Tough laws and its consequences

It is said that the best of intentions combined with the wrong means can lead to the worst outcomes.

In Bhutan’s case, this saying would be applicable to how we come up with laws, even in this day and age, to deal with a host of issues.

The most infamous was the Tobacco Act of the past which criminalized smokers until a new amendment was made. If not for the Royal Intervention many people would still be behind bars.

Now the much tougher Narcotics Act is leading to much higher and longer levels of imprisonment for even minor drug offences. It is well known that jails are places where minor offenders can go in and come out as hardened criminals.

In Bhutan even murderers and rapists get away lightly compared to those who steal religious artifacts. However, as tough as the laws are, it does not seem to have the required deterrent effect with an ever increasing number of chorten vandalization cases. The number of vandalization cases seems to be increasing with the numbers of people going behind bars for long sentences. It is perhaps time for a more comprehensive strategy to deal with such a sad development.

It is also time to ask if we want to be like some societies that jails a large proportion of its population.

Another example would be a National Assembly resolution of the past mandating all print media to carry a Dzongkha version. This resolution has not helped Dzongkha due to the limited capacity of the private media.

This paper has been one of the biggest and most consistent supporters of the Anti Corruption Commission, especially in its most difficult period.

However, the same ‘tough laws to solve problems’ approach also seems to have been applied in certain clauses of the amended 2011 ACC Act.

One such clause is the commercial bribery section which in two sections gives a vast and vague definition of commercial bribery in the private sector that can be applied liberally and vaguely to all kinds of situations. Then the zinger is that it can lead to an imprisonment of up to 15 years based on value based sentencing.

One application of such a vague clause was suggested by the ACC to the OAG for fronting cases. This would mean that all future fronting cases where the amount involved is equal to or above the three year minimum wage will result in imprisonment of up to 15 years.

However, the ground reality is that Bhutan has 40,000 business licenses and a fair number of them are let and sub let by small businessmen and women making a small income even in rural areas. This is illegal and so there are adequate trade laws that cancel such and all other licenses, impose a Nu 10,000 fine and prohibit future licenses. This is all fair so far but now the ACC also wants to imprison such people under ‘commercial bribery.’

At this rate Bhutan may have to convert its Dzongs into massive prisons to accommodate the thousands of small time and mainly illiterate business folk who let out their licenses.

The irony is that the real damage to the economy is not done by some dingy bar run by Dawa on the license of Nima but by Industrial fronting where large quantities of rupee and dollars leave the economy for very little gain. Now here everyone from ACC onwards seems to be making no headway.

We have to question ourselves whether it is wise to cultivate a ‘holier than thou’ attitude in a system which will then be alien to ground realities and willing to turn innocent citizens into overnight criminals for the slightest infractions.

If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.

Louis D. Brandeis

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