An eventful year for Bangladesh, defined by pandemic and scandals

There is no doubt that 2020 will go down in history as the year of a deadly pandemic when the fear of death accompanied the people at every step. In Bangladesh, many saw the pandemic as an opportunity to enrich themselves as various scams related to the outbreak were uncovered.
Meanwhile, issues like the scandal involving Shamima Noor Papia, an expelled leader of Jubo Mohila League who allegedly ran escort services at the Westin hotel in Dhaka, the COVID testing scam which brought dubious businessman Mohammad Shahed under the spotlight, along with the killing of retired major Sinha Md Rashed Khan by the police, rank among the biggest talking points of the year.

Other shocking incidents include an attack on an Upazila executive officer in Dinajpur and the killing of Anisul Karim Shipon, a senior assistant superintendent of police, by employees of Mind Aid mental health hospital, among others.

The government had to raise the maximum punishment for rape to death from life term to stop an “epidemic” of sexual violence against women and girls. Several spells of flood added to the damage caused by the pandemic to the economy.

Along with the families who lost their loved ones to COVID-19, Bangladesh also mourned those who lost died in the air-conditioner blasts in a Narayanganj mosque and the Buriganga launch capsize.

Animal lovers’ were also up in arms this year when the Dhaka city authorities announced plans to relocate stray dogs from the capital, reminding residents about the importance of rethinking city life.

While mainstream politics was effectively ‘housebound’, religious zealots’ threats to pull down Bangabandhu’s statues stoked fresh fear of communal violence.

Like other countries, sports and culture had suffered a harsh setback in Bangladesh. And it will take longer for the country to recover from the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

But the installation of the final span of the Padma Bridge by the end of the year sent a message that all was not lost as the country edged closer fulfilling a long-held ‘dream’. As the country prepares to usher in a new year against the backdrop of a raging coronavirus pandemic, news of the arrival of a vaccine has also been a timely shot in the arm for most.

With the global pandemic upending people’s health, everyday life, education and economy, a good number of different incidents have marked the year 2020 for Bangladesh. Here is a look back on some of this year’s most significant events.

THE CORONAVIRUS
The coronavirus pandemic has itself been the biggest issue the world over, with Bangladesh reporting its first cases on Mar 8 after the virus was first detected in China by the end of last year.

After nearly 10 more months, Bangladesh has more than half a million confirmed coronavirus infections with over 7,500 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

On the eve of Independence Day, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged the nation not to be afraid but to confront the situation with courage and keep faith in the government’s initiatives. She asked the people to follow the suggestions of health experts, such as wearing a mask, keep physical distance, avoid crowds and wash hands with water and soap or sanitiser frequently.

All educational institutes were already shut on Mar 17, considering the fact that the pathogen spreads mostly among crowds in enclosed spaces. A nationwide shutdown of the public transport system followed the announcement of general holidays as parts of desperate efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In other words, Bangladesh went into a complete lockdown.

The number of coronavirus cases, however, began to rise sharply in the first week of April. On Jun 30, the government reported 64 deaths in its daily COVID-19 briefing, the highest death toll in a 24-hour period. The highest number of 4,019 coronavirus cases was detected on Jul 2.

The working-class people suffered immensely during the lockdown while businesses remained shut. The government took steps to support the people, but the closure of factories for a long time and a huge number of job losses worsened the situation.

To save livelihoods, Bangladesh began easing the restrictions by the end of May. Offices reopened on May 31 after the 66-day lockdown. The government also allowed public transports to resume services. Flight operations resumed gradually as well while the centres of entertainment were being opened in August.

After Independence Day, Bangladeshis spent the festivals of Bengali New Year, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Azha, Durga Puja and other occasions under restrictions. The state programmes had to be held at a limited scale. The Mujib Year celebrations went mostly online.

Although almost everything has reopened, educational institutions have remained shut. Besides the HSC tests, the PEC and JSC exams were scrapped along with annual exams.

Now the government hopes to get the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine in January or February, but it will take a long time to inoculate sufficient portion of the population. So, the rules on wearing a mask, keeping physical distance and sanitising hands remain unchanged in 2021.

WHO WAS THE MOST NOTORIOUS?

Like every year, a number of people were arrested in 2020 for various crimes, but a few characters in particular grabbed the headlines for their misdeeds.

The arrest of ruling Awami League operative Shamima Noor Papia and her husband Mafizur Rahman alias Sumon Chowdhury at Shahjalal International Airport on Feb 22 got small media coverage initially, but the stories on the ways they made a fortune drew huge attention of the people shortly afterwards. The incident also created a storm in the political arena at the time.

She paid tens of millions of takas in bills to Westin Dhaka from the money earned from her high-class escort services based at the 5-star hotel, the RAB said.
Besides two apartments in Dhaka, the couple own two flats worth around Tk 10 million in Narsingdi and cars, according to the RAB. They have invested Tk 10 million in a car shop named Car Exchange in Dhaka’s Tejgaon, and Tk 4 million in KMC Car Wash and Auto Solutions.

