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Palestinian Corruption Chief Recovers $70 mln, More to Recoup - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The Head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Rafiq El Natsheh

The Head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Rafiq El Natsheh

The head of the Palestinian anti-corruption body says he has clawed back $70 million in five years yet his investigators couldn’t expose evidence to justify allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds have disappeared.

Rafiq al-Natsheh, chairman of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission, said “tens of millions of dollars” needed to be traced down and that one of the biggest challenges facing his team was recovering funds that had disappeared abroad.

After years of talk of huge sums going missing – the attorney general of the Palestinian Authority announced in February 2006 that he was investigating 50 cases of embezzlement from the authority’s budget totaling $700 million – President Mahmoud Abbas is pressured from donors to show he is taking action.

“The biggest challenge we face is to get the money back,” he said. “There are many millions outside Palestine, so it depends on foreign countries for us to get the money back.”

“It’s very stressful work, it’s difficult,” he said.

The European Union and the United States, both providing direct budget support to the Palestinians, want to see tighter controls. The Europeans are ready to send investigators to track where some of their funds have disappeared.

Natsheh, a political scientist who studied in Beirut and spent much of his career abroad, including in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was appointed by presidential order in 2010. He was given full powers to investigate misappropriation of funds, bribery, embezzlement, nepotism and any other corrupt practices.

“There is lots of talk about corruption, but there is very little actual corruption,” the 81-year-old told Reuters in his offices in Ramallah.

“You hear people talk about billions, but it’s not like that,” said Natsheh, speaking carefully in English. “When it comes to the facts, showing the evidence, there is much less. I thought I would find more corruption.”

Over the past five years, the EU and other organizations have reduced their direct support to the Palestinian budget from around $1.3 billion a year to less than $700 million, with the decline attributed in large part to frustration over money not being spent where it was intended or not being fully accounted for.

Natsheh says he has heard the complaints, citing an article in the German weekly Der Spiegel alleging $1.7 billion had gone missing. But the commissioner, sipping tea and smoking Davidoff cigarettes, said there was nothing to back these claims.

“I asked everyone and I didn’t find any evidence,” he said.

“We hear many things from the Europeans and Americans, but the evidence isn’t there,” he said. “We are working according to the law. No one is guilty until it is proven.”

The same case applies for Palestinian NGOs set up to monitor corruption, he said. One NGO said it had 1,800 documented cases. But when asked for details, Natsheh said they provided information on just 10 cases, none of which checked out.

Natsheh’s seven-year mandate expires next year. Despite his age, he says he is full of energy and determination to track down corruption wherever it may be. He hopes to employ more staff soon, including more investigators.

A friend of Arafat and Abbas since the 1950s, when they lived in exile in Qatar and Kuwait, Natsheh says his powers encompass every government department and ministry, all the way up to the presidency, known as the Mukataa.
Asked if he would be prepared to investigate the Mukataa if he had reason to, he does not hesitate.

“If someone comes with evidence, we will investigate,” he said. “But so far no one brought any accusations or evidence against the president or his office.”

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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