Thursday, November 24, 2011

On bringing charges against Ambassadors

As I See It Column
The Independent
M. Serajul Islam
November 19, 2011

Yet another Ambassador has come to news for the wrong reasons. This time it is not a case of sexual harassment for which two Ambassadors were in the news not too long ago; one a career diplomat while another, a political one. The career diplomat is back in Dhaka and now working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The political one is merrily carrying on with his duties and responsibilities. No action has been taken against him.

Our Ambassador to Vietnam, a career diplomat, has been charged with corruption, allegedly committed while he was a Minister (an officer of the rank of a Joint Secretary) in our Embassy in Turkey. A case against him has been registered in the Ramna Thana by the Anti-Corruption Commission.

The Ambassador has been alleged to have misappropriated Taka 2.19 lakhs by claiming he brought a car to Dhaka from his post in Turkey while in fact, he did not. He has also been accused for siphoning Taka 12 lakhs from the Mission’s secret fund and Taka 3.18 lakhs from the Welfare Fund. The information of his alleged misconduct has been revealed in the media that the Ministry of Foreign Ministry has not contradicted. Therefore, it can be assumed that so far as the charges are concerned, the newspapers have reported correctly.

There are a number of issues here that are matters of concern. The allegations have been made public about an officer who is not in the country. He has been appointed as an Ambassador by the President, following the recommendation of the Prime Minister. He is at the moment representing the interests and more importantly, the honour of the country abroad. An Ambassador in his post represents in his person, the sovereignty of the country.

An Ambassador posted abroad, is as much subject to the laws of the land as any other citizen of the country. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the same procedure should be followed with an Ambassador as with those in the country. The reason is as much a matter of the law as one of common sense. A little explanation would be useful why this is so.

Take the case of the Ambassador in Vietnam. As soon as the case was filed against him in the Ramna Thana, the matter must have been communicated by the Embassy of Vietnam in Dhaka to its government. What will be his status in Vietnam now? Will the Vietnamese Government deal with him with honour and with respect? More importantly, what will happen to the image of Bangladesh in Vietnam? The answers are all negative that impact the country much more than the Ambassador.

This is why the case of the Ambassador in his post should not be the same as someone in the country while applying anti-corruption laws. There are various options available to the Government in dealing with Ambassadors in the same predicament as is our Ambassador in Vietnam at present. There is a critical need of delicate handling in such an allegation. If the ACC considers such a case so serious that the government cannot defer action, the Ambassador should be recalled and the matter dealt with while he/she is in the country and not in his post. It is also equally important that such a matter should be handled discreetly to protect the image of the country.

There are a few other intriguing aspects in the case of the Ambassador in Vietnam. First, the allegations date back to 2007. Our Embassies are audited regularly every two or three years by the office of Mission Audit under the CAG. Therefore the allegations against him must have been known in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time he was considered for his appointment. Why was it overlooked then? Second, some allegations against him appear to be objections raised by Mission Audit. Such objections by Mission Audit are a common fact of life for our diplomats and are settled routinely and regularly at the time he/she claims pension against the Taka 40 lakhs pension settlement to which an officer of MFA is entitled these days. It is virtually impossible for an officer to escape such objections of Mission Audit.

The allegation against the Ambassador for defrauding money from the secret fund is different. It does not appear to be one made by Mission Audit. A mission’s secret fund is handled by the Ambassador or one acting as an Ambassador, a CDA. A secret fund is given to a mission head to be spent at his discretion for which he/she is not answerable to any authority for reasons of secrecy. Such a fund is placed at the discretion of the Ambassador purely on trust.

It appears that the charge of defrauding the secret fund is based on information of intelligence. Given that Turkey has a Defense Attaché who reports to the DGFI and not to any other Ministry or department, this allegation against the Ambassador may have originated there. It is common knowledge at MFA that due to personal problem between a head of mission and his defense attaché, such allegations are widespread. In fact career Ambassadors consider themselves lucky to be posted in a mission that has no defense section.

Finally, the allegation of claiming money for transportation of a car seems a weak one because an officer returning to Dhaka from a post abroad is not entitled to such a claim. Such a claim, if the Ambassador had indeed made one, would have been detected when he settled his transfer bill. In any case, this is not a big issue at all and could have been easily settled by putting an audit objection and initiating a disciplinary action against him.

During the Caretaker Government, when the ACC was in the hands of a chief who wanted to change our characters to make us honest, our Ambassadors were subjected to such actions by the ACC. An Ambassador in his post was humiliated and almost sent to jail. The diplomat fought and has since been able to quash all allegations against him but after years of litigation. The allegations against him were proven in the court to have been wrongly and vindictively initiated. Nevertheless, the good image of the country was compromised then. The Ambassador suffered years of anguish not to speak of the amount of money he paid his lawyers.

ACC today is under much saner authority. The allegations against the Ambassador in Vietnam appear to be such that all of these could have been handled better through consultations between the MFA and the ACC without compromising the law in any way. It seems that there have been no such consultations.

At MFA, things are hardly the way it should be. One Ambassador after another is coming into news for accusations ranging from sexual harassment to corruption. It is therefore of imperative need that the matter of appointing an Ambassador should be treated seriously than has hitherto been the case. Equally important is the need of consultations between the MFA and ACC in dealing with allegations of corruption against Ambassadors not for any leniency for the Ambassadors but for sake of the country’s rather fragile image abroad.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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