The year started with good news! Bhutan climbed up a spot to make to the 26th position among 180 countries in the global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2017 that the Transparency International (TI) released.

Bhutan had occupied the 27th spot consecutively in the previous two years.

The chairperson of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Kinley Yangzom, then said that the improvement in the ranking was a result of concerted efforts of all stakeholders including the top leadership, the government, general public, media and Bhutanese people in fighting corruption. “ACC remains grateful and is further encouraged and motivated by Bhutan’s improved rank and score,” she said.

However, the ACC cautioned that Bhutan is not immune to corruption risks and that the rank and the score is not a solace as advanced countries are also equally vulnerable to new forms of corruption risk. “Thus, it is important to sustain the current momentum of fighting corruption and remain united against the social menace – corruption towards realising the goals of Gross National Happiness,” the ACC stated.

Just as cautioned, the ACC had to take up the Trongsa land case when the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) dropped it. The OAG claimed that while reviewing the ACC report on the case, they did not find merit to initiate criminal proceedings. ACC then charged all 10 people accused to the Trongsa dzongkhag court and requested the court to restitute the 4.70 acres of land under Nubi gewog, on which the wife of former dzongdag Lhab Dorji has constructed a resort.

The case is still under trial.

In a landmark case of the year, ACC detained the project manager of Buddha Dordenma Image Foundation, Damcho Choden, popularly known as Anim Damchoe on June 11 for suspected possession of “unexplained wealth.”

Her arrest and investigation were based on Section 60 of the Anti-Corruption Act 2011, which empowers ACC to investigate disproportionate assets and income he or she possesses.

After detaining her for 59 days, ACC released her.

Anim Damchoe was alleged of possessing multiple bank accounts and several movable and immovable properties.

The former nun is also alleged for project fund diversion, fraudulent practice in tourism business and tax evasion. The ACC has issued a freeze notice on immovable properties registered in Damcho Choden’s name against any transaction. The commission has listed six properties – three dry land in Sarpang and Thimphu and three buildings in Thimphu and Punakha. ACC also froze transactions for two building registered in her brother Ugyen’s name and one Sonam Yangzom in Guma, Punakha. ACC’s freeze notice shall remain effective until the commission revokes it by superseding the order or upon the completion of legal proceedings, whichever comes earlier.

The chairman and founder of the Buddha Dordenma Project suspended Damcho Choden indefinitely from work on August 6.

ACC then charged her, as the proprietor of Lhaimetog Export and Import, and its chief executive officer and her nephew, Younten Jamtsho, for alleged evasion of Nu 21.296 million in tax between 2009 and 2017. Younten Jamtsho and his staff allegedly falsified and significantly undervalued its export invoices and in many instances even directed its foreign customers to wire transfer the money to the personal accounts of Lam Tshering Wangdi, Anim Damcho Choden and his own account.

However, it was ACC that came under public radar after the High Court altered the judgment of the military court in Lungtenphu for 15 army officers and nine non-commissioned officers (NCOs). The high court acquitted 11 officers and seven NCOs and reduced sentences for four officers and two NCOs. The court cited a lack of corroborative evidence and failing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt .

The ACC appealed to Supreme Court against the HC’s acquittal judgments but dropped cases against a Major and a Lt. Colonel reasoning that there was no corroborative evidence. The military court convicted both the officials for embezzling desuung funds but HC acquitted them.

Dropping the case against the two officers raised eyebrows, as people questioned if ACC could drop the case when it was followed until the HC.

Many also questioned if ACC had the right to appeal, as the commission is the investigation agency and not a prosecutor. It has created a legal anomaly with some legal practitioners calling it illegal and some saying it has created procedural issues.

Observers also pointed out that while section 128 of the Anti-Corruption Act mandates the commission to pursue the case if the prosecutors delay the case without a valid reason, manipulate it, or hamper it by interference, this case did not meet any such criteria.

When the Bhutan Employment Overseas (BEO) issue came to light, many parents wanted the ACC to investigate the case but the commission only called for the cancellation of trade license of BEO, the agent for the controversial overseas employment programme in Japan.

The commission’s investigation report implicated former labour minister, Ngeema Sangay Tshempo, director general (DG) of the department of employment and human resources, Sherab Tenzin and programme officer Ugyen Tashi in the overseas employment programme in Japan and India, for engaging in unethical practices that are construed as corruption in accordance with Anti-Corruption Act 2011.

The commission, however, stated that they would not investigate, as it has administration lapses and no elements of corruption.

While ACC continues to remain under public radar at home, the dog year, however, ended with Bhutan ranking 25th, moving another place up on the corruption perception index, 2018.

Tashi Dema