Used to impunity, Bangladesh elite face corruption crackdown
05 Nov 2019

AP — As gamblers called out bets around craps and roulette tables at a sports club in Bangladesh’s capital, dozens of black-clad security forces burst inside.

Gamblers were ordered to the floor as police and members of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, which normally handles major counterterrorism operations, cracked open iron vaults full of cash. By the end of the raid, more than 140 people had been taken out of the makeshift casino in handcuffs.

At the same time in another part of Dhaka, commandos were raiding the home of the suspected casino organizer, Khaled Mahmud Bhuiyan, an influential member of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party. They discovered stashes of liquor, cash and illegal arms.

The raids are part of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign Hasina has launched in this Muslim nation where gambling is illegal, alcohol consumption requires a permit and where paying bribes is common not just for lawbreakers but for those seeking normal government services. Emboldened by December’s landslide election victory for her ruling Awami League party, Hasina has declared stamping out corruption as her government’s priority and promised even political allies won’t be spared.

“This is an acknowledgement that corruption, extortion and unlawful activities have permeated the ruling party to the grassroots,” said Ali Riaz, a professor of political science at Illinois State University and expert on Bangladeshi politics.

It remains to be seen how high up the campaign will be allowed to reach, Riaz said.

“Casinos and the unbridled power of the party leaders are just the tip of the iceberg of the corruption and absence of any accountability in the country,” he said.

So far the campaign, which was launched in September, has netted several ruling party members charged with running illegal casinos, money laundering and possessing illegal arms. Security forces have recovered millions of dollars’ worth of cash, and stockpiles of weapons and gold. More than 600 bank accounts have been frozen.

Hasina has been able to attempt such a crackdown because she wields immense power after 10 years at the helm of government.

She’s firmly in charge of her own party and faces no effective opposition in Parliament, with her party controlling 96% of seats. Even her archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, is serving 17 years in jail for corruption.

And that dominance could be exacerbating the corruption problem. While Bangladesh has a long history of ruling party members manipulating business and government contracts in their favor, experts say the total absence of political opposition has engendered a sense of impunity among some in power.

“Investment and politics become synonymous in Bangladesh,” said Ifekhar Zaman, executive director of the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International. “A collusion of politics, business, and bureaucracy and law enforcement” has created an “infrastructure” of corruption.

When she launched the campaign, Hasina seemed to acknowledge that if corruption were allowed to spiral it could set the stage for a repeat of events of January 2011, when a military-backed caretaker government took control of the country. The events are known locally as 1/11, for the date they began.

“We’re taking measurers in advance so that no 1/11-like incident can happen again in the country,” Hasina said in September. “The purge must begin from my own house.”

One of the people recently arrested, G.K. Shamim, a construction company owner who has ties to the ruling party, is accused by investigators of corruption on government projects, including building the headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion, the same security force conducting the anti-corruption raids.

A government anti-corruption commission is now investigating more than 20 people in Hasina’s inner circle for alleged involvement with illegal casinos, money laundering and other financial crimes, including Omar Faruque Chowdhury, who heads the ruling party’s influential youth wing and is Hasina’s cousin’s husband. In a meeting led by Hasina, Chowdhury was stripped of his post while a criminal investigation continues.

By Julhas Alam, AP, 5 November 2019

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