Foreign Minister sent on ‘Authorized Absence’ as OAG files case in court

With the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) formally filing the Lhakhang Karpo case yesterday morning in the Haa Dzongkhag Court, the government sent the Foreign Minister, Rinzin Dorje, on an ‘authorized absence’.

This was according to both a press release and a formal press conference held by the Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay.

The Foreign Minister is one of the seven accused and charged in an Anti- Corruption Commission investigation into the renovation of the Lhakhang Karpo in Haa. The Foreign Minister at the time was the Haa Dzongda.

The Prime Minister said, “The

Foreign Minister, himself, put up a letter to the cabinet requesting for leave of absence until the Lhakhang Karpo case is in court.”

Lyonchhen said, “There is no legal provision or law in the Constitution or anywhere else for a serving minister to resign, be suspended or go on absence when a case is in court.”

Referring to the Gyelpozhing case Lyonchhen said, “In fact a precedent had already been set by the former government when the former speaker and ministers did not resign or go on absence, but instead served their full term.”

However, the Prime Minister said the cabinet decided to accept the Foreign Minister’s letter and put him on authorized absence to prevent controversy and conflict of interest, especially as the OAG will be prosecuting the case on behalf of the government.

The PM said that this was also done as Bhutan is a young democracy and such a move would set a good precedent and help to strengthen good governance.

In response to a question, the Prime Minister also laid down a tough position on any corruption cases against even the senior most people in the government.

He said, “We have made it very clear to the OAG that any cases involving any member of the government must be prosecuted without any consultation with me.”

Lyonchhen said that when the OAG was taking time to prosecute the case he had, in fact, asked OAG why they were taking time and the OAG had responded saying that their procedures required them to consult with ACC before taking the matter to court.

“When the OAG decided to pursue the case, one of the first things we did was to consult with the ACC on if ACC would like to prosecute the case as the OAG was the lawyer to the government. The ACC said it was okay for the OAG to prosecute the case,” said the PM.

As per Article 17, Section 3 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Prime Minister wrote to and requested His Majesty the King to give the final approval on the stepping down of the Foreign Minister. His Majesty the King gave the final assent.

The Article 17, Section 3 says, “The Druk Gyalpo shall appoint Ministers from among the members of the National Assembly, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, or shall remove a Minister on the advice of the Prime Minister.”

The authorized absence started with immediate effect from yesterday and will be in effect until the case is in court.

In the meantime, as per the cabinet decision, the Prime Minister will be taking over the responsibilities of the foreign ministry as well. All heads of the various departments of the foreign ministry have been informed of the change.

The Foreign Minister who has now stepped down will be a private citizen, and he will be defending himself without any access to state resources.

In the ACC investigation report on Lhakhang Karpo, the Foreign Minister in his capacity as the former Haa Dzongda, had been charged with abuse of function in three cases by ACC.

One issue was in violating tender norms in awarding a bid to a local contractor (who was the lowest bidder) after the tender committee had decided to go for a rebid. The second issue was on misusing the Dzongkhag DCM truck to transfer some of his private timber he procured in Haa to his house construction site in Thimphu. The final issue was on borrowing 17 bags of cement from the project on May 18-23, 2012 to build a private Chukor Mani. The cement was returned to the project after a year on April 27, 2013 after the ACC had launched the investigation.

The Project Manager, Wangchuk Tshering, and the Lhapoen, Lhab Dorji, have been charged with embezzlement in various separate cases. The Project Engineer, Tashi Gyeltshen, was charged with accepting bribes, doing other works, and embezzlement.

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