MASERU — Police have arrested a man they believe could help them crack a syndicate involving corrupt officials at the Passport Office who have been taking bribes to issue travel documents.
The arrest of the 20-year-old man, believed to be a runner for the syndicate, has seen three other suspects going into hiding.
According to insiders, there has been pandemonium at the Passport Office since the Sunday Express last week exposed the corrupt issuance of passports following an undercover investigation.
The suspected runner, a photographer, was however arrested last Friday moments after he had allegedly organised a temporary travel document for a 48-year-old woman for a M100 bribe.
The arrest followed a tip-off to the police by another woman who had been approached by the suspect at the Passport Office in the capital.
Police believe the suspect could be their key to breaking the corrupt syndicate at the Passport Office.
They want him to reveal his connections in the Passport Office.
The syndicate, as detailed in our investigative story last week, involves Passport Office employees and some photographers who operate as the link between members of the public and inside officials.
Police spokesperson Masupha Masupha told the Sunday Express a thorough investigation had been launched to “get to the bottom of these corrupt activities at the Passport Office”.
“We believe he is not alone,” Masupha said about the arrested suspect.
“We believe he is one of the runners working with officials in the Passport Office.”
Masupha said the suspect will be charged with violating the Lesotho Passport and Travel Document Act of 1998 which makes it a crime for anyone to corruptly assist a person to get a passport or temporary travel document.
“The suspect was arrested after the police got a tip-off from a lady who was in a queue to get a temporary travel document,” Masupha said.
“The lady told the police that the male photographer approached them while they were still in the queue with a proposal to get them temporary travel documents within a short period of time for M100.
“The police followed one lady and found her with a valid temporary travel document that the suspect had illegally issued but she did not have an invoice.
“The temporary travel document had all the necessary details in it except for the invoice that she did not have.
“The lady had paid M100 to get that travel document yet it is supposed to be issued for free.
“When the police arrived they found that man with other people as he continued with his business.”
Masupha however warned the investigations might take long because “this is an investigation into a broader system of corruption”.
“It will not be easy because when you are interrogating a person like this (the suspect) they might give you false information,” he said, adding that they will need to “verify all the information that he gives us”.
Thousands of people are struggling to get passports.
The normal application fee for a passport is M100 while a temporary travel document is free.
However, because of a huge backlog it has been taking even up to three years for one to get his or her passport after a tortuous process to submit an application.
Unscrupulous officials at the Passport Office have taken advantage of the inefficient systems by preying on desperate people from who they get bribes.
The bribes range from M500 up to M1 000 for a passport that can be issued in two days.
Last week an undercover investigation by the Sunday Express unearthed a well-organised syndicate of Passport Office employees who are getting bribes to issue passports.
The investigation, which took three weeks, revealed that officials at the Passport Office were working directly with street runners who they use to solicit people willing to pay bribes to get passports.
A photographer who gave his name only as Steve managed to organise a passport for our reporter in two days after she paid him money for an application form and a chief’s letter.
Steve also made sure our reporter jumped the long queue.
For all this he demanded about M200.
Our reporter then paid M500 to an official who works at the department’s headquarters where the passports are produced.
She used a false name to get a genuine passport, exposing the porous system that has helped corruption in the department to thrive.
“These documents are issued without receipts to show that they have gone through the normal process but they are genuine,” Masupha said.
“That means the money paid by the recipients does not go to the government but is shared between the runners and the officials.”