Bangladesh’s leading anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), is calling for an investigation into possible corruption offences committed by Obaidul Quader, the influential minister of road transport and bridges.
The call follows a recent investigation by Netra News into Quader’s large collection of luxury wristwatches from brands such as Rolex, Ulysse Nardin and Louis Vuitton. While speaking at a press briefing in Dhaka on Thursday (January 9th), Quader told journalists that he received these wristwatches as “gift items” from “party activists” and “admirers”.
The executive director for TIB, the national affiliate of Transparency International, pointed out that the minister’s acknowledgement of the receipt of the watches as gifts most likely confirms a violation of the Toshakhana (Maintenance and Administration) Rules of 1974, which were revised in 2012.
“These rules clearly oblige all ministers and members of parliament to declare and submit all valuable gifts to the exchequer,” Iftekharruzzman, the TIB executive director, told Netra News. “Why [were] the accumulated high-value gifts not deposited to the Toshakhana [treasure-house] as per Toshakhana Rules of 1974? And, since [the gifts] were retained, why [was] the amount equivalent to [their worth] not deposited to the exchequer as per relevant provisions of the rules?”
“The Cabinet division [of the Government of Bangladesh] should first undertake an investigation, and if any irregularity is found, it should refer the matter to the Anti-Corruption Commission,” added the TIB executive director. He also said that there were other anti-corruption laws that may apply in this case, including the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1974 which creates an offence of being in possession of “property disproportionate to known sources of income”.
Any failure by the government to act in this case, according to Iftekharruzzman, would be “contradictory to the prime minister’s policy of zero tolerance and of not sparing anyone even from her own party.”
“The question may also be raised whether this is an isolated incident or just the tip of the iceberg of similar stories,” said the TIB executive director.
Mohammed Asaduzzaman, a senior high court lawyer associated with the opposition BNP, also pointed out that the minister, as a public servant, was vulnerable to investigation for the penal code offence of “misconduct”, which involves the receipt of “valuable things” without payment.
“The Anti-Corruption Commission should investigate this,” Assaduzzman said. He also added that there could be consequences for Quader if he had not disclosed the watches in his income tax certificate, “Under the Income Tax Ordinance, the watches would be liable to be confiscated if they have not been disclosed.”
Iftekharuzzman also called on Quader to provide more information on another remark he made at the press briefing where the minister disclosed that some contractors had offered him cash of “an amount” before the election which he had not accepted.
“This begs the question on whether the powerful minister took any action against such illegality. Were any of [the contractors] blacklisted? Would the identity of those individuals or entities be disclosed in the interest of transparency in public procurement, one of the sectors worst affected by corruption,” the anti-corruption campaigner said.
In its investigative report, “A wrist of luxury”, which was published on December 26th 2019, Netra News cited the claim by a whistleblower that the minister prefers to receive expensive brand watches as “gifts in return of big favours”. Based on this tip, Netra Investigations team was able to find strong evidence of a large collection of luxury brand watches owned by Quader. The team obtained photos of these watches from the minister’s verified Facebook profile, and was able to definitively identify some of them. These watches, which are worth tens of thousands of dollars, were neither declared in Quader’s affidavit to the Election Commision nor noted in his income tax certificate.
At the press briefing on Thursday, the minister was asked to comment on the report published by Netra News.
“You own at least seven expensive watches […] One of your watches resembles a Rolex Day-Date President, which costs 28 lac taka. Al Jazeera is reporting that Netra News has been blocked [for covering this story],” one reporter told him.
“The watches I have were not bought with my own money, not a single one of them,” Quader responded. “You went abroad and came back with a watch for me as a gift, and I took it. For God’s sake, I am telling you, these [watches] and my expensive dresses were not bought with my own money.” The minister added that he receives a lot of such gifts as people love him and many of his party activists live aboard.●