Eight immigration officials of Paro International Airport could face criminal prosecution for allegedly embezzling visa fees.

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is yet to review the investigation report the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) forwarded last month for probable prosecution. OAG officials said that the prosecutor, who is assigned to the case, would review the ACC’s findings and recommendations and submit it to the screen corpus to determine whether it merits for prosecution.

The Commission recommended the OAG to charge the eight immigration officials for committing the offence of embezzling government funds amounting to Nu 7.278 million (M) collected as visa fees. ACC’s investigation covered alleged misuse of funds from January 2013 to June 2017 at the immigration office in Paro.

The investigation found that of the total embezzled amount of Nu 7.278M, Nu 2.464M was deposited into the government account prior to the commission’s investigation. Among the eight officials, messenger Sonam Dorji is alleged to have embezzled Nu 5.815M. Other officials involving four assistant immigration inspectors, a senior immigration inspector, administrative assistant and senior IT associate are implicated for embezzling Nu 0.032M to Nu 0.537M.

The commission found that three officials had not deposited the visa fee collections into the government account despite receiving collections from other immigration inspectors.

Other five immigration inspectors were found to have collected the visa fees from foreign nationals but had not handed over the cash to the dealing official to be deposited into the government account.

The investigation also determined that the Department of Immigration (DoI) had printed 500 booklets of visa fee receipts (coupon) of 100 pages each. On December 6, 2012, DoI had issued the coupons to the immigration office in Paro.

These coupons were issued while collecting visa fees from foreign nationals (without gratis visa) entering Bhutan through Paro International Airport. Each coupon leaflet was valued at USD 40 each totaling to USD 4,000 a booklet. However, from August 01, 2014, Paro immigration office started collecting the fees in equivalent ngultrums amounting to Nu 2,500 as per the Foreign Exchange Regulations 2013.

The commission found that 13 booklets corresponding to 1,300 coupon pages were missing. While crosschecking, the commission established that 692 coupon pages had been misused out of the 1,300 missing coupon pages. Considering that the Immigration Office, Paro had already adjusted 300 coupon pages from the missing lot prior to the commission’s investigation, the actual missing coupons misused is found to be 392 pages amounting to Nu 980,000. However, in the absence of key documents (coupons), the commission was not able to find the perpetrators to fix accountability for the misuse of 392 missing coupons.

The immigration office in Paro collects fees from foreign nationals excluding tourists, gratis visa holders and regional visitors. Some of the common visa fees collected are from a personal guest of Bhutanese citizen and foreigner residing in the country, official guest of government agencies, civil society organisations, religious bodies and international organisations, business guest of private and corporate houses, and an employment guest of any employer in Bhutan.

The immigration office also collects fines and penalties from foreign nationals in addition to the visa fees, in the event of any violation of immigration laws.

The issue surfaced through two internal audits by the home ministry between June 2015 and March 2017. The ministry’s disciplinary committee later went through the findings of the two audit reports. Home secretary then lodged a complaint of suspected embezzlement of government funds by officials of immigration office for ACC’s intervention.

The commission recommends restitution of the embezzled amount along with 24 percent penalty from the eight charged officials.

This is the second case the ACC has investigated immigration officials in official misconduct. Following the conviction of 27 immigration officials both by the Phuentsholing drungkhag and Chukha district courts, the home ministry’s human resource (HR) committee terminated them without benefits in February 2016.

They were sentenced from one year to three years imprisonment for their involvement in bribery and illegal entry and exit of foreign workers in 2013 and 2014. Seven immigration officials were given non-compoundable prison term of three years each.

Immigration officials were found guilty of tampering public documents and receiving bribes. The officials had tampered with information in the immigration system and established bogus receipts to aid expatriate labourers, whose work permits had expired, pay less penalty.

Rinzin Wangchuk