Khaleda Zia on Padma Bridge issue: ‘Pot calling kettle black’

The political arena inBangladeshhas heated up over the issues of thePadmaBridgeand corruption. The World Bank’s (WB) announcement that it has cancelled a $1.2 billion fund for thePadmaBridgeconstruction has given rise to ripples of controversy over corruption in the Awami League-led government. The WB is talking about non-compliance with conditions after alleged corruption by Bangladeshi incumbents, including the then communications minister Syed Abdul Hossain. Such allegations have not been conclusively proved, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has asked, ‘Where is the question of corruption when the WB has not given even a single penny for the project?’

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Khaleda Zia, however, did not cash in on the cancellation of the loan deal and said that if her party is elected to power, she will provide a clean administration and the people involved in thePadmaBridgecorruption will be brought to justice. Interestingly, complaints of misgovernance and corruption against her and her party were numerous during their stint in power.

Such problems have long been pervasive and the Awami League leadership is not immune. Yet the current situation inBangladesh, while not ideal, is infinitely better than during Khaleda Zia’s regime (2002-2006). Terrorists are no longer carrying out fatal grenade attacks against opposition rallies or killing mainstream opposition leaders, as happened during Zia’s regime, and suicide bombers demanding the introduction of ‘Allah’s rule’ are no longer visible. Whatever political harassment or incidents happening in isolation may also be the creation of a particular quarter that is trying to destabilize the government.

Khaleda Zia has no locus standi to question the Awami League-led government’s integrity. Her talk of bringing corrupt people in government to justice sounds ludicrous when we consider what sort of governance she provided in the not-so-distant past. The BNP-JEI (Jamaat-e-Islami)Alliance government she headed was steeped in corruption and during her regime, an alternative centre of power was created in Hawa Bhavan by Tarique Rahman, her elder son who became the epicentre of corruption and nepotism. Since his entrance into the BNP, founded by his father (former military dictator General Ziaur Rahman), Tarique had involved himself in unlawful influence and business at home and abroad.

During Zia’s regime, both Tarique and her younger son Arafat ‘Coco’ Rahman became owners of textile mills, cargo ships and private TV channels, as well as investors of millions of dollars inMalaysia,Singapore,AustraliaandSouth Africa. As accusations of corruption against Tarique andCocogrew louder, Zia turned a deaf ear on what she called ‘a conspiracy to tarnish the image of the nationalist forces’.

Yet these two men created mayhem in the country by siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars. While Tarique was running a parallel government from Hawa Bhavan along with his cronies,Cocowas taking advantage of his mother’s position as prime minister to silently amass a fortune.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has revealed Zia’s role in promoting corruption during her tenure as prime minister, and has pressed for charges against her, Tarique and others for the embezzlement of Tk 2.10 crore by forming the fraudulent Zia Orphanage Trust. US$1 255 000 were transferred from the United Saudi Commercial Bank to the ‘orphanage’ fund, which was created by Zia shortly before the transfer.

There are instances galore of Zia and her sons’ involvement in such practices. A Dhaka court has pressed money-laundering charges against Tarique and issued a warrant for his arrest, but he has refused to return toBangladeshfromLondon, where he is receiving medical treatment that he could receive at home.

The court has also charged Giasuddin Al Mamun, a business partner of Tarique, after the ACC found a sum of euros amounting to Tk 1.9 crore, US dollars worth Tk 19.02 crore and pounds sterling worth Tk 19.51 lakh in Mamun’s Citibank account inSingapore. To conceal his identity when withdrawing the money, Tarique used a supplementary debit card issued against Mamun’s account. Between 2003 and 2007, he withdrew $54 982, and Mamun withdrew $79 542 from theSingaporeaccount.

Mamun, who became an influential figure during the last BNP-JEI regime, has already been convicted and sentenced to 23 years in jail in three different cases. FBI special agent Debra Laprevotte recently testified in aDhakacourt against both Mamun and Tarique in a money-laundering case, and Tarique was earlier indicted for taking Tk 21 crore as a bribe from a wealthy Bashundhara Group proprietor to save the man’s son from a murder charge in 2007.

Following his arrest in 2007 by the then caretaker government, Tarique denied all the charges brought against him. But the situation was to change dramatically when other arrested BNP leaders began to disclose information on Tarique’s dealings – especially senior BNP leader and former State Minister for Home Affairs, Lutfozzaman Babar, who provided compelling evidence of Tarique’s corruption and tainted his public image.

During questioning by the Task Force for Interrogation, Babar also disclosed that the BNP had plans to send Tarique abroad to save him from punishment by the caretaker government, and to bring him back home to a hero’s welcome if and when the BNP were restored to power. What is more, Babar revealed that Zia had told him she had Tk 20 crore stored in various locations, which would be used later during election campaigns. He later learned that this money had been taken from Warid Telecom – an Abu Dhabi-based cellular operator inBangladesh– as a bribe, in exchange for facilitating the spread of its network in the country.

The ongoing trial over theChittagongarms haul and the grenade attack on the Awami League rally inDhakain 2004 that targeted Sheikh Hasina has revealed Tarique’s involvement in both these incidents. Babar, incidentally, also disclosed that Hawa Bhavan was linked to the killing of senior Awami League leader Asma Kibria and former MP Ahsanullah Master. And the list goes on.

Tarique’s involvement in such crimes resulted in the American embassy in Dhaka recommending that his entry into theUSbe blocked, and a leaked cable stated that the embassy believed he was ‘guilty of egregious political corruption that has had a serious adverse effect on US national interests’, namely, the stability of democratic institutions and US foreign assistance goals. The confidential cable, released by WikiLeaks, was sent by James F Moriarty, the thenUSambassador toDhaka, who described Tarique as ‘notorious for flagrantly and frequently demanding bribes in connection with government procurement actions and appointments to political office’.

Meanwhile, Tarique’s brother Coco was tried and sentenced on June 23, 2011 to six years’ rigorous imprisonment for laundering over Tk 20 crore toSingapore. The other man accused in this case – Ismail Hossain Saimon, son of BNP leader and former shipping minister, the late Akbar Hossain – was given the same sentence, and both men, who were tried in absentia, were also fined Tk 38.38 crore. Both remain fugitive.

All this gives a bird’s eye view of Khaleda Zia’s administration and her BNP. The National Board of Revenue (NBR) ofBangladeshrevealed that Zia had whitened black money amounting to Tk 13.31 million during the period 2002-3, and in 2006-7 by paying fines amounting to Tk 3.4 million. Under a special scheme announced by the former caretaker government ofBangladesh, both Zia and Tarique had whitened large sums earned through illegal means during the BNP’s regime.

No wonder that Forbes magazine has included her among the world’s richest women.