Seychelles’ anti-corruption chief reappointed, says another case of missing $350m up for investigation


Seychelles’ anti-corruption chief reappointed, says another case of missing $350m up for investigation

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. In addition to setting up the ACCS,  what would you say were your successes so far?
MDS: We have been able to implement a school programme that is ongoing. Prevention is something that we will continue and we are working with the public sector to educate them about corruption. We will never be able to eliminate corruption entirely but we want to remove corruption from the public sector.
We have also started bringing cases to court and in fact, we were supposed to bring our fourth case to court this year.
Our programmes were delayed by the COVID pandemic and this included amending certain laws which were part of our plans for the past 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. As the institution is new, we have to see where there are weaknesses in our laws when putting them into practice.
We have never investigated corruption cases in Seychelles before. The police relied on the Penal Code. Now we have 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 international legally binding convention on corruption.
Seychelles ratified it in 2006 and it is only 10 years later that we set up local laws of which some sections will have to be strengthened such as recovering 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 laws dealing with money laundering, and so on, are sent to the National AML-SEFT (Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism) group. There is a list of laws that they look at and this is one that they will have to review. It is not a question of wanting more power, but rather to be more effective.
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 follow what the law allows us.
We will also look into consolidating the declaration of assets as ACCS just received the responsibility of taking care of the declaration of assets. We have to do some work on the respective laws and bring our points to the government.

De Silva said it will take some time to eliminate corruption in the country but ACCS will continue to evaluate by reviewing our 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 on the other cases to help with the current one. Soon new cases will be going 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 will continue with our investigations. With our education programmes, people are more aware of what constitutes a corrupt practice and they report them to us.
It will take some time to eliminate corruption in the country but 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.
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.
The information we have on the case is what the Bank of Baroda gave us in 2020. It took us some time to analyse the information that we had just received and we also had information from the Central Bank.
This case is like a jigsaw puzzle and we are still sifting through the information we have. We have taken a multi-sectoral approach to look through the information for this case and a team of 12 people is working on it. Given the option, I would like to have 100 people working on it.
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 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, 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.
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 shift my focus. Yes, we have been hit by the public who criticised the institution for not doing anything. We continued our work, although staff are 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 pressure. 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 ESAMLAC 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 find gaps in our laws and 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 have 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 that people who have been in power 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.  

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 investigation 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 at the time. 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. You must have a plan. So you ask people to come to you, however, if you see there are witnesses or suspects who do not come forward for any case, 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 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. 

Source: Seychelles News Agency