Gurkha funds missing

John A Silkstone

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Hundreds of thousands of pounds are missing from the accounts of the main Gurkha veterans’ organisation in Nepal that spearheaded a campaign to win equal rights with the rest of the British Army, an investigation by The Times has revealed.

The money is at the centre of a dispute that has split the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation (GASEO) and cast a pall over the Gurkhas’ victory last year in a campaign — fronted by Joanna Lumley — to win the right to settle in Britain.

Padam Gurung, the GAESO president, told The Times that his organisation had raised £2.3 million from its roughly 40,000 members since it was set up in 1990.

He said it had spent £600,000 on lawyers in Nepal and Britain since 2002, when it launched its first, unsuccessful, legal battle to equalise Gurkhas’ pensions with the rest of the Army. When asked for proof, however, he and other GASEO leaders could produce receipts for £99,978.66 only of bank transfers to their lawyers.

They showed The Times what appeared to be 46 invoices worth a total of £499,974.21 from Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), a British solicitor who worked for them from 2001 to 2006 and who hired Cherie Blair as their barrister in 2002 and 2003.

PIL said, however, that they had only sent 21 invoices with a combined total of £141,543.03 to GASEO. “It’s sheer nonsense to talk about half a million pounds,” said Paul McNab, the practice manager at PIL.

A spokeswoman for Mrs Blair said she had received £4,600 for her work for the Gurkhas. That leaves more than £350,000 of Gurkha veterans’ money unaccounted for — a huge sum in one of the world’s poorest countries, where a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Ex-Gurkhas are better off than most Nepalis, but 24,000 of them who retired before 1997 still receive a basic pension of £190 a month.

When asked to explain the missing funds, Mr Gurung blamed Mr Siwakoti, who worked for GASEO from 2001 to 2008, but is now acting for a splinter group called GASEO-UK.

“We had no knowledge of the British legal system,” Mr Gurung said. “He was the middle man — he was the key. This is a smear campaign conducted by the Ministry of Defence and Siwakoti.”

Mr Siwakoti, however, denied any wrongdoing and blamed Mr Gurung, claiming that the GASEO president handled all payments to lawyers and preferred not to keep receipts. “This is complete rubbish. If they have proof, I’m happy to return the money,” he said, adding that he was seeking £250,000 in unpaid fees from GASEO.

The dispute has left many Gurkha veterans confused about who to trust for advice as they try to decide whether to move to Britain, and whether to continue their pensions battle.

GASEO is under investigation by Nepalese authorities over allegations that it charged veterans £500 each for referrals to Howe & Co, a British law firm providing immigration services for Gurkhas that are fully funded by legal aid.

That issue came to light after Kevan Jones, the Veterans’ Minister, criticised Ms Lumley in March for not speaking out about GASEO and Howe & Co, which was working from GASEO’s headquarters.

Gordon Brown and Mr Jones later apologised to Ms Lumley after a Ministry of Justice investigation cleared Howe & Co of wrongdoing. Ms Lumley was not available to comment last night. But Kieran O’Rourke, a partner at Howe & Co, said: “If there is a problem with GASEO’s accounts, then it must explain that, and if that money has come from our clients, it is unacceptable . . . With hindsight, I wish we’d never worked out of that office.”

Many GASEO members remain loyal to the organisation. “It’s only through them that the Gurkhas have their rights — they really sacrificed a lot,” said Sunita Gurung, whose husband left the Gurkhas after 18 years’ service in 1991. She said her family had given GASEO 9,000 rupees (£83).

Several Gurkhas not affiliated to GASEO, however, expressed outrage at the apparent hole in its accounts, and some called for Nepalese authorities to broaden their investigation.

“They were never that clear about why they were raising funds, and how the money would be spent,” said Bharat Singh Thapa, chairman of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles Regimental Association. “Many Gurkhas have been following them blindly.”
 

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