber from Haa to Thimphu. However, the Supreme Court acquitted the former minister. He was removed from his post and he served as an MP till his tenure.

Former Minister Ngeema Sangay Tshempo resumed office and took over the official functions as the Minister of Labour and Human Resources from June 20th 2018. Since 5th January 2018, he was on leave of absence, while the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) investigated various training programs of the ministry. He had volunteered to stay on leave while the investigation was being carried out in order to ensure independent investigation by the ACC.

OAG charged the former labor minister for false declaration of assets, deceptive practice, official misconduct and larceny by deception.

However, all eyes are on DNT and the Home Minister as the Thimphu dzongkhag court’s criminal bench I convicted Home Minister Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen to two months in prison for claiming false vehicle insurance worth Nu 226,546.

According to what have transpired until now, the two former ministers of DPT government ended their political career after they were convicted, but they did not resign nor the government suspended them during their court trials, but the PDP government suspended their foreign Minister and the labor minister after they were entangled in lawsuits in the Lhakhang Karpo and overseas program cases.

Those, therefore, following politics closely, are wondering what would transpire out of the home minister’s case? Will the home minister be suspended by DNT?

Way back in 2015, DNT, in the case of foreign minister, in their press release, stated that the suspension of the foreign minister should have come earlier. “Therefore, question that one could ask ourselves is: Why did the PDP government wait for this action to be taken only after the court verdict that cleared the Foreign Minister of corruption?” asked the release. “We could ask why PDP nominated him in the first place as candidate and then as a Minister?”

Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering said, “How do you see that, how do you prove that? Until proven guilty, you are fine. ECB will not allow if they are convicted. Party should not choose or elect corrupt people candidates. For that matter you as a Bhutanese should not vote for corrupt people.”

Gopilal Acharya, a freelance journalist, said since the home minister has been incriminated for a criminal offence, the continuity of his service is now questionable unless the courts of appeal overturn the verdict.

He said Lyonpo Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen had not been indicted when he joined politics although the case had reached the courts. Therefore, the ECB had cleared him.

He added: “Candidate Sherub Gyeltshen was still innocent at that time, and he was a winnable candidate. That’s why DNT gave him the party ticket, and he won the constituency for them. The party took a chance, like other parties did in the past, and there is nothing wrong in that. This is a universal trend, and it proves there is no moral space in politics. Winning is what matters in elections. Aspirations of moral uprightness, incorruptibility, grace, dignity, and integrity in politics remain a distant dream.”

Seeking anonymity, a senior Member of the Parliament said political parties have to take the responsibility to ensure that their candidates do not have any adverse records. The election laws state that candidates should be scrutinized for their background when parties file their nominations, and it’s clearly stated that no candidate should be nominated with a case pending in the court of law, especially a case that is potentially criminal in nature. “I am surprised how the election commission failed in their scrutiny,” he said.

He added that during the second parliamentary election in 2013, the Lhakhang Karpo case had already been registered in the court and yet the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) issued clearance to the PDP candidate. “Parties have to take full accountability and the ECB needs to do its scrutiny exercise as thoroughly as possible. If the due processes of the law are followed such problems should not surface later on,” he said.

Nim Dorji, a graduate from one of the universities in Bhutan, said it would be difficult to assess every candidate’s past backgrounds unless they have a case with OAG or ACC. But the ones which have case with the ACC or court shouldn’t be allowed to contest in the elections.

“It is deeply saddening to see when the elected candidates who are trusted by the voters are being convicted. Be it small or big, once convicted, they should be deprived of privileges in the elections. I can only say that they shouldn’t be allowed to contest,” he said.

A 28-year-old civil servant currently studying abroad said, “As a youth, the news come as a shock and even frustrates me. We grew up following these people, we heard of their dedication in serving the country and they were the role models. But when something as this comes to light, it comes as a big dismay. On the same point, I am wondering how many others could be there with the same illegal practices but system covers them as a powerful people.”

“Is it that if someone doesn’t declare their interest in politics, they will be spared? Home Minister Dasho Sherub’s case came to light like a coincidence. I am not sure but it’s completely my perception. And the question that bothers me is, “Was this politicized? Would this case gain the highlight if he hadn’t joined politics?” Looking at this, I am counting on how many other powerful people would have gone out of the net and are spared because they have no hand in politics. To be short, while I applaud the work of the ACC and all others involved, I am also concerned about how it works internally. It should benefit the entire people and the country. If there be any cases as this, we can’t wait to take advantage and disclose too later, we need to act out quick,” he added.

And as a voter, he said it’s a big question of trust for the politicians. “My interest for vote is with lots if expectation and if it is failed like now, the hopes are down in the drain and what more can we expect?,” he questioned.

Another keen political observer said, “‘I think there are enough legal instruments in place to keep convicts away from politics. Those convicted after joining politics come in as ‘clean’ individuals. The fact that individuals are convicted after joining politics and assuming ministers’ portfolio should be celebrated. Elsewhere, this is next to impossible.”

Meanwhile, ECB said they have no comments on the issue.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu

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