When immunity becomes a licence to break the law

It is common practice that legal systems around the world protect senior government officials from prosecution by granting them political immunity. This is supposed to shield them from undue pressure. But immunity to the law has also allowed numerous politicians across the world to go unpunished for crimes big and small, including corruption. Immunity can lead to impunity.

The privilege of immunity sometimes gives the impression that politicians can do as they please, which can result in acts against the public good. If a government official is protected by immunity and accepts a bribe for a contract, they have little fear of the justice system, even if they are found out to be guilty.

After getting away with it once, the instinct is to do it again and again until someone finally says ‘stop’. But all over the world, too few are saying ‘Let’s stop impunity’.

Transparency International is working at stopping people and corporations from getting away with criminal activity or bending the law in their own favour. We strongly believe that impunity triggers actions that lead to the abuse of public resources or the manipulation of laws for politicians’ personal gain or for the benefit of the few. Political immunity, therefore, must always be justified.

The Zambian experience

In Zambia, immunity appears to have played a role in the ongoing case of the former president Rupiah Banda. Banda is accused of misappropriating more than US$11 million during his three years in office. He has maintained his innocence on the charge. When investigators summoned him for questioning in February, Banda still enjoyed immunity from prosecution and refused to appear. Parliament subsequently voted unanimously to lift his immunity and on 23 March he was formally charged.

Since Banda left office in 2011, a few officials from his government have been convicted in high-profile corruption probes into deals struck during his time in office, and prosecutors are continuing to investigate suspected shortfalls in state revenues from copper mining. Zambia is Africa's top copper producer.

Transparency International Zambia has consistently spoken out strongly against President Banda allowing his cabinet ministers to act unethically and with impunity. In 2010 our chapter said Banda and his government needed to be reminded that they were elected to exercise proper leadership.

Controversial Cronyism

In Nigeria friendship with the president has created immunity for one lucky convicted criminal. The government recently pardoned a key ally of President Goodluck Jonathan who was convicted of stealing millions of dollars. Ex-Bayelsa state Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was pardoned because he had been "remorseful", presidential adviser Doyin Okupe said.

In this case Alamieyeseigha was not protected by an immunity law but rather by knowing the right people in high places. That association gave him virtual immunity.

“This decision undermines anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria and encourages impunity. If the government is serious about uprooting public corruption, sanctions against those who betray the public trust should be strengthened, not relaxed,” says Akere Muna, vice-chair of Transparency International.

Alamieyeseigha was released in 2007, two days after receiving a two-year sentence. The decision was taken because he had already served two years in prison ahead of the trial. He was first arrested in the UK in 2005 on money laundering charges, but jumped bail.

Immunity can lead individuals to take advantage of entrusted power for personal gain – our definition of corruption. That’s why we believe transparency, accountability and integrity should be key pillars of any government.

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