By R. Laxman
The latest saga in the run up to the polling date in the present electoral campaign is the most illegal disclosure of the bank accounts of the former Prime Minister. The government party has denied having anything to do with the disclosure. One of its members has even stated that the disclosure of bank details is very damaging for the reputation of the country. That statement is quite ironical because the leader of the government party and outgoing Prime Minister is making full use of the disclosures which he patently knows are illegal. In fact, the outgoing Prime Minister has been commenting on the disclosures by enjoining the public to judge the former Prime Minister. What if the opposition were to ask the public to judge his government’s decisions in relation to what is known as the Serenitygate’s financial aspects?
That banks owe a duty of confidentiality to their customers is a well-known principle. It is on account of that principle that the citizens of this country as well as foreign investors trust banks when they invest their money in such banks. Were it not for that sacrosanct principle, banking or financial development would be a near disaster?
Under the Banking Act, as it was amended in 2018, confidentiality in relation to bank accounts has been strengthened. It is a serious offence under the Banking Act for a person, who is in possession of unauthorized bank details of another individual to publish them either in written or electronic form. The penalty may go up to one million rupees’ fine or three years’ imprisonment. It is a defence for the publisher, when the publication is in writing, to surrender the materials to the Central Bank. It is also a defence, where the publication is done electronically, if the person deletes everything and surrenders the information to the Central Bank.
How did the confidential information come into the hands of presumably political opponents of the former Prime Minister? Following the discovery of a huge amount of money at the residence of the former Prime Minister, an investigation was initiated with a view to ascertaining whether the money amounted to illicit wealth under the Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Act.
Under that legislation, the Integrity Reporting Services Agency has the power following a judge’s order to access the assets, including bank accounts of an individual. Once the Agency obtains the information, procedural rules apply on the manner in which the investigation is carried out. Under no circumstances is the Agency allowed to make public the information so obtained.
Information may be exchanged between the Integrity Reporting Services Agency and the Independent Commission Against Corruption as under the Prevention of Corruption Act or the Financial Intelligence and Anti-Money Laundering Act offences like corruption or money laundering fall within the province of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
There is no doubt that the Integrity Reporting Agency had possession of all information on the bank details of the former Prime Minister as it seized all the money found at his place for investigation. The Mauritius Commercial bank, the bank where the account was held, issued a statement that it had released the bank details of the former Prime Minister to the relevant authorities for investigation. Which authorities is the Mauritius Commercial Bank referring to? Is it the Integrity Reporting Agency? Is it the Independent Commission Against Corruption? Or both?
Whatever be the case, the blunt fact is that the release of the bank details of the former Prime Minister into unauthorized hands for electoral and political purposes could have been done by one or more of the authorities that are empowered to investigate illicit wealth and money laundering and corruption. Unless a whistleblower at the Mauritius commercial Bank did it.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption has released a statement that it is not behind the release. The Integrity Reporting Agency has remained silent. If the police were in possession of the bank details, a statement from the Commissioner of Police who is constitutionally mandated to act independently would be most welcome.
The fact that bank details of political opponents can readily be accessible and used for political purposes qualifies Mauritius as a rogue state. The fact that the outgoing regime condones such an act by publicly commenting adversely on the bank details suggests that it does not care about the rule of law. Does the end, that is staying in power at all costs, justify the means? The fact that institutions that are supposed to be independent and above party politics are suspected of acting as agents of the outgoing regime is very alarming and disturbing.
What happened and is happening is no encouragement for foreign investors to readily invest in Mauritius if there is the risk that for a political motive their accounts may be readily accessible by rogue politicians and their stooges.
* Published in print edition on 25 October 2019