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PA urges patience as corruption inquiry drags on

July 11, 2011 5:10 P.M. (Updated: July 19, 2011 1:54 A.M.)
RAMALLAH (Ma’an) -- The Palestinian government in Ramallah says it is committed to accountability and transparency.

But a week after its anti-corruption unit announced that the legal immunity of several ministers had been removed to make way for charges, the PA has indicated that its investigation is far from over.

"Removing immunity, according to the law, is when there are people to be taken to court and not when they are questioned," said PA spokesman Ghassan Khatib, in a statement.

"So far, there are no lists of charges and no judiciary measures."

Khatib's remarks follow a flurry of media reports detailing the expected charges against PA ministers accused of corruption, as well as calls for the judiciary to question ministers and hold them accountable.

A number of ministers are accused of financial and administrative mismanagement, unfair hiring policies, and pilfering ministerial budgets for their own use, according to the head of the anti-corruption unit.

Rafiq An-Natsheh says President Mahmoud Abbas supports the move to strip ministers of their immunity.

The names and number of officials being investigated are being kept under wraps, but his unit announced in January it was investigating 80 cases of corruption and had already recovered $5 million from former officials.

The Palestinian anti-corruption law was ratified by Abbas in 2010, billed as a major step toward transparency following a series of corruption scandals and the dismissal of his chief of staff earlier in the year.

For now, however, the government can only affirm that it "will remain a supporting factor that reinforces accountability and transparency in order to achieve justice and facilitate the work of the judiciary," Khatib said.

Others in the PA are calling for a speedier and more transparent process.

Head of the public sector workers union Bassam Zakarneh believes AMAN, a joint initiative of several Palestinian civil society groups seeking to combat corruption, has itself covered up some findings.

According to Zakarneh, the coalition received a complete corruption file implicating a PA minister on February 21, 2009. Yet, it has still not transferred the file to the judiciary.

Zakarneh urged Salam Fayyad, the premier in Ramallah, to suspend the ministers implicated in the file because "keeping them in their posts gives them a chance to continue their corruption practices."

Azmi Shieibi, the head of AMAN, said his organization received no such evidence.

It is not clear when the PA will announce the findings of its investigations but the delays could be explained, in part, because of the difficulty in stripping ministers of their immunity if they also serve in parliament.

Second deputy to the parliamentary chief Hasan Kresheh said some former ministers facing corruption charges would first have to go before a court to remove their parliamentary privilege of immunity.

Kresheh called for the names of the officials accused of corruption to be disclosed following the investigations, and urged judges to punish corruption no matter the position of the accused.

One Palestinian official, meanwhile, is calling for more extreme measures.

Health Minister Fathi Abu Moghli suggested executing any cabinet member found to have embezzled public funds: "Even if it is one penny, execute them in public squares as an example," he said.

Abu Moghli himself was the focus of a parliamentary committee corruption investigation, which recommended in June that the minister resign due to financial and administrative violations.
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