I am Sami. And this is my story

The whistle-blower at the heart of Al Jazeera’s documentary on corruption in Bangladesh explains his decision to go public.

I am Sami. And this is my story
Screenshot from "All the Prime Minister's Men": Sami with General Aziz Ahmed.

Little did I know on that late December evening a meeting with this one individual would ultimately change the course of my life! All I knew then was that I was going to meet the head of the Bangladeshi paramilitary force the Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB)  and I was curious and thrilled to meet the general whom at first glance seemed to be a subtle quiet kind of an individual. 

With two pieces of luggage, General Aziz disembarked from the Budapest-bound train from Zurich. I wondered why a general would  take such a long route rather than taking a 90 minutes flight? He quickly addressed my inquisitive mind saying that he wanted to spend some time by himself, and the train ride allowed him some insight to the Central Eastern European countryside along the way. 

He seemed tired. We hailed a taxi and I dropped the then director general of BGB at his hotel and we exchanged numbers. In the coming days he was attending the annual conference of the European law enforcement agency, Europol. The general seemed very friendly to me, and unlike other two-star generals of the Bangladesh Army, he even asked me to take a selfie with him. I thought, “Wow, this is one down to earth kind of a senior military officer!” 

Back in Bangladesh, army officers are taught the importance of maintaining high moral and dignity throughout their career. Indeed, who would know it better than me? My own association with the Bangladesh Army began when I was born at a hospital when my father was a young captain in the army fighting insurgents in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region back in 1983. 

Business in Budapest

Later that day, I received a text from the general asking me to meet him in the late afternoon. When we met that evening, he surprised me even more when he asked me if I could take him on  a quick pub crawl. Well I had no idea that a Bangladeshi general would have an interest in the dazzling nightlife of Budapest.

We had fun that night. For a moment I could not believe that I was side by side and alone with one of the most powerful generals in Bangladesh who was being so friendly with me, even discussing his personal life. It left me perplexed. 

General Aziz asked me to meet him the next day and inquired if we could have a short trip to Vienna. 

“Of course,” I said. We set off from Budapest at around 1.30 pm the next day and on the way to Vienna he was asking me about my life in the city and the quality of life in Hungary. 

Hungary has always been my most favourite country. I told him that it was an amazing place to be and he immediately asked whether there were good business opportunities. I replied that the economy was  growing fast and the country was attracting a lot of interest in the tourism sector. 

The general told me about his brother who he said was living in India at that moment, but not doing so well. He said that his brother “Mr. Hasan” — that was  the name he shared with me — wanted  to move to Europe. Then he asked me whether I could  help him get his brother to Hungary so that he could establish a business. There did not seem to be anything suspicious at all in this. I observed that the general was getting emotional while he was talking about his brother. He added,  “This brother of mine shared the same bed with me and I would always remain indebted to you if you could  assist him to set up a business in Hungary.”

I was, though, a bit surprised that such a resourceful man who had known me for just about 30 hours was asking me to help in the relocation of his brother. But I just put it down to us seeming to get on so well.

After two days General Aziz left for Bangladesh. We exchanged contact details and he wished me luck and promised to email me once he was back home. 

Somewhat surprised, I actually received an email from the general within three days. 

He inquired about how to set up a business in Hungary and the procedures involved. I told him that I would get back to him after consulting with a lawyer who was an expert at setting up businesses for foreigners. 

Within four months, Bay of Bengal Kft — the company of General Aziz Ahmed’s brother “Mohammad Hasan” — was setup and I received all the documents through courier service.

Not a real businessman

Mohammad Hasan, arrived in Budapest at the beginning of the summer of 2015. His personality failed to portray him as a sound individual. He travelled to Budapest along with one of his friends and their conversation was all about Bangladeshi politics.

Within weeks after his arrival I assisted Hasan to start a hostel business, and he also leased an empty restaurant premises. As an entrepreneur myself I did not have enough time to assist Hasan with his business operations, but with some concern I noticed he was not capable of managing his businesses alone as at that time he could not speak any English, yet alone Hungarian. I therefore found some local staff for him. 

