Seychelles' anti-corruption chief reappointed, says another case of missing $350m up for investigation
May De Silva's contract has been renewed for another five years. (State House)
(Seychelles News Agency) - The contract of the Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission of Seychelles (ACCS), May De Silva, has been renewed for another five years.
The ACCS was established under the Anti-Corruption Act 2016 which gives it authority to investigate, detect and prevent corrupt practices. It is a self-governing, neutral and independent body that is not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority.
SNA spoke to De Silva to learn more about the organisation's successes and future plans.
SNA: Congratulations on your re-appointment. What would you say were your successes so far?
MDS: Our biggest accomplishment would be the establishment of this institution. There was previously no institution looking at corruption and money laundering and people who practice corruption.
The second would be our prevention programme. This is an important aspect of our mandate which includes prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution. This has been a great success. We have been able to implement a school programme that is ongoing. Prevention is something that we will continue and we are now working with the public sector to deliver workshops to educate them about corruption. We will never be able to eliminate corruption entirely but we want to remove corruptive practices the public sector.
The third one is that after establishing these programmes we have started to bring cases to court this year. In fact, it was always our plan to bring cases to court in our fourth year but the pandemic caused some delay in our work. It also affected our prevention programmes as well as our work on amending certain laws However, we have achieved everything we set out to achieve in these first five years.
SNA: Does that mean that the Commission is already set up or are there more laws and more powers that you will require?
MDS: It's important for people to understand that it is not a question of needing more powers. The institution is new, we will only see where there are weaknesses in our laws when putting them into practice.
We have never investigated corruption cases in Seychelles before. The police used to rely on the Penal Code, ‘stealing by a public servant’. We have now set up an institution to specifically investigate corruption, so that means that we are only now testing the laws in place.
The laws we are working with should be in line with the United Nations Convention on Anti-Corruption. There are many articles of that convention that we will have to adopt. It is an important one because it is the only internationally legally binding convention on corruption.
Seychelles ratified it in 2006 and it is only 10 years later that we set up local laws, some sections of which will have to be strengthened, such as recovering assets and ill-gotten gains from corruption. There are many weaknesses in this law that are only apparent after putting it into practice.
This is a review that the government will have to do and the ACCS will form part of the consultative process. All the financial legislation dealing with money laundering, corruption and so on, are sent to the National AML-CFT (Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism) Committee. There is a list of laws that we look at and this is one that they will have to review. It is not a question of wanting more power, but rather to give us the ability to be more effective in our work.
SNA: What other plans does the ACCS have for the future?
MDS: One of our important plans is to look at enforcement in the public sector. We will soon be appointing an enforcement officer who will look at the policies and procedures, a function given to us by our law.
We will also look into consolidating the declaration of assets, a responsibility assigned to ACCS in April last year. Here we will be working on reforming the service, modernising and digitising it rather than going to each institution and filling forms which you have to find somewhere to store for five years.
|De Silva said it will take some time to eliminate corruption in the country but ACCS will continue to evaluate progress by reviewing their statistics at the end of the year. (Rassin Vannier, Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY|
SNA: Apart from the major corruption case currently in court, are there any others the ACCS is working on?
MDS: Our investigators are completing the cases they are working on to bring to court. We do have some limitations as we had to remove some of our investigators working on the other cases to help with the current one. Soon new cases will be brought to court.
SNA: Are the cases that ACCS is working on only on corruption done in the past or will there be new ones?
MDS: We have some historical cases that took place before the anti-corruption laws came into place in 2016. We also have some that happened after and we are proceeding with these investigations. With our education programmes, people are becoming more aware of what constitutes a corrupt practice and they report them to us after the sessions.
It will take some time to eliminate corruption in the country but it is work we continue to evaluate by reviewing our statistics at the end of the year. Prevention is the most important part of our work and will help reduce cases eventually. The international index at the end of the year reflects this, that we have the infrastructure in place for the fight against corruption.
SNA: In the current corruption case involving the missing $50 million from government accounts, it seems that the ACCS is a bit slow in handing over evidence. Is it only now that you are receiving the evidence?
MDS: In the news last week, it was reported that the Chief Justice said ACCS should give more information. Since we started working on this case in 2017, we have asked people who had any information to come forward but not many people came forward.
Progress on the case really started in February 2020 with the bank statement of the account the Bank of Baroda gave us. We then entered the year of COVID and it took us some time to analyse the information that we had just received. Prior to that we had been working on information received locally from the Central Bank.
This case is like a jigsaw puzzle and there are still some bits missing, we have an evidential team of 12 sifting through the information we have. I have our own team of 15 local people and 9 international staff assisting us. Given the option, I would like to have 100 people working on it. We have 100,000 documents to sift though and collected a lot of evidence in the searches and arrests we have made. This was not voluntarily offered.
SNA: You have mentioned a lack of manpower but the ACCS is working with other prosecutors instead of the AG's Office, doesn't that show that you are not on the same wavelength?
