Authorities say probe into fake rescue scam in final stages

  • Amid concerns that high-profile individuals are embroiled in the scam, the Prime Minister’s Office has ordered to speed up the investigation
- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

Feb 14, 2019-

Key authorities that have been assigned to investigate into the multi-million dollar fake rescue scam that has rocked the country’s tourism industry are “close to releasing details,” officials told the Post, as travel and trekking agencies gear up for the spring Everest climbing season next month.

In interviews with the Post, officials at three government agencies—Health Ministry, the Central Bank and the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of Nepal Police—said that the Prime Minister’s Office has ordered them to complete their investigation as soon as possible. The instruction to speed up the probe from the highest office in the government comes amid concerns that high-profile people have been involved in the scam and they have been derailing the investigation process.

Meanwhile, Traveller Assist, the international medical assistance company that has come under the CIB’s radar after aggressively courting—and threatening—the government and private companies in Nepal, has warned the Tourism Ministry that it will name all 10 people and 18 companies and release all of the evidence against them if they fail to take action by February 15. “If they don’t, we go public,” the company said on Twitter this week.

Among three government offices, two agencies—Health Ministry and the Central Bank—said they have already completed their internal investigations. The CIB, which is responsible for filing criminal cases against the fraud companies and individuals, is leading the probe.

In July last year, the Tourism Ministry clamped down on massive insurance fraud hatched by powerful brokers in trekking and mountaineering agencies in Nepal which involve bogus helicopter rescues and hospital treatment of tourists.

On July 30 last year, a government fact-finding committee submitted a 700-page probe report to Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari. The committee had investigated 10 helicopter companies, six hospitals and 36 travel, trekking and rescue agencies following complaints filed by tourism entrepreneurs.

The report said that many of these travel agencies and rescue companies have been found to be involved in dollar transactions without central bank’s approval.

Out of six hospitals that were probed, Swacon International Hospital, Era Health Centre, CIWEC Hospital and Vayodha Hospitals, are being scrutinised for quoting exorbitant rates and making claims against tourist insurance policies. Two hospitals—Grande International Hospital and Norvic International Hospital—are being investigated over whether they have followed “medical ethics” when examining a clinical case.

Three helicopter companies Heli Everest, Manang Air and Air Dynasty Heli Services are also under investigation for quoting exorbitant rates.

The committee report recommended that the government investigate the transactions of eight agencies: Kailash Charter Rescue, Alpine Rescue, Mountain Heli Charter Service, Eagle Heli Charter Service, Easy Heli Charter Service, Flight Connection Domestic, Mountain Rescue Service and Himalayan Social Journey Trekking—all of which provide chartered helicopter service for trekking and rescue operations.

The government has not made the report public yet, but details in the report were leaked to some media outlets in September.

Neeraj Shahi, chief of the CIB, told the Post that details provided by the central bank and the Revenue Investigation Department suggest misuse of US dollars and taxes.

“We are yet to receive some more details. Once we get them, we will launch an investigation and proceed for action,” Shahi said.

A team led by Dr Guna Nidhi Sharma, under-secretary at the Health Ministry, had submitted an internal investigation report to Secretary Dr Pushpa Chaudhary two weeks ago.

“As we are not the responsible ministry to take action against the hospitals, the report will be sent to the Tourism Ministry soon with necessary recommendations and actions,” said a senior official at the Health Ministry.

The Health Ministry has made a five-point recommendation, including setting up an upper limit for treatment cost and regular monitoring of the hospitals. Bhishma Raj Dhungana, chief of foreign exchange management department at the Nepal Rastra Bank, said that the CIB had asked them to provide all the details related to the foreign currency brought into the country by at least 25 travel and rescue agencies.

“We have already submitted their bank details to the CIB,” he said. “We cannot immediately say whether these companies brought funds through legitimate sources or not. Since the CIB is leading the investigation, they will be the ones to bring out the truth.”   

A majority of the helicopter rescues are conducted during the April-May period when hundreds of thousands of adventurers travel to the Khumbu region to try their luck to summit the world’s tallest peak.

In an interview with the Post, Krishna Prasad Devkota, secretary at the Tourism Ministry, said that since the investigation committee’s report has already been sent to concerned agencies, it is now up to them to initiate action.

In a report published in the Irish Independent on Sunday, Devkota told the paper that the number of rescues had fallen since the fraud was exposed. But he acknowledged that high-profile people were involved in the scam and were being investigated by police and tax authorities.

Devkota also told the Independent that Nepal’s “political instability may be hampering the progress and that his own job could be on the line.”

When asked about his admission to the Independent reporters that he might get sacked, Devkota told the Post that his department had completed its work and that he no longer feels any pressure. The Post’s repeated attempts to call Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari failed.

Lakpa Sherpa, a high-altitude guide, told the Post that if the government did not act promptly to settle the issue, it could be damaging for the country’s adventure tourism.

“My client from Malaysia raised concerns last year that insurance premium for Nepal was too high,” said Sherpa, who is also an instructor for high-altitude climbing guides. “If the insurance fraud is not controlled, it will put Nepal in a ‘high risk’ zone. This will increase premium. High premium obviously means tourists will stay away.”

Arpan Shrestha, Bibek Subedi and Arjun Poudel contributed reporting.

Published: 14-02-2019 12:04

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