Hasan’s erratic and irrational behaviour annoyed his employees and on a regular basis I was bombarded with calls from them about how he was mis-managing the businesses, and that they were not being paid on time. I started to get annoyed. 

At the same time, General Aziz used to contact me on a regular basis to find out about the whereabouts of Hasan and how his business operation was going on. It felt like General Aziz was trying to micro-manage his brother’s business from Bangladesh, not something that seemed would go well with his main line of work as a senior army officer. Military officials in Bangladesh are not allowed to actively take part in any private business and, given his role as the Director General of the BGB, one would have expected his plate to have been very full with a lot of other work.  

I started to increasingly receive late night calls from the building where Hasan’s hostel was housed with complaints about loud noise and bizarre parties at the Bengal Hostel. The way Hasan conducted his business was strange, to say the least. He would sometimes buy alcoholic drinks for everyone staying at that hostel and not even charge people he liked. 

In addition, his over-friendliness with female guests at the hostel was not appreciated. A wealthy man in his early 50s trying to befriend young female guests was a distasteful sight, and this was a red flag for me. 

A seasoned business operator would not run a business this way. I recalled General Aziz telling me that his brother was doing export-import and tourism related business in India for nearly 14 years, but this did not seem credible from what I was witnessing in Budapest.  

In September 2015, the general again visited Hungary to check on his brother and was accompanied by his wife and another military officer.

He seemed very pleased to see his brother was slowly settling down. He visited the hostel and advised him to add some more beds and change the colours of the hallway rooms. After visiting the empty restaurant space he suggested returning it to its owner and instructed me to demand back the money that had been paid for the security deposit. In Hungary, however, when you abruptly call off a contract in this way, you forfeit the deposit. 

The general however was not happy about it. He asked me to pressure  the owner to return the money, which ultimately never happened.

BGB recruitment

Gradually, Hasan started to show me his true self.  He used to be busy constantly with his four phones and would often tell me that soon I would realise how important a person he really was.  One day, to my great surprise, I noticed him talking to the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. He was addressing the prime minister as “apa” which translates to  “older sister” in Bengali. I became totally baffled. I also noticed that the top leaders of the Awami League would call him and he would task them with doing certain things. Soon I figured that this was not any ordinary person that I was associating with and that there  must be something that I was  not aware of. 

One day I was sitting next to Hasan when he called someone and he showed me the video call. He introduced this person to me as “Pichii” or the “Little One”. It was his younger brother Joseph, he said. He did not tell me much then, only that he had been admitted at a hospital back in Dhaka. 

I often overheard Hasan and  Joseph discussing the registration numbers of candidates who wanted  to join the BGB and soon realised what was happening:  Joseph was collecting the names of  potential candidates who would each pay between 3000-4000 Euros to be selected for the position of a soldier at the BGB. Hasan would then filter the list based on confirmed payments and forward it to General Aziz directly. I myself can bear witness to that. 

Hasan enrolled at least 800-1200 individuals in this way with the help of his elder brother General Aziz. At this time, during this period when he was coordinating these recruitment, he would not leave his house. 

I had never witnessed such a level of corruption until then. More to my surprise, Hasan would often say,  “Wait till the middle of June 2018, you will see Farukh bhai as the Chief of Army Staff.” Farukh was the family nickname of General Aziz. I did not believe Hasan then, but later on I was proven wrong. What Hasan told me back in December 2015 became reality when General Aziz was appointed the 15th Chief of Army Staff of the Bangladesh Army in June 2018. 

Hasan to Haris

In early 2016 Hasan’s true identity became known to me. My friends serving in the armed forces back in Bangladesh, whom I had told I was helping the brother of General Aziz, sent me internet links that showed Mohammad Hasan was none other than Haris Ahmed, an Interpol “Red Notice” fugitive, wanted for murder,  and that Josef was one of the top gangsters in Bangladesh in jail for the same crime.

