Who gets investigated for corruption?

How a marriage separation within Bangladesh prime minister’s family helps explain why Awami League leaders in Faridpur are now in jail.

Who gets investigated for corruption?
Screenshot of article in Economist about corruption allegations against Awami League leaders in Faridpur.

In Bangladesh, corruption allegations are generally used as a tool against political opponents, and very rarely are governing party apparatchiks investigated for embezzlement and graft . Exceptionally, however, Awami League leaders and activists become the focus of investigations — and when this is the case, it is interesting to ask “Why are these particular people being arrested?” and “Why now?”

One such example are the arrests in June 2020 of two brothers, Sajjad Hossain and Imtiaz Hasan, one of whom was the general secretary of the Faridpur city branch of the ruling Awami League, both accused of amassing huge amounts of wealth. This led to the detention of 18 other local Awami League leaders and activists.

Detailed articles in the Prothom Alo, a respected vernacular  newspaper, have set out how these two brothers, relatively small fry within the Awami League, allegedly extorted vast swathes of land  —  over 3.2 million square metres (2450 bighas) —  and had transactions in their bank accounts amounting to over $353 million (Taka 30 billion). Along with a coterie of other Awami League activists and leaders, they are accused of taking a large chunk of government tenders in the district. [1]

In October, The Economist ran an article which suggests that the arrests are “the latest in a series of moves to clean up the ruling party.” It quotes the anti-corruption campaigner, Iftekharuzzman, the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, arguing that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown much more vigour in the past year and a half in taking on corruption mainly driven by her “hankering for legitimacy.”

The magazine’s article does allude to the possibility that the anti-corruption arrests may have other motives  —  reflecting for example “divisions within the ruling party” or a “power struggle” within it. It suggests that a crackdown on casinos in Dhaka last year may just have been about allowing “other bits of the party to muscle in on the casino business”. It also points out that a protector of the two Faridpur brothers was the brother of Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, the local member of parliament and a former minister, who is  —  significantly  —  the father-in-law of Saima Wazed Putul, Sheikh Hasina’s daughter.

When looking at the rationale for the arrest of the two brothers and their associates in Faridpur, it is important to recognise that the alleged scale of the corruption undertaken by the two brothers,  though massive,  is in no way exceptional. These days just about every neighbourhood, ward, upazila and constituency have their own versions of Awami League’s “Faridpur brothers” and much more besides. Corruption is institutionalised throughout the party.

To say that is not to minimise the corruption when the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in power. But with 12 years in power  —  without the country’s two main parties alternating in government as happened between 1990 to 2008 — the Awami League has taken corruption to dizzying heights. The reality is that if Sheikh Hasina was actually interested in “cleaning up the ruling party”,  which some suggest is what these occasional jailing of party leaders is about ,  the prime minister would have to arrest the lions’ share of all the Awami League’s local and national leaders.

That, of course, is not going to happen. The corrupt party officials know that, and continue to amass money on the assumption that they are protected by their leaders. So what happened in Faridpur?

In this south-central Bangladesh district, the alleged corruption by the two brothers had been going on for at least seven years. It faced no obstacles as, according to the police and confessional statements, it had the support of the key kingpin within the Awami League in Faridpur  —  its MP and former minister Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain. Mosharraf is not just any MP. His son is married to the daughter of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister. This gave corruption in Faridpur an ever-greater level of protection — the two brothers were not only protected by Mosharraf, a powerful AL leader in his own right, but also by the very personal relationship Mosharraf had with the prime minister. The brothers, Sajjad and Imtiaz, must have thought that as long as Hasina was in power, and Mosharraf was there to provide cover, they could continue to amass money with impunity.

Prothom Alo reports that it was a decision by Subal Chandra Saha, a senior Awami League lawyer and the president of the party’s district office, not to attend an Iftar party hosted by Mosharraf himself at his house in May 2020 that triggered the investigations. Mosharraf did not take kindly to Saha’s absence at his Iftar and his annoyance escalated into an attack organised by the two brothers on his house. Saha went to the police and filed a complaint. With the local police in Mosharraf’s pocket, that normally would have been the end of matter, and Saha’s complaint would have gathered dust.

However, this time it did not. The police did investigate. Prothom Alo explained the abrupt change in practice in this way: “[When] news of the attack [on Saha’s house] reached the attention of the top government leadership, orders came for an independent investigation into the matter.” I have learnt that “top government leadership” here means Sheikh Hasina. Saha is “close” to the prime minister and after she was told about what had happened by a tearful Saha, she ordered an investigation.

So, in relation to the question “why does some abuse of power or alleged corruption get investigated  — and others not?”, one part of that  answer is that investigations are more likely to happen if the victim has the ear of the prime minister.

But Sheikh Hasina’s involvement was crucial in another way. There is no other person in Bangladesh who could give a green light to an investigation that centred around the father-in-law of the prime minister’s daughter, other than the prime minister herself.

But why would Sheikh Hasina now order an investigation that could directly impact Mosharraf? 

In the past, this would never have happened. Mosharraf was untouchable , not only a loyal Awami League leader and former minister but also her beyain (father of daughter’s husband). But Hasina no longer has anywhere as close a family relationship with Mosharraf as she once had. For some time, there had been difficulties in the relationship between Hasina’s daughter Saima Wazed Putul and Mosharraf’s son Khandakar Masrur Hossain Mitu  —  and the two now, according to a close family friend, effectively live separate lives. 

Inevitably, therefore, Hasina’s relationship with Mosharraf has cooled. This probably, at least in part, explains why Hasina did not reappoint him as minister after the 2018 election; and, it also likely explains why she could agree to allowing the current investigations to go ahead.

The investigation to which Hasina agreed, however, clearly has its limits. While a total of 20 Awami League leaders and activists have now been arrested in Faridpur, Mosharraf and his brother have been spared from detention, even though many of the accused claim the two were both involved in financial corruption. The police were allowed to target those around Mosharraf and his brother  —  embarrassing and weakening them  — but were not allowed to directly target them. Whatever cooling there may be in the relationship between the two, Mosharraf remains the grandfather of the prime minister’s grandchildren. And this will always provide immunity.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.

🔗  Prothom Alo – The tale of two brothers in Faridpur (Jul 28th, 2020)

🔗  Prothom Alo – Faridpur brothers grabbed 2450 bighas in 7 years (Aug 30th, 2020)

🔗  Prothom Alo – Faridpur brothers snatch land and life with fake documents (Oct 10th)

🔗  Economist – Crackdown in Bangladesh reveals corruption on a daunting scale (Oct 17th)

🔗  Netra News – Censored Justice (Jan 30th, 2020)

🔗  Netra News – BNP leaders exonerated by international arbitration tribunal (Jan 2nd)

[1] The initial main Prothom Alo reports were based primarily on police information and in particular on confessional statements made by many of the accused to a magistrate. However, information provided by the police is often not trustworthy,  fail to paint a  complete picture, and confessional statements particularly lack credibility. None of this  necessarily changes simply because it is Awami League activists and leaders who are accused. It is therefore quite possible that some of this information is untrue or at least exaggerated. However, for the purposes of this column, the important point is that these governing party men were arrested and the state is accusing them of corruption. It should be noted that subsequent Prothom Alo articles rely on non-police sources.