Supreme Court to hear former Dzongdag Lhab Dorji’s case after his daughter appealed in a viral video 

Rinzin Wangchuk 

The Supreme Court, it was learnt, had summoned both the appellants and prosecutors in the Trongsa controversial land case days after the appellant’s daughter appeared in a video with an allegation of a miscarriage of judgment went viral.

Even as those aware of the case discuss the issue, relevance to past judgments on State land encroachment and transactions are made questioning inconsistency in court judgments.

This arises from the fact that people who encroached and sold acres of State land in Thimphu were convicted with a prison term ranging from one year to more than two years in prison. Even in the infamous illegal allotment of plots in Gyalpoizhing, Mongar, the maximum sentence was two years and six months.

In a recent illegal state land transactions case involving a former Chang gup,  the Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ verdict where the gup was given a concurrent sentence of two years and was asked to pay Nu 90,000 in lieu of his prison term.

The guy was sentenced to one year each for two counts of forgery under Thrimzhung Chhenmo, even after it (Thrimzhung Chhenmo ) was repealed by the Constitution and Penal Code.  As per the court’s ruling, the gup has to restitute 3.72 acres of land to the government and provide a land substitute to the 18 lawful landowners who bought land from him.

Legal experts, Kuensel consulted, pointed out that the charges framed against the gup under Thrimzhung Chhenmo have violated substantive due process of law.   

Contrary to the former gup’s case,  in the formerTrongsa Dzongdag Lhab Dorji’s case,  both the Trongsa dzongkhag court and HC sentenced him to a prison term of five years and six years to his wife Karma Tshetim Dolma and former Drakteng gup Tenzin. They were convicted for involving in land acquisition and substitution during the establishment of the Institute for Language and Culture Studies in Taktse, Trongsa.

They were also charged for processing forged sale deeds through Karma Tshetim with the intent to claim land substitute at Nubi gewog where she had later constructed a resort after the Department of Survey and Land Records (DSLR) in 2007 approved the substitution.

Both Lhab Dorji and his wife were convicted for four counts of forgery. The former Chang gup was convicted for three counts of official misconduct.

A lawyer pointed out that looking at the charges against Lhab Dorji, the highest imprisonment provided by the two lower courts were not more than three years indicating that when the sentence is provided concurrently, it cannot go up to five years. “We don’t know the case background, but there is an error in sentencing,” a practising lawyer said.

Seizure of properties

Court verdicts on the seizure of properties are also being questioned as details of cases emerge and people start comparing.

For instance, both the lower and high courts directed the OAG to confiscate immovable property, constructed illegally by another former Chang gup, on State land in Olakha, Thimphu and then reimburse Nu 36.410 million (M) to the building owner. The court also asked the building owner to pay a fine of Nu 287,496 to the government.

Kuensel learnt that the OAG confiscated the building on December 15 and the final handing taking took place on December 26. One of the tenants said that OAG asked them not to deposit their rents to the former building owner’s account. “We received a notice from OAG yesterday stating that the flats we are residing in have been seized by the government as part of judgment execution,” one tenant said.

In the Trongsa case, the HC ruled that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was not responsible for any compensation for the Viewpoint Resort Lhab Dorji’s wife constructed citing that the land was a “proceed of corruption.”

The trial court ruled that “if the charges framed against Karma  Tshetim was not true and if the court passes the verdict in her favour,” the ACC will have to pay Nu 300M and take over the resort. The court also stated that ACC will have to pay an annual income of Nu 6.5M from the resort with the addition of banks’ loan interest per annum from the date of ACC’s freeze notice until the court proceeding was over.

Judiciary questioned

A video clip on the controversial Trongsa land case, which was uploaded on Facebook by Lhab Dorji’s daughter, Upel Dakini,  on December 7 seemed to have won the sympathy of netizens after she questioned the justice system. The video was removed after a few hours but had gone viral.

In the video, uploaded a night before the highest appellate court was supposed to pronounce its ruling on December 8, Upel Dakini expressed her grievances and challenged all the stakeholders for criminalising innocent land buyers and letting conspirators go scot-free.

In the 10:36 minutes video,  she claimed that her parents did not get a fair trial that has resulted in the miscarriage of justice.

Although the video has disappeared, it is still a topic of hot discussion among people. People play the clip that they had saved earlier. “I am fully convinced what she expressed and indicated there are two laws in the country,” a woman in her mid-40s shared in an informal group discussion.

What provoked her to upload a video clip despite knowing that her parents’ appeal case was sub judice at the SC?

Upel Dakini refused to comment.

Kuensel learnt that the SC had informed both the parties to report to the court at 9.30 am on December 8. Her parents were represented by two lawyers, who sensed that their appeals were dismissed.  “The court normally summons defendants when the court passes its decision,” a lawyer said.  “For our clients’ case, the SC had just conducted a miscellaneous hearing and not taken our submissions.”


Appeal process

The sole purpose of an appeal is based on the premise that “every human being is fallible, and a judge is not an exception” and judges can err or commit mistakes resulting in a wrong decision, a lawyer, Sonam Tshering wrote in an article which this paper published.

The appellate courts are there to rectify such errors or mistakes. “Thus, the right to appeal is only a legal right to the extent permitted by the law,” Lawyer Sonam Tshering stated.“Generally, the right to appeal is limited around the world. But in Bhutan, the right to appeal is almost automatic.”

A court official said that the appellate court determines whether there was an error in the judgment passed by the lower court. “If it didn’t warrant a further review, the appellate court at its discretion can dismiss the appeal,” he said.

The SC dismissed former Chang gup’s appeal after conducting a miscellaneous hearing. Some aggrieved parties said that the appellate court should have given an opportunity to Lhab Dorji to submit his grievances against the lower court ruling.