OAG reviewing land case dating back to 1970s

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is reviewing one of the oldest and most complicated cases the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has investigated so far.

The case involves the alleged criminal misappropriation of 11.75 acres of government land by a businessman in Chukha.

It took more than seven years for the commission to conclude that a businessman settled in Gedu, Chethey, was able to claim land in Emalakha in Bongo gewog as belonging to his mother-in-law given flawed judgments being passed by both the higher and lower courts. Both courts reportedly passed verdicts based on wrong or tampered evidence.

The investigation found that the land at Emalakha as claimed by Chethey was actually called Emalaktshen and belonged to Aum Dema, the wife of former finance minister Chogyal. Since the land was registered as tsamdro (pasture), it was taken over by the livestock department in 1982 and Nu 46,511 was paid for a wooden structure, which was constructed in 1975, as compensation to Dema’s son.

The land, which is located below the Thimphu-Phuentsholing Highway, about 115km from Thimphu, housed the Emalakha Calf Rearing Sub-Centre until 1989.

Later, the forest department took over the area and the Gedu range office developed the area by planting trees.

In 1998, the land was leased to Jai Prakash Associates by the government during the Tala Hydropower construction to establish a stone quarry, dumping site, workshop and godown.

Today, the remnants of a Jai Prakash store and workshop, including a two-storey building remain.  Chethey is alleged to have inherited the building and other structures on the plot in lieu of rent or lease charges from Jai Prakash when the company terminated its work at Tala.

The commission conducted its investigation from July 2009 to September 2016 after receiving a walk-in complaint along with documentary evidence, alleging that the High Court had passed the land dispute judgment in favour of Chethey’s wife, Choden. The complainant stated that Chethey used a description of the same location for the government land occupied by Jai Prakash.

During a cadastral survey in 2003, the land in question could not be formalised since the Gedu range officer refused to sign a clearance stating that the land belonged to the government. Consequently, Chethey filed a case against the agriculture ministry before the Chukha dzongkhag court on behalf of his wife, alleging that the forest department denied land clearance despite it being registered to his mother-in-law.

The court on November 24, 2008 ruled in favour of Chethey based on a false declaration submitted by Chethey. The defendant then appealed to the High Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling on April 21, 2009.

While scrutinising the judgments ACC found both courts passed verdicts based on the court order issued for transfer of thram in Choden’s name on November 11, 2003.  Surprisingly, the investigation revealed that there were several flaws in the court ruling. For instance, November 11 is a public holiday, during which all government institutions were supposed to be closed and the judge would have attending the celebrations, instead the court passed a judgment allowing the transfer of land from Choden to Tshering Pelden.

ACC also found that even the official letter head used for the judgment was the Chukha court’s whereas the case was registered at the Phuentsholing dungkhag court. Tshering Pelden told the investigators that he didn’t attend the court hearing at all as he was outside the country pursuing his studies. He also stated that he had not authorised anyone to sign on his behalf.

However, Chethey had conceded that he signed on the behalf of both the parties worrying that the total area may exceed the permissible limit. The investigation also revealed that there was no such land registered in the name of Sonam Choden or Choden as clarified by the National Land Commission secretariat. ACC charged him on two counts of forgery.

The commission implicated Chethey on two counts of perjury for submitting a false declaration to the lower and higher courts, stating that the land at Emalakha could not be registered during the cadastral survey in 2003 as the Gedu range officer refused to give clearance. In 2002, Chethey requested the same plot as land substitute for his 50-decimal plot at Dzongtoe Lamme Dram, which he claimed was taken by a DANTAK quarry.

ACC’s investigation also found that Chethey submitted an application to Jai Prakash on February 1, 1999 informing them that the company had occupied his land without his prior consent and asked them to fix a nominal rent. He also stated that if the company is not interested in paying rent, they can leave the structures when the project winds up. After remaining silent for more than five years, Chethey submitted another application in May 2004 to the dzongkhag requesting for help to get buildings and a water supply system.

ACC implicated him on four counts of deceptive practices as he deceived the authorities including the dzongkhag administration, Jai Prakash Associates, Tala Hydropower project and the National Environment Commission with intention to enrich himself. He wrote letters causing them to believe that the land belonged to him and raised the issue of claims against the land, which in reality was government land.

He was also accused of deceiving the dzongkhag and survey officials that his land was not surveyed during the detailed survey of 1988 as the surveyors had left the survey site when he was busy with a survey in Bunakha. He claimed that till 1989, the land in question was managed by his parents and he started looking after it only in 1991-92. “This is because Chethey knew that associating with and taking responsibility would implicate him,” ACC’s report stated.

The commission also recommended the prosecutor to restitute 11.75 acres of land to the state and Chethey to rehabilitate the area as per the existing laws of the country.

The report stated that the case extending into the 1970s made investigation difficult in terms of finding documents and locating key witnesses. About 29 individuals, including 14 witnesses were summoned and 44 interrogations were carried out.

Rinzin Wangchuk

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