Friday, January 21, 2011

Can the PA tackle corruption?

January 21 2011

To clean up its image, the Palestinian Authority is moving to stamp out corruption. But can it be enough if the big names are exempt, asks Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is preparing to file formal charges against dozens of current and former officials accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. Critics, however, describe the current campaign as being too little too late, given the rampancy of corruption and the radical -- and destabilising -- work that must be done in order to stem the tide of corruption.

The PA Justice Department has forwarded some 80 corruption files to Rafiq Natshe, head of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA). Natshe said the files contained serious charges of fraud, embezzlement and bribery, adding that intensive investigation would start soon. Natshe said he would pursue and hound suspects "wherever they may be".

"At the moment, we have all the cases, which include some related to cabinet ministers and former ministers," he said.

In 2005, the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, which measures perceived malfeasance among government officials worldwide, ranked the PA 108th out of 195. PA officials claim that the overall corruption situation has improved considerably since 2005.

However, very few corruption cases have made it to the Palestinian justice system and even fewer suspects have been indicted and punished. "The corrupt, including the filthy corrupt, are enjoying their illegitimate wealth and smiling at us in derision," said a former PA official who was tasked with fighting corruption during the Arafat era.

Indeed, most of the so-called "sophisticated cases" have not been touched, either because the people involved are influential government officials or because evidence has been destroyed.

The PA has arrested dozens of suspects so far, subjecting them to investigation on the sources of the wealth they have been able to amass. However, most of these people have been released for unknown reasons.

Reliable sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the PA security agencies warned the PA leadership that an all-out campaign against corruption would seriously destabilise "the Palestinian national enterprise" and hurt the image of Fatah, especially vis-à-vis its arch rival, Hamas.

Not a small number of corruption suspects are affiliated with Fatah, including ministers, director-generals, mayors, and grassroots activists.

In Dura, in south Hebron, one former director-general who was number two at a revenue-generating ministry reportedly took millions of dollars in the form of "commissions, bribes and indirect profits". When confronted by interrogators and reminded he was poor fairly recently, he reportedly said he was the son of a martyr and that the wealth he acquired was legitimate.

Another suspect, also from the southern region of the West Bank, reportedly paid 600,000 Jordanian Dinars in cash for 60 dunams of land he purchased from a local landowner. Prior to occupying his post, as mayor, the man could hardly make ends meet.

Some critics argue that the PA is only pursuing "petty thieves" while ignoring the "big ones" whose names they won't mention.

"How about Suha Arafat [widow of former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat]. How many millions did she receive from the Fatah leadership following Arafat's death? We want to know because these millions belong to the Palestinian people, not her," said a disgruntled Fatah official from Bethlehem on condition of anonymity.

Fatah never disclosed details of the financial settlement with Suha Arafat who, according to some sources, threatened to resort to the French justice system to collect an undisclosed but large sum of money deposited in French banks under Arafat's name. According to French law, only the widow of a deceased person has the right to claim his wealth.

Arafat's widow had lost tens of millions of dollars in failed businesses in Tunisia, especially after falling into disfavour with now former Tunisian first lady Leila Trabelsi. Suha Arafat eventually was stripped of Tunisian citizenship due to bad relations with Trabelsi.

Youssef Rabaie is a veteran lawyer from Hebron specialised in fighting corruption. He told the Weekly that the current anti- corruption campaign by the PA would be credible only if every individual and official involved with the PA was investigated.

"We will soon reach the point where we ask ourselves who will investigate whom? Frankly, the PA is not fit or qualified to investigate corruption. The corrupt can't investigate the corrupt."

Indeed, corruption permeates the entire PA, built as it was on the PLO model where one person, namely Yasser Arafat, took all the decisions and controlled all the money.


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