The couple have made the fortunes also by helping criminals grab land, trading in drugs and arms, and a series of other crimes, the RAB said.

The ruling party affiliate for young women, Jubo Mohila League, expelled her at once.

But the names of the people who backed her, the customers of her escort services, with whom she took photos and shared on Facebook made their way to media reports, dragging the discussions further.

The RAB charged Papia and Sumon in three cases over counterfeit currency, illegal arms and drugs. They were also charged with money laundering by the Criminal Investigation Department of the police.

The Anti-Corruption Commission, or ACC, prosecuted them on charges of acquiring illegal assets worth Tk 62.4 million.

Meanwhile, a court sentenced the couple to 20 years in prison in the case over illegal arms.

The stories about another self-proclaimed Awami League operative, Mohammad Shahed alias Shahed Karim, chairman of Regent Group, came to the spotlight when the RAB raided the Regent Hospital and shut it down for swindling thousands of unsuspecting patients out of millions of takas on the pretext of coronavirus treatment. It also issued false coronavirus test reports.

Shahed had weaselled his way into the circle of society’s power brokers without much of a struggle, all the while keeping his shady business dealings and implication in dozens of fraud cases under wraps.

Claiming himself to be a leader of the ruling party, Shahed became the notorious fraudster of the year. His photos with top politicians drew the attention of many.

Days after the raid on the hospital, the RAB arrested Shahed at the Satkhira border when he was trying to flee to India.

Since Shahed’s arrest, he has been implicated in more than 20 cases, with the charges ranging from fraudulence, possession of illegal arms and involvement in the drug trade.

Police seized a loaded pistol and drugs from a car Shahed used during a raid on a house in Uttara with him in tow on Jul 18.

A case was subsequently started at Uttara West Police Station under the firearms law. The Detective Branch of Police later submitted the charges on Jul 30, naming 14 witnesses in the case.

A Dhaka court sentenced the disgraced businessman to life imprisonment in a case related to the illegal possession of firearms.
The Regent Hospital was not the only health facility mired by the fake COVID-19 test report scam. The police unearthed the notorious JKG Health Care scam just before the RAB raids on Regent.

Jobeda Khatun Health Care or JKG Health Care was given permission to collect samples from suspected coronavirus patients in April.

JKG had set up 44 booths in six areas in Dhaka and Narayanganj to collect samples free of cost. They used to collect around 350 samples each day in these areas, which were then supposed to be sent to the authorised labs for testing.

A large number of fabricated COVID-19 test reports, written on the official pads of the health directorate and the IEDCR, were found on the laptops of JKG Health Care graphic designer Humayun Kabir Hiru.

On Jun 22, police arrested Hiru and his wife Tanzina Patwari following a complaint filed by Kamal Hossain, a caretaker of a house in Dhaka’s Kalyanpur.

Police brought charges against JKG Health Care for providing false reports without testing the swabs collected from the people for COVID-19 tests.

Law enforcers arrested JKG Healthcare CEO Ariful Chaudhury on Jun 23 and later on Jul 12, his wife Dr Sabrina Sharmeen Husain aka Sabrina A Chaudhury.

Sabrina, a government cardiac surgeon, was suspended by the health ministry for violating service rules by holding the post of chairman in a private organisation without permission. Sabrina denied any link with the JKG scam.

The ACC is examining the wealth of Ariful and Sabrina on charges of embezzling Tk 80 million by issuing the fake test reports.

Investigators also found that Sabrina fraudulently kept two NIDs and SIM cards.

A POLICEMAN AND A ‘PLANNED’ MURDER
Another incident that caused a stir this year was the shooting death of retired army major Sinha Md Rashed Khan, after which, the issue of ‘extrajudicial killings’ involving law enforcement faced renewed scrutiny.

Sinha, 36, was a member of the Special Security Force tasked with guarding the prime minister. He had gone into early retirement to pursue his interests. His father late Ershad Khan was a deputy secretary at the finance ministry.

On the night of Jul 31, he was shot dead by police at the Shamlapur checkpoint on Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf Marine Drive.

The former army officer had been staying at Nilima Resort in Himchhari of Cox’s Bazar with three others for around a month to film a travel documentary.

After his death, police said they fired in self-defence when Sinha brandished a pistol at law enforcers after obstructing a search of his vehicle at the checkpoint on the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf Marine Drive.

Sinha’s sister Sharmin Shahria Ferdous subsequently started a case against nine policemen while the government formed a high-level probe committee after questions were raised about the details of the incident provided by the police.

The Rapid Action Battalion later pressed formal charges in court against former Teknaf Police OC Pradip Kumar Das, former in-charge of Baharchhara investigation centre Inspector Liakat Ali and 13 others.

After an investigation into the incident, RAB revealed that it was a “planned” murder orchestrated by Pradip after Sinha “came to know about his links to the drug business.”