MDS: You would like to think they have more manpower but keep in mind that all police cases go to the AG's Office every day. The AG’s office is also giving legal advice to all government offices that have their own cases.
In Seychelles, we also have a huge lack of prosecutors and at the ACCS we have a vacancy for one that has not been filled for over a year. We have been unable to do so because financial crimes, economic corruption and money laundering are specialised fields that we need to address here in Seychelles.
We will also have to bring in prosecutors with the expertise to assist our local prosecutors who are not experienced in money laundering or corruption laws and other laws concerning financial crimes. This is a challenge we are facing nationally. It is about the independence of the institution. There are other cases we also collaborate with the AG’s office on.
SNA: Do you think the renewal of your contract has anything to do with the $50 million case going to court?
MDS: That was purely coincidence, the renewal of my contract had nothing to do with it. We were ready to take this case to court in December 2020 as we had enough information to do so. But we had delays with our consultants who were unable to enter the country due to the pandemic. We had a timetable to bring the case to court earlier, maybe even in November. It is just the setbacks we had, nothing to do with my mandate.
If we were not ready, we would not have taken this case to court. You cannot base an investigation or arrest on the end of someone's mandate. You know that every year when I go before the National Assembly, I am constantly asked about my cases. I could not give them the information because this was not the strategy.
SNA: Are you feeling pressured by members of the public and politicians to produce results where this case is concerned?
MDS: I cannot look at it as pressure because I have always justified why this is taking time. I rather saw it as a distraction but that did not shift my focus. Yes, we have been hit by abuse from the public who criticised the institution for not doing anything. We continued our work, although staff were demoralised as they knew they were working hard but could not reveal what they were doing. For us, the pressure was the work itself and administrative limitations. But I must say that there were members of the public who understood what we were doing and supported the ACCS.
SNA: The ACCS seems to be getting more powerful by the day with no entity overseeing its work. Don't you think that it is a dangerous situation?
MDS: This institution is being regulated under international laws. We have the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) of which the regional body ESAMLG looks at our laws. ESAMLAC (Eastern and Southern Africa Money Laundering) looks at not only our laws but our institution and how we do our work. So our oversight is on an international level. They will find where there are gaps in our laws and where we are not compliant.
I also have to report to the National Assembly at any time to ensure that there is no abuse of power. I am an accounting officer at the ACCS and the Auditor General also looks at everything we do. While some may say that there are malicious intentions in the targets of our investigations, we have seen in history who the people are who have been in power and have the ability to abuse their power. Here we do neutral work, we do not look at political colours or gender or anything else. If someone has committed a crime, this is what we look at. We are an independent institution, which I feel is very important. We are managing integrity in the country.
|Mukesh Valabjhi (3rd left) and wife Laura were the first two suspects arrested in the case of the missing $50 million. (Rassin Vannier, Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY|
SNA: Is the $50 million case the beginning of a series of other transactions that have happened in the past?
MDS: There are other transactions that we have to look at. This case is leading us to other investigations, other avenues.
There is a payment of $200 million that we are going to investigate that happened before 2002. There is also another loan of $150 million in 2002 that we will also have to investigate. These irregularities are things that have come up as a result of this ongoing case.
When we are looking at it, it's more than $50 million that went missing so we are not calling the case the missing $50 million case. Now that this information has been made public in court, this case is called the Black Iron project. We will now have to talk about the Black Iron project as there is more investigative work that we will need to carry out on other transactions that have been made. The transactions that took place were all governmental.
SNA: Will other people be arrested in the future as a result?
MDS: We have gathered evidence in connection with some of those already involved but there is a possibility that new suspects will be arrested in connection to the missing $350 million. This is a new investigation we will be undertaking.
SNA: Why didn't the ACCS interrogate Mukesh Valabhji between 2014 to 2015 when the missing fund was announced?
MDS: The information came out in 2015 during the elections. The Ministry of Finance was also looking for the information at the time. They wanted to confirm whether it was true that funds had disappeared. ACCS was established in 2017 really and that is when I was appointed.
President Danny Faure at the time asked that we begin the investigation into the case. There is a strategy for holding an investigation and how you collect the information which you must follow. You must have a plan as well. So you ask people to come to you, however, if you see there are witnesses or suspects who do not come forward, you must plan how to approach the investigation. We cannot rush if we do not have enough information or intelligence gathered. We also had to decide for each case at what point to arrest the suspect and at what point we interview witnesses.
SNA: Former president James Michel who was also the Minister of Finance when the funds went missing and obviously in a position to give orders has not been arrested. Why did ACCS not call him for questioning?
MDS: This is a question everyone asks us. There is a perception that we did not call in all witnesses or suspects. We do our work and don’t focus on these issues. This does not mean we did not have a conversation with those who form part of this investigation.
We will not talk about it but there are things that will be revealed in court. It is important that we do not look at these distractions and interview all those concerned with the case. The information is coming in and people will see all of it later on.