Judiciary: With reconstruction of Lhakhang Karpo in Haa nearing completion, the curtain finally fell on the controversy of corrupt practices and abuse of functions related to the lhakhang’s conservation project.

The Supreme Court (SC) on July 28 overturned the High Court’s ruling and exonerated both appellants: the former foreign minister Rinzin Dorje and former project manager Wangchuk Tshering, affirming the lower court’s verdict.

The SC verdict stated that Rinzin Dorje, who was initially charged for embezzlement of public property, used the dzongkhag DCM pool vehicle to transport his timber from Haa to Pamtsho in Thimphu, as per the finance ministry’s circular of January 13, 2000, which allowed a civil servant to use pool vehicles under pressing and emergency personal needs.

It also stated that the circular was issued by the government and hence it was the government’s notification and order. It was not proven that Rinzin Dorje had breached or violated the government’s circular and that he had intentionally resorted to embezzling public property.

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) also sought an interpretation of the word “emergency” and to hold the defendant liable for administrative sanction only and not as initially charged in trial court for misuse of public property. The prosecutor, according to the SC verdict, also requested the appellate court to issue a guideline relating to use of pool vehicle to curtail misuse of public property in future. “Therefore, Rinzin Dorje could be liable for only administrative action,” states the SC verdict, which has reversed the High Court’s ruling completely and ordered the parties to enforce the Haa court’s judgment.

Reversing the Haa court’s ruling, the High Court’s Bench I on September 3 last year convicted Rinzin Dorje to a year in prison for misusing the dzongkhag’s pool vehicle 10 times to transport private timber between July 2011 and June 2012 when he was the then Haa dzongdag.

He was also imposed a penalty of Nu 111,640 which was based on a finance ministry circular, which states that unauthorised travel beyond the duty station will entail a fine of Nu 1,000 and three times the mileage at the prevailing government rates. The court ruled that transporting private timber in a pool vehicle was not an emergency but a violation of laws.

The Member of Parliament from Shompangkha constituency then appealed to the SC on the grounds that he had transported the timber in strict compliance with the rules and norms established by the government and submitted that the objective of the circular must be ascertained by the court.

The Haa court dismissed the second charge of embezzlement of public property against MP Rinzin Dorje based on the finance ministry’s circular. The court however asked the former minister to restitute Nu 4,166 to the government for being unable to produce two receipts for fueling the vehicle.

OAG’s prosecutors argued that the transportation of private timber to be construed as an emergency by the lower court was beyond the scope of its definition.

The SC also stated that the finance ministry’s circular pertaining to the use of pool vehicle was not specified or defined for emergency needs. Hence, the court directed the relevant agencies to specify and define emergency use for the convenience of the public servants to use pool vehicles and notify accordingly.

The misuse of pool vehicle by Rinzin Dorje was found when the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) investigated the Lhakhang Karpo corruption case from October 2012 to April 2014. The commission found that Rinzin Dorje and his subordinates on his instruction had signed the movement orders of the DCM truck.

The SC also dismissed the High Court’s ruling and acquitted the former project manager of Lhakhang Karpo conservation project, Wangchuk Tshering. The High Court’s Bench II on October 27 last year convicted Wangchuk Tshering to a year imprisonment for waiving off woola (labour contribution) for his relatives and neighbours. The court established that Wangchuk Tshering had waived off woola for 12 households and issued receipts amounting to Nu 44,330 for work not done.

The Haa court on June 23 exonerated Wangchuk Tshering justifying that the court could not establish he had a ‘criminal intent’ to embezzle funds.

Dissatisfied with the district court’s verdict, the OAG appealed to the High Court on August 10 to review the lower court’s judgment and consider a criminal liability against the former project manager. The prosecutors submitted that the OAG was not satisfied and convinced by the lower court’s ruling for accepting adjustment made by the defendant by reflecting the 15 names of his relatives and neighbours in the muster roll, without engaging them in the project as woolaps.

Rinzin Wangchuk