“OC Pradip appeared in the scene around 25 minutes later after Sinha was shot. He pinned Sinha to the ground mercilessly and ensured his death,” according to a report by the defence ministry submitted to the parliamentary standing committee.

Meanwhile, investigators also found ‘no substance’ in the narcotics charges brought by the police against Stamford University students Shipra Debnath and Shahedul Islam Sefat who were co-workers of the slain former army major.

Following the incident, the government made wholesale changes to the police force in Cox’s Bazar with as many as 1,347 police personnel, including top officers and constables, being transferred out of the district.

The ACC also opened a probe against Pradip Kumar Das and his wife Chumki Karon. Chumki, however, went into hiding.

Nevertheless, calls to bring the police into account began ringing once again after the death of Rayhan Ahmed in the custody of Banderbazar Police Outpost in Sylhet in October.

Rayhan’s wife Tahmina Akhter Tonni subsequently filed a case with Kotwali Police Station, accusing law enforcers of torturing her husband to death for money.

While the Banderbazar police claimed Raihan was lynched by an angry mob for pickpocketing, the Police Headquarters later tasked the Police Bureau of Investigation with opening a probe after finding evidence that the man had in fact died in custody.

Sylhet Metropolitan Police subsequently suspended four police personnel, including the in-charge of the outpost while withdrawing three others from the station.

As many as 183 suspects have killed in so-called gunfights with the law enforcement in Bangladesh from January until the end of July amid the government’s crackdown on the drug trade.

Sinha Md Rashed Khan was among 47 people killed by the law enforcement in July, the highest in a month this year.

The death toll ranged between 21 and 27 in the previous six months, except 15 in April when the nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus was enforced strictly, according to legal rights group Ain O Salish Kendra or ASK.

But with the role of the police in the so-called shootouts coming under the scanner, incidents of gunfights involving law enforcers have been few and far between ever since.

RISE IN RAPE CASES
Bangladesh has seen a surge in reported sexual crimes in recent years.

Besides loopholes in the law, a number of societal causes have been attributed to the escalating number of rape cases by woman rights activists and criminologists.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, protests broke out in Dhaka’s Shahbagh and other parts of the country over sexual assaults on a woman in Noakhali, the rape of a Dhaka University student in Kurmitola and the gang-rape of another woman in Sylhet’s MC College recently.

Reported incidents of child sexual abuse were also prevalent on social media.

The government later amended the law to elevate the maximum punishment for rape cases to death from life imprisonment.

Rape cases almost doubled to 1,413 in 2019 from the year before, according to ASK.

Among the most high-profile cases of 2020 involved a Dhaka University student who was raped in a secluded street in Kurmitola on Jan 5. Her father subsequently filed a case with Cantonment Police Station.

RAB later arrested 30-year-old ‘Mojnu’, the lone suspect in the case, identifying him as a serial rapist.

Mojnu, a street hawker and a native of Noakhali, was accused of raping beggars and mugging unsuspecting pedestrians. After the death of his wife, Mojnu, a drug addict, committed a series of crimes, including rape.

He was later sentenced to life imprisonment on Nov 19.

In another shocking incident, a group of men in Noakhali’s Begumganj broke into a 35-year-old woman’s room and tortured her after stripping her naked on the night of Sep 2. The incident was recorded on camera by one of the assailants with the video later going viral on social media, sparking public outrage.

In the video, the youths continued beating her, while she pleaded with them to let her go.

Law enforcers later arrested the key suspects in the case, all of whom were members of a local criminal gang called ‘Delowar Bahini’, according to RAB

The gang’s leader, Delowar Hossain, was involved in extortion as well as the illegal arms and drug trades. A notorious criminal in his locality, Delowar used to claim to be a member of the ruling party.
Although Delowar was not named as a suspect in the case, he was later arrested and put behind bars in connection seven other cases.

Meanwhile, Nasir Uddin, 35, a teacher in Ahmadia Azizul Ulum Madrasa in Rangunia was arrested in October for sexually assaulting four children. Similar incidents involving madrasa students were also reported in Chattogram’s Patenga, Patiya and Bashkhali this year.

Six leaders of the quota reform movement, including former DUCSU vice-president Nurul Haque Nur, were also implicated in a rape case started by a Dhaka University student. The woman, a postgraduate student of Islamic Studies, accused of abetting the crime.

The main suspect in the case is Hasan Al Mamun, a postgraduate student from the same department who is currently serving as the convener of the Bangladesh Council to Protect General Students’ Rights, a platform for students demanding reforms to the quota system in government services.

Mamun is charged with enticing the alleged victim with false promises of marriage before raping her.

The other suspects in the case are Nazmul Hasan Sohag, Saiful Islam, Nazmul Huda and Abdullah Hil Baki, who are all involved with the Bangladesh Council to Protect General Students’ Rights.

Nur initially ‘promised a settlement’ but later shifted his position and asked her not to ‘react too much,’ the student said in the case dossier.

Asked about the allegations levelled at him, Mamun told bdnews24.com: “We don’t know anything about the case. We haven’t done any of the things that we’re accused of.”