I still had high regard for General Aziz, but when I accessed the links my friends had forwarded me I felt I had been deceived and played around with in a very unethical way. I had a terrible feeling that I was stuck in quick-sand. 

When I confronted Haris about his true identity, he calmly asked me to ignore all these articles, claiming that they were  all propaganda against him. He then said something extraordinary — that he had in  fact killed twelve people and that he was troubled that that there was only one murder case against him as this made him look like a small thug when he was in reality a top crime boss in Bangladesh’s underworld. He explained to me that he had been living in India under the direct patronage of RAW — India’s intelligence agency — and he had to leave as RAW wanted to use him in some way that would not have served the interests of his brother General Aziz, the Director General of Border Guard that time. 

General Aziz had sensed that RAW might play some kind of tricks and felt he had to move him abroad from India, Haris said, adding that his brother, the general, did not share with me this background fearing that I might back off from providing assistance.

General Aziz gave me the same explanation when I asked him. 

I did not know what to do. I was in tremendous fear. I was worried about my safety and that of my family. Part of me wanted to report Haris to the Hungarian police and I asked General Aziz to take his brother out of the country or else I would approach law enforcement agencies locally. 

Aziz threatened me verbally over the phone and also sent me multiple emails threatening to cause harm to me or to my family members if his brother had to return from Hungary. 

I started to develop enormous hatred for both brothers and began ignoring Haris who would on some days call me repeatedly to try and speak to me. General Aziz would reach out to my in-laws and ask them to convince me to speak to his brother.

Haris was well off by then. It was the end of 2016 and, other than the recruitment racket, Haris was already dealing with most of the BGB contracts.

My interactions with Haris gradually reduced. Aziz, at around this time, approached a Hungarian Solar Power manufacturer, who was interested in establishing  a solar power plant back in Bangladesh. Though the project never took off, Aziz befriended one of the Hungarian owners of the manufacturer and this man started to assist Haris. 

Aziz gets his promotions

When Aziz was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, I received a call from Haris who said that,  “Farukh bhai has been promoted and he asked you to call him on his new phone number.” I was not surprised, I heard from various business sources that in 2017 Haris was struggling with his businesses and General Aziz tried once more to get me into his scheme. He offered me investments during the phone call and asked me to assist Haris and in exchange I could take advantage of his promotion. 

I have always had high regard for the Bangladesh Army, but this individual General Aziz made me feel terrible when he asked me to exploit his advantageous appointment and in return I had to assist his fugitive brother. It was puzzling to me how a serving three-star-general could vouch for a wanted criminal this way. 

By now, it was not surprising for me to learn that General Aziz was going to be the Chief of Army Staff in June 2018. Haris himself had told me that the three brothers — Anis, Joseph and himself — had contributed a lot to assist the Bangladesh Awami League during the party’s difficult times, and that they were always loyal and had demonstrated utmost dedication to the head of the party Sheikh Hasina, and that  in the process of which another brother, Tipu, was killed. 

This is exactly what Haris used to say to me, “We have shed blood and sacrificed a life for her [Sheikh Hasina], now it’s her [Sheikh Hasina’s] time to pay back”. By appointing Aziz as the Chief of Army Staff, the prime minister was not only paying the brothers back for their work, but also ensured that she could secure her regime’s reign for a third term. 

The military should play a vital role in maintaining proper governance in developing countries like Bangladesh, where most government institutions are grappling with systematic corruption. The armed forces often stands out as a single institution on whom general people can still rely.  But Sheikh Hasina’s appointment of General Aziz Ahmed as the Chief of Army Staff  has resulted a crime syndicate at the top of Bangladesh’s army. 

I thought I had to expose this. 

I understand what I have done may well jeopardise the safety and security of my life along with my loved ones — but if this one step of mine, inspires my fellow countrymen to come out of their comfort zone and stand up for the right thing then our nation will have significant positive fundamental change in years to come.”●

Sami (pseudonym) now works with Al Jazeera Investigative Unit.

See the Al Jazeera documentary, “All the Prime Minister’s Men”