In its effort to curb graft in Bangladesh, the Anti-Corruption Commission has been proactive in exercising its mandate as an independent agency by launching investigations against several members of parliament from both the ruling and the opposition parties.
While 21 incumbent and former MPs came in the crosshairs of the national graft-busters on different charges, including the operation of the illegal casino business, none of these inquiries have seen the light of day.
The ACC’s failure to complete the investigations has led some observers to believe that these were nothing more than a charade while others cast doubt on the agency’s ability to function independently.
But ACC Commissioner Mozammel Haque Khan has denied the claim that the corruption watchdog has failed to work independently.
PEOPLE UNDER PROBE
As many as 11 lawmakers from the current parliament are under the ACC’s microscope with the charges against them ranging from embezzlement of government funds, land-grabbing, taking bribes and kickbacks, to extortion and making fortunes beyond means.
The authorities are also investigating 10 former MPs for acquiring wealth beyond their reported sources of income.
Among the current Awami League lawmakers facing scrutiny are Omor Faruk Chowdhury, Mahfuzur Rahman Mita, Mouazzam Hossain Ratan, Nurunnabi Chowdhury Shawon, Shamsul Hoque Chowdhury, Nazrul Islam Babu, Pankaj Debnath and Abdullah Al Islam Jakob. They joined former Awami League MPs BM Muzammel Haque, Kamrul Ashraf Khan Poton, Shirajul Islam Mollah and Shamsul Haque Bhuiyan on the commission’s bad books.
Recently, the national antigraft agency also set its sight on Haji Mohammad Selim, another Awami League MP, following the arrest of his son in a case over the assault of a naval officer, said ACC Commissioner Mozammel.
BNP lawmakers Ruhul Quddus Talukdar Dulu, Asadul Habib Dulu, Md Shahjahan, Abdul Momin Talukdar and Shahiduzzaman Beltu along with Jatiya Party MP Ruhul Amin Howlader make up the list of opposition lawmakers. They join Mahi B Choudhury of Bikalpadhara Bangladesh, independent MP Kazi Shahid Islam Papul and his wife Salina Islam, a reserved-seat MP on the list of politicians under the ACC scanner.
STATUS OF PROBES
After the law enforcement uncovered widespread casino operations in clubs across Dhaka, the anti-graft watchdog opened probes against 11 sitting MPs last year. Meanwhile, the probes against the former MPs were launched three years ago. A few others also came on the ACC’s radar before but most of those investigations were either settled or fell dormant.
Recently, the ACC opened a probe against Rajshahi-1 MP Omar Faruk Chowdhury, also a former state minister, involving as many as 20 charges, including embezzling government funds as well as irregularities in leasing out government lands, recruiting fertiliser dealers and teachers for schools and colleges.
The commission has already unearthed information on the wealth acquired by Omar and his family, according to an investigation officer.
Chattogram-3 MP Mahfuzur Rahman Mita was accused of taking bribes to recruit contractors, extortion, nepotism and other irregularities when the ACC started its investigation against him. The commission has asked him to submit his wealth statement and other relevant documents on Nov 3.
After the law-enforcement agencies busted the illegal casinos last year, the ACC made drew up a list of more than 200 influential people and set out to check the legitimacy of their wealth.
It started cases against 22 people named in that list, most of whom are noted leaders of the ruling Awami League and its youth wing, Jubo League.
Five Awami league MPs - Mouazzem Hossain Ratan of Sunamganj-1 seat, Nurunnabi Chowdhury Shawon of Bhola-3, Shamsul Hoque Chowdhury of Chattogram-12, Nazrul Islam Babu of Narayanganj-2 and Pankaj Debnath of Barishal-4 - were later added to the list.
The commission already wrote to Bangladesh Bank and other authorities to investigate their wealth status. It also imposed a travel ban on Ratan, Shamsul Hoque and Nurunnabi Shawon last year.
But so far, only Ratan has been summoned and questioned while the other probes have hit a snag, according to multiple ACC officials.
Shamsul Haque Bhuiyan was interrogated by the ACC on more than occasion and has already submitted his wealth statement to it.
Meanwhile, Munshiganj-1 MP Mahi is also the subject of a longstanding investigation for abuse of power, accumulating illegal wealth and money laundering, with the ACC recently asking him and his wife to submit their wealth statements.
Similar complaints against Bhola-4 MP Jakob, a former deputy minister, prompted an investigation by the ACC but little progress has been made so far.
The probe against independent MP Papul, who is now imprisoned in Kuwait, and his wife has almost reached its end, said ACC officials.
On Jul 22, the commission interrogated Papul’s wife Salina Islam for abetting the Noakhali lawmaker in his misdeeds and amassing illegal wealth. Earlier on Jun 22, the authorities froze the bank accounts of Papul, Salina, their daughter Wafa Islam, and Salina’s sister Jasmine.
Papul, a labour recruiter, is currently on trial in Kuwait on charges of human trafficking, money laundering and torturing the staff in his company.
Among the former MPs, ACC froze the bank accounts of BNP’s Ruhul Quddus Talukdar Dulu and his wife, both of whom have faced questioning. Officials have also interrogated Asadul Habib Dulu and Shahjahan.
Meanwhile, Ruhul Amin Howlader, the former general secretary of Jatiya Party, has managed to give the ACC the slip despite being summoned for interrogation more than once.
The commission has also written to Bangladesh Bank and other government bodies for documents on the wealth of Awami League Organising Secretary Mozammel Haque, a former MP of Shariatpur-1.
Asked about the probe, Mozammel said, “Let the investigation continue. Some people have blamed me for corruption. Let them find the corruption.”
He believes the allegations are part of a smear campaign launched by his political opponents.
BNP leaders, on the other hand, complained that the probes against them were opened only to harass them.
The Anti-Corruption Commission has lost its power, according to its former chairman Ghulam Rahman, who compared the agency to a ‘toothless tiger.’
Although there are legal limitations placed upon it, the commission is still not even close to exercising the minimum extent of the powers it still has, according to Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, an anti-corruption watchdog.
“The ACC has set a boundary for itself, which it doesn’t want to cross, as though it will suffer if it does,” he told bdnews24.com.
Therefore, the commission’s investigations against the MPs are an ‘eyewash’ or pretence, according to him.
“These initiatives show a ray of hope to the people. But in reality, the ACC has not given any indication of being able to take actions against an influential public representatives or someone from a politically-influential quarter, other than a few exceptional cases,” said Iftekharuzzaman.
“This has become a charade. The ACC is burdened with people’s expectations and then when they start a probe or a process, they don’t seem to progress any further.”
The circumstances, therefore, spread frustration among the people while undermining public trust in the ACC.
The agency does not conduct its investigation based on the suspect’s identity, ACC Commissioner Mozammel said as he dismissed claims that the ACC has lost its independence.
“The suspect’s social or professional identity plays no part in the ACC’s conduct of an investigation,” he said.
Asked whether there are any obstacles to investigating political figures, he said, “The ACC has filed cases against an innumerable number of political persons, including ministers and MPs, while submitting charge-sheets against them. Many of them have been punished. There’s no way to obstruct the ACC (from doing its work).”
“The commission scrutinises the specific, objective complaints filed to it following the legal framework against any person, and then accepts them for an investigation.”
On the delays in wrapping up investigations Khan believes officials will be able to complete the probes against the MPs and submit reports within the deadline set by the commission.