Friday, August 08, 2008

Anti-corruption out of tune with the people?


ONE OF the most commendable acts of the current CTG is the reformation of the ACC with its new leadership. Since its reconstitution, people had a lot of expectations that it would work independently and impartially with its reinvigorated mandate to bring to justice those who have betrayed the people’s trust by plundering state money and have abused the state authority for their personal gain. After eighteen months or so, it is high time to evaluate how far the ACC has succeeded in meeting people’s expectation.

If one looks back, it would be obvious that the ACC has been able to put a few hundred people, mostly politicians, behind bar, broadly on three pretexts: firstly, accumulating wealth disproportionate to one’s income; secondly, undisclosed wealth in the wealth statement and finally, evasion of income tax. How far these allegations have impacted psyche of the common people in forming any stigma about those who have either been convicted or under custody to await trial?

If one looks at the first one, it would be hard to find that many, especially in the political arena, who would be able to account for their accumulated wealth. That being the case, it is not transparent to the people the index that was used by the ACC to prepare the list of the potential wrongdoers and their subsequent internment. The wealth of a few big shots as disclosed by the ACC is so meagre, in the context of present Bangladeshi elites, it would, in fact, establish their honesty among the masses, not the other way around. According to ACC, the perceived guru of corruption has accumulated a wealth of less than 10 crores (1 crore=10 million) as opposed to the common belief that thousand of crores has been plundered by him. The disclosure of this meagre asset accumulated legally or illegally, would only establish his honesty not only among his supporters but to the common people as well. In fact, even in the estimate of ACC, I have not seen many whose total wealth surpassed more than 5 crores. If this is so, it seems our politicians are very honest indeed!

Secondly, disclosure of the actual wealth was a two-way sword for the discloser. If one discloses his actual wealth, he could be directly admitting his ill-gotten part of the wealth for which he might not have paid income taxes. If one did not disclose the actual income, he could be found guilty of concealing his wealth, which if discovered by the ACC, could charge him also of evading the income tax. In a few major cases, this undisclosed wealth never exceeded 3 crores, while most of them were in the spectrum of lakhs (1 lakh=100,000). Still better, if the prosecutors could have discovered and divulged how the ill-gotten wealth was acquired to provide a clear picture of their alleged crimes to the people.

Lastly, most of the accusations and convictions were due to non-payment of income taxes. This is a serious crime in countries where every earning resident pay income taxes. According to an NBR statistics, only around six hundred thousand people of Bangladesh pay income taxes while 15 million out of 150 million are eligible to be a part of the process. It means only 0.4% pay, 9.6% evade and the other 90% are not wealthy enough to pay the income taxes. So it is naturally unlikely that the non-paying 99.6% of the people would seriously concur with the ACC’s view and drives to punish only a few of those 15 million, who should be in the tax net to start with, for evading a part of their due taxes. Any judicial legal proceeding cannot ignore interjecting community norms and values into it to validate its criminal statutes.

The ACC chief has traveled all over the country to exchange views with the common people. It was expected that he would get the people’s view about their perception about corruption in order to avoid any boomeranging effect of the prosecution and conviction in one or more of the afore-said charges.

In addition, the selectivity of the ACC and the government (I still cannot make any differentiation between them) is so obvious that one does not need a microscope to detect it. For instance, out of the six city mayors, five are behind bar, with a lone exception, the stories of his wanton corruption occupied pages of the print media weeks after weeks. Even the ACC accused him of possessing the highest amount (around 10 crores) of ill-gotten wealth among all the accused. Nevertheless, he is still flying the national flag in his car and in a seemingly planned way is getting bail and extension, one time after another, without any attempt by the ACC counsels to appeal against the bail order. The same is true for some politicians, the foremost among them was the former Al-Badr Chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, whose bail order by the HC was not appealed as because the lawyers of the ACC ‘were too tired and there was no pressure from the government to do so. ’ Quite to the contrary, the government counsels, especially the recently resigned Attorney General was over active in making appeal against any HC decision, within minutes, that went in favour of Sheikh Hasina.

The ACC and the Army chiefs in their frequent sermons try to engrain patriotism in the mind of our citizens while reemphasizing that law is equal for every one. It became a paradox, when, for instance, a decorated war hero of our great war of liberation, an illustrious bureaucrat, was rearrested at jail gate after he was given bail by the HC on a blatantly false pretext of ‘making inflammatory speech at Panthapath’ while the chief of Al-Badr gangs were allowed to go free and hundreds of his supporters were allowed to greet him closing the main city street.

As expected, the highest number of cases was filed against Tarique Rahman, the man who had allegedly been at the centre of the rampant corruption that had permeated every sphere of the society in the five years of the immediate past regime of BNP-Jamaat led four-party alliance government. Although he reportedly controlled every aspect of the state and the government ranging from the civil administration to political agenda, from BNP's political office Hawa Bhaban in the capital, he is so far facing a lone trial in the case of Taka 21-crore bribery following the murder of Humayun Kabir Sabbir, a director of Bashundhara Group, despite being detained for over a year and a half now.

In a self-evident selectivity, right before the recent CC election, the ACC submitted charge sheet against interned Sylhet City Mayor Badruddin Ahmed Kamran for allegedly concealing information about his family’s wealth worth over Taka 7.21 lakh.

However, both the ACC and the government miserably failed to carry the people with them in selling the merits of the accusation, since it is the people who are the ultimate arbiters in dissecting the fact from the fiction in people’s court thereby repudiating or rehabilitating a public figure. The glaring proof was the landslide victory of Kamran in Sylhet CC election, where people creating a historical precedence, in each of the 120 precincts, expressed their resounding verdict against the merit of the ACC charges and the selectivity of the government in prosecuting whoever it intends to. This is the right the moment of soul searching for the ACC to evaluate why their actions are out of tune with the people. In fact, analysis of the very obvious discriminatory actions of the ACC and the government (especially the re-arrests at jail gate), does not add up to the fact that they are, respectively, headed by no other than Lt. General (Retd.) Hasan Masud Chowdhury and Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. #

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh