Two Nepal ex-ministers among 30 charged in US-bound refugee scam

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepali prosecutors have charged 30 people, including two former cabinet ministers, with corruption in a case involving faking documents for Nepali nationals to enter the United States as Bhutanese refugees, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

Former Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand, former Energy Minister Tope Bahadur Rayamajhi and Tek Narayan Pandey, a former home secretary, the most senior bureaucrat in the ministry, were among 16 people detained earlier this month who have since been charged.

Police are searching for 14 others who were charged in absentia.

Lakshman Upadhyay Ghimire, a spokesman for district attorney's office, said 30 people including the former ministers had been charged with "cheating, organised crime, document forgery and state offence".

The case was registered at Kathmandu district court after police investigated allegations that they had collected huge amount of money from hundreds of Nepali nationals promising to send them to the United States for resettlement as Bhutanese refugees.

"If found guilty they could be jailed for up to more than 15 years," Ghimire told Reuters.

None of the accused could be reached for comment. Some have denied wrongdoing in the past.

About 120,000 Bhutanese nationals of Nepali origin have fled the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to Nepal since the early 1990s, demanding more political freedom in the majority Buddhist country of about 800,000.

Nearly 113,000 of them have been resettled in several Western countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, under a third-country resettlement programme after the two South Asian neighbours failed to repatriate them.

Washington has taken about 100,000 refugees from Nepal. Several thousand are still living in camps in eastern Nepal saying they want to go back to Bhutan.

It was not immediately clear if any Nepali nationals had been sent to the United States as fake Bhutanese refugees.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Nick Macfie)