When the Bank of Mauritius joins the Game

Going by the fate recently inflicted on the preceding Governor of the Bank of Mauritius, Mr Rundheersing Bheenick, one cannot look with relish the prospect of being appointed at the helm of our highest institutions.

It may be recalled that Mr R Bheenick was appointed Governor of the Bank in 2007 in replacement of Mr R Basant Roi whose contract had come to term in 2006. On 27th December 2014, Mr Bheenick was asked by the President of the Republic to vacate his position “with immediate effect” notwithstanding that his current contract was to expire in 2016. He complied and was replaced by Mr R Basant Roi.

47 days after Mr Bheenick vacated his office, that is, on Thursday 12th February 2015, the quasi-eve of the weekend, a statement was made to the police by one of the high-ranking officers of the Bank of Mauritius to the effect that Mr Bheenick would, at the time of his departure from the Bank of Mauritius on 27th December 2014, have taken away certain ‘confidential papers’ of the Bank and that this action involved a ‘breach of confidentiality’ and, by stretching this accusation to its limits, also involved a case of larceny.

It is uncertain from reports whether the accusation of larceny pertains to these papers or a filing cabinet of the Bank of Mauritius — not a safe proper as it was alleged – in which Mr Bheenick took away his personal effects on being asked to quit the Bank and which he said having returned subsequently.

It is for a court of law to establish whether there was any such breach of confidentiality, it having been rumoured that the papers in question have to do with those of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), a committee which Mr Bheenick has been chairing since 2007. As such, Mr Bheenick is privy to all the papers and is normally in possession of them as an MPC member. He is presumed to be fully knowledgeable about their contents for having vetted them before their release to other members of the MPC. In such a case, which confidentiality would he be breaching?

It would be interesting to know whether other members of the MPC have been under a duty to return their MPC papers sent to them or, rather, whether they have enjoyed the trust of their office for keeping them safely to themselves and not giving out publicly, as it befits anyone appointed to that position, the contents of the papers sent to them for the meetings.

If the mere possession of such papers amounts to ‘breach of confidentiality’, all other MPC members could be accused of the same ‘breach of confidentiality’ as it was the case for Mr Bheenick in the statement made to the police by the officer of the Bank of Mauritius 47 days after Mr Bheenick left office.

It can even be presumed that some of the overseas members of the MPC – there have been two or three of them at least – were also sent those papers subject of the Bank of Mauritius’ current plaint to the police, by electronic means. In such an event, how did the Bank of Mauritius act to ensure that the ‘breach of confidentiality’ being reproached to Mr Bheenick in particular in the police statement of Thursday 12th February 2015 did not materialize in their cases?

We have to know, since electronic documents can be multiplied at will and there was more reason to keep this trail under vigilance. Was there such an absence of trust that the papers sent electronically to those members for the MPC meetings self-destructed after the meetings?

Not many persons having a modicum of self-esteem would have accepted such a level of mistrust and agreed to form part of the MPC. So, we need to know: which precautions were taken in their case for ‘breach of confidentiality’, other than having made everybody sign up formally to keep confidential not only the papers entrusted to them but the proceedings of the MPC as well?

On the strength of the plaint lodged by the Bank of Mauritius against Mr Bheenick for being in possession of ‘property’ belonging to the Bank of Mauritius, police arrested him and obtained a search warrant for his premises. During the search of his premises, the police came across some amount of foreign exchange denominated in different currencies estimated by the police to amount to Rs 1 million. It was immediately reported in the media that the foreign exchange so obtained involved ‘money laundering’.

Now, money laundering relates to a case where a person transforms the proceeds of crime into a lawful official channel to legitimize them. For example, when a drug dealer having obtained cash from sales of forbidden drugs converts such proceeds from the illegal drug activity into a deposit with a bank, it amounts to money laundering, big or small amounts.

According to Mr Bheenick appearing in the Bail and Remand Court on Tuesday last after his detention overnight in the popularly perceived notorious hardened criminal Detention Facility referred to as ‘Alcatraz’, the latter stated that the foreign currency found in his premises were from his purchases made from the Bank of Mauritius itself relating to ‘per diem’ when on foreign missions. Official purchases of the sort from an institution like the Bank of Mauritius have nothing to do with ‘money laundering’.

In the week just preceding the statement after a delay of 47 days by the officer of the Bank of Mauritius against Mr Bheenick to the police, there was a public unfolding of the sums that had been found in the coffers seized at the residence of former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam. Amongst others, police had reportedly found a packet of banknotes bearing the seal of the Bank of Mauritius. Some conspiracy-theory minds immediately interpreted that the sealed banknotes would have gone directly from the Bank of Mauritius to the ex-Prime Minister, in a weird attempt to set up a link between the two. Then there came the Bank of Mauritius statement to the police on 12th February 2015, resulting in the arrest of Mr Bheenick on Friday February 13th.

According to those in the know, the linking-up of the two matters can only be considered as the figment of a fertile imagination of someone having no real knowledge of how banknote transactions are carried out in Mauritius.

The laid-down procedure, we are told, is for the Bank of Mauritius to deliver its own sealed packets of banknotes to commercial banks when the latter call on it for an order of banknotes. The commercial banks can either break the packets so obtained to deliver banknotes in small quantities to their private clients or hand over whole packets to private clients, still bearing the seal of whichever bank – including that of the Bank of Mauritius – delivered the packets in the case of transactions involving a large amount of cash, such as at month-ends.

The Bank of Mauritius has currency dealings solely with the Government and commercial banks, which are its clients and has no such dealings with private companies or single individuals.

This episode showed that when the imagination soars to brutal heights, it can dress up unrealities as real.

In the case of Mr Bheenick, he was released on bail on Wednesday last after having been charged by the police on three counts, i.e., ‘larceny in receipt of wages’, ‘possession of stolen property’ and ‘money laundering’. Even if the Counsels representing Mr Bheenick succeed in making the case that the charges against their client were based on flimsy grounds, much harm would have been done still. It is not only the individual Rundheersing Bheenick who would have, like others before him, gone through the trauma of arrest, detention and pain; the institutions they formed part of will not go unscathed.

It is a sorry spectacle we are witnessing the damage being done as much higher than the joy, psychologists say, some derive by inflicting unnecessary suffering on others. The only consolation would be that if Mr Bheenick emerges unscathed from this episode, he will, just like Pravind Jugnauth in another case, emerge even stronger, we hope.

* Published in print edition on 20 February  2015

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