Home Minister’s case: will the govt. walk the talk?

Home Minister’s case: will the govt. walk the talk?

The High Court upheld the lower court’s verdict on the fake insurance claim, convicting the home minister and three insurance officials of the Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan Limited (RICBL) on October 9. The home minister’s conviction has in particular raised a lot of questions on whether the ruling government would take action to remove him from the cabinet considering the existing laws in place.

Home Minister Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen was convicted to two months’ imprisonment for claiming false vehicle insurance worth Nu 226,546.

Legal provisions from the acts

Section 179 of the Election Act of Bhutan states that a person shall be disqualified as a candidate or a member holding an elective office under the Constitution, if he or she has been convicted for any criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment.

National Assembly (NA) Act 2008 under section 14(c) says, “A member of the National Assembly shall be disqualified if the member: is convicted for any criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment.”

Article 23 sections 4(c) of the Constitution, states that, “A person shall be disqualified as a candidate or a member holding an elective office under this Constitution, if the person is convicted for any criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment.”

Background of the case

The minister’s Toyota Prado had met with an accident. He dealt with an official of the insurance company where his car was insured and they manipulated the claims.

Similar cases

During the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) tenure, former Foreign Minister Rinzin Dorji was accused in the Lhakhang Karpo case which happened when he was the Haa Dzongda. He stepped down from his minister’s post despite being acquitted in 2016; the PDP government still chose to not reinstate the minister.

The PDP government also asked the former Labor Minister to step down when the ACC was investigating the overseas employment case.

Home Minister and Speaker of the DPT government could not contest in the 2013 elections as they were convicted in the Gyelpozhing land scam case by the Supreme Court.

But the scenario is different in home minister, Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen’s case; neither did he step down during the court trials nor did the government of the day order him to step down despite being convicted by the district and the High Court.

When former foreign minister Rinzin Dorji of PDP was accused in the Lhakhang Karpo case back in 2015, DNT party back then in their press release stated the PDP government’s decision to remove the foreign minister would have a positive impact on the efforts to root out corruption in the country and DNT welcomes the move. “Any form of corruption is an impediment to the nation’s progress, particularly, political corruption at the highest level of the government can be detrimental to the health of Bhutan’s young democracy,” the press release stated.

Further, DNT also questioned why then was the foreign minister in the first place nominated as a candidate and then as a minister. The case was similar to the current nomination of the home minister since the insurance case had happened before the minister joined politics but DNT, before the 2018 polls, had opted to stick with him despite the case.

“This contradictory decision is a demonstration of the weakness of the executive and poor judgment of its leaders,” the DNT press release has also stated then.

And now when it comes to DNT’s minister being convicted, the government does not want to comment since the case is still with the court. The government also did not take any action against the minister.

Business Bhutan interviewed obsevers about what they feel about the case and many felt that he should step down on moral grounds and the government should follow what PDP government then did with former foreign minister Rinzin Dorji. However, many opted to be anonymous for fear of consequences.

A keen political observer said, “If we look at the political precedent, the previous government made a bold decision by removing former foreign minister Rinzin Dorji when he was embroiled in an alleged corruption case. The DNT also welcomed the move, citing that political corruption at the highest level of the government can be detrimental to the health of democracy. Now, it becomes imperative for the ruling DNT government to walk the talk by taking a decision that is befitting to its stand on political corruption.”

He also said that the home minister has been convicted by the Dzongkhag court and the High Court. While there is space to appeal to the higher appellate body, from a moral and political perspective, the onus falls on the DNT government to act in accordance with its political beliefs.

A civil servant requesting anonymity said that he always had the highest regard for the home minister before he entered politics. “For a small amount, he has tarnished his image. He made fraudulent insurance claims. And the law clearly states that once someone is convicted of his/her crime by any court of law, he/she cannot stand election or hold public office instantly.”

“Sadly, with him he dragged in several people and the most affected seems the people in the lower posts, who were just following their senior’s orders. They were hit harder. Terminated from job, defamed in public and the most extreme jailed for a year. If such a precedent is set, the richer folks will never see doing wrong as a crime but instead only a brush with the law. Actually, I would like him to be punished severely to set an example so that our laws are stringent to all citizens. Talk has been going around that anyone convicted by the court must instantly give up any public position for some time. It’s pathetic and sad to watch how the rule of law is implemented in our country,” he said.

PDP’s General Secretary Jigme Zangpo said the party has no comments.

Meanwhile, General Secretary of DNT, Phurba said that the party has not yet said anything and the home minister should be given a chance to prove his innocence.

Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering said currently he is in quarantine and has not been able to meet his cabinet ministers. “I will personally meet the Home Minister and other cabinet ministers and discuss the issue,” PM said. 

MP of Bartsham-Shongphu Constituency Dr. Passang Dorji (Phd), said on the question of exhausting the due process of law, there seems to be legal interpretational problems surrounding ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘guilty until proven innocent’. “There is a high risk of governments interpreting the two interchangeably, depending on the profile of cases,” he said, adding that the first argument indicates that a person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but is not clear if all the due processes of law have to be exhausted up to the verdict from the Supreme Court. “The second argument implies that a person remains guilty if some lower courts have pronounced so until proven innocent following the exhaustion of the due process of law.”

“The two arguments seem to be fighting for a victory. Therefore, the problem seems to be an open interpretation of the constitutional provision, ‘A person charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in accordance with the law.’”

“About the government’s action or inaction on the Honorable Home Minister, the ball is in its court and whatever it decides will set precedence and have implications for the country’s governance. Any political government must act based on the principles it wants other political parties and political governments to follow. Anything short of it questions the government’s integrity and credibility,” he said.

Meanwhile, Home Minister Sherub Gyeltshen said that he has already appealed to the larger bench of the High Court. “If the Supreme Court verdict does not favor me then I will resign,” he said.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu