Three former senior executives of SNC-Lavalin Group in Canada were acquitted in the Padma bridge corruption conspiracy case, a development that prompted calls for apology from those who were vocal against the alleged graft attempt.
On Friday, Justice Ian Nordheimer of the Ontario Superior Court in Canada ruled that he had serious concerns about three applications the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) filed in 2011 to get court approval for using wiretaps as the case evidence.
The RCMP had sought the approval as it probed allegations that SNC staff planned to bribe officials in Bangladesh to try to win a $50 million contract to supervise construction of the country's Padma bridge project.
“Reduced to its essentials, the information provided in the [wiretap applications] was nothing more than speculation, gossip and rumour,” Judge Nordheimer concluded, reports the Globe and Mail newspaper.
"Nothing that could fairly be referred to as direct factual evidence, to support the rumour and speculation, was provided or investigated. The information provided by the tipsters was hearsay (or worse) added to other hearsay."
A number of government high-ups in Bangladesh were charged and later acquitted by a Bangladesh court and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in the corruption attempt case relating to the bridge project.
Syed Abul Hossain, one of the key accused, who had to resign as communications minister amid the corruption scandal, said: “The verdict of the Canadian court proved that the allegation made by the World Bank against me is a complete lie.
“I am a victim of conspiracy by the World Bank and a vested quarter in Bangladesh … my family was harassed. I had to quit the position of the minister.”
In a statement, he added that the construction of the bridge got delayed because of the local and international plots.
Qimiao Fan, country director of the WB, said the global lender takes very seriously the allegations of fraud and corruption impacting the projects financed by it.
He said once a World Bank investigation is concluded, it shares findings with the national authorities to determine whether or not there was a violation of national legislations. The status of referral actions is published in the annual report of the Bank's Department of Institutional Integrity.
“How each referral is handled is always left up to each national authority,” said Qimiao.
The issue surfaced in Bangladesh in 2011 when the foreign funding for the project became uncertain after the WB ringed alarm over an alleged corruption attempt in the country's largest infrastructure project.
The key donor backing the bridge project with a $1.2 billion fund commitment first suspended the credit.
To get the loan revived, one minister resigned, one secretary was sent to jail and one adviser to the prime minister was sidelined, among a number of measures taken in Bangladesh.
The issue lingered for two years. But nothing seemed to have worked. Later in June 2012, the WB cancelled the credit, saying it had proof of corruption conspiracy involving Bangladesh officials, executives of a Canadian firm and individuals.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed to build the bridge using the country's own resources. Accordingly, the construction work was inaugurated in December 2015. The government hopes it would be open to public in 2018.
On Friday, the issue of Padma bridge graft conspiracy came back to the public domain with the ruling of Justice Nordheimer.
The RCMP originally charged five people in the case, but charges against two of the accused -- Mohammad Ismail and Abul Hasan Chowdhury -- were previously dropped, wrote the Globe and Mail newspaper.
The case against the remaining three accused -- former SNC vice-president of energy and infrastructure Kevin Wallace, former SNC vice-president of international development Ramesh Shah, and Bangladeshi-Canadian businessman Zulfiquar Ali Bhuiyan -- ended Friday when Judge Nordheimer acquitted all three.
In October 2014, a Dhaka court acquitted all seven government officials, including former bridges division secretary Mosharraf Hossain, who were accused of corruption in the bridge project. The same year, the ACC also cleared them of the graft charges.
Economic Affairs Adviser Mashiur Rahman, whose name came up in the allegation, told The Daily Star that the verdict of the Canadian court would further brighten the image of Bangladesh.
The former bureaucrat's name was included in the “Ramesh Diary” that is believed to contain the names of people to be benefitted from the financial felony.
He did not face any court charge.
Mashiur said the government had always maintained that the allegation was baseless.
“The verdict [of the Canadian court] has again proved that the government was right. All credit goes to the farsightedness of the prime minister because she had taken a bold stance,” he said.
The adviser also said the Bangladeshis with responsible positions who had contributed to flare-up of the corruption rumour should at least admit their mistake to the prime minister and apologise.
The corruption allegation involved about $30 million to $40 million.
Sajeeb Wazed Joy, ICT adviser to the prime minister, also criticised the WB, saying the evidence was fabricated by the development lender.
“I had seen the evidence myself during the whole episode. It was quite clearly made up as there were no concrete details -- just one anonymous source who was never revealed, even to the Canadian court,” he said yesterday in a post on his Facebook account.
He said the WB came up with this plot against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government in an attempt to discredit her.
“Those people who took sides against Bangladesh are unpatriotic. They also owe Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her Awami League government and all the people whose reputation they hurt an apology. Indeed they owe Bangladesh an apology,” he added.
The proposed 6.2km bridge will connect the capital with 16 south-western districts and is expected to facilitate faster poverty reduction and economic growth for the entire country.
An estimate suggests that the economic growth will increase by 1.7 percent for the south-west region, and 0.6 percent for the whole country, said the WB in 2011.