Nizam Uddin, a 55-year-old Cox's Bazar resident, was attending a relative's wedding at a hotel in the tourist town on December 23, 2019 when he received a phone call informing him that a powerful syndicate had sold his land to a government project posing as its owner.
A perplexed Nizam appeared at the district land acquisition office the next day to submit his hastily gathered land documents with the hope of receiving compensation as the rightful owner of his two-decimal land.
Since then, he has visited the land acquisition office numerous times -- a hundred visits, in his estimation -- but his pleas were met with indifference and neglect with no cooperation to provide him any compensation.
He claimed that he is now living under threat from the people who sold off his property to the government.
"It is unbelievable. I have got all the legal documents against my land, yet the syndicate robbed the money in collaboration with land acquisition officials, surveyors, and top brass of Cox's Bazar district administration," Nizam told The Daily Star on March 14.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a massive forgery that took place in the acquisition of one acre or 100 decimals of land to build a Police Bureau of Intelligence (PBI) office in Kolatoli Bypass Road area, adjacent to the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway.
On a visit to the land in question on March 25, this correspondent saw walls have been built with a signboard saying the land had been acquired for PBI. A tin-roofed shanty was also seen inside the walls.
An administrative building, barracks, and other structures are set to be built on the land, according to PBI documents.
An investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission found a syndicate in collaboration with land officials embezzled around Tk 29.29 crore of public money against 80 decimals of land through fake papers, keeping the real landowners in the dark, according to ACC documents.
The government had disbursed around Tk 31.13 crore for the acquisition, as per the documents seen by The Daily Star.
An ACC official with knowledge of the forgery told The Daily Star that only one person had withdrawn the money using genuine documents while 15 others used fake powers of attorney and other illegal means to siphon off the public money.
In the acquisition of the 100 decimals of land, standard government procedure was also not followed, the ACC document said.
For instance, Nizam did not receive any notice of acquisition from the local land office but one Nurul Haque, allegedly a member of the syndicate, got the notice on January 23, 2019. The Daily Star obtained a copy of this notice.
As per the Land Acquisition Act-2017, the land acquisition office led by the additional deputy commissioner (revenue), along with the upazila nirbahi officer and assistant commissioner (land) from the area concerned, must make a field visit to the land chosen for acquisition. They then hang a notice in the land area that it has been selected for acquisition.
If no reservation arises from anyone regarding the acquisition, the land acquisition office then proceeds to issue a notice to the landowner by Section-06 of the Land Acquisition Act and prepare a field book by Section-07, which will assess the compensation of land, trees and structures on it. The office then pays the owner.
SYNDICATE FORGED LAND DOCUMENTS
At a press conference on December 6 last year, eight victims of this illegal land acquisition alleged that a syndicate led by Md Edris CIP, Nurul Haque, and Belayet Hossein took control of PBI's land acquisition process.
The syndicate not only faked documents to grab the land but also threatened the genuine landowners to not raise their voice against the illegal acquisition.
Nurul Alam, while reading out a written statement on behalf of all the victims, alleged that the land acquisition office did not take any action against the syndicate despite several appeals and cases regarding the fake documents.
Documents obtained by The Daily Star show the home ministry gave administrative approval for land acquisition for the PBI office in Cox's Bazar on October 1, 2018.
The district administration started the land acquisition process in January 2019, selecting plot numbers 20307, 20306, 17050, and 20163 to acquire 100 decimals of land under Jhilongja mouza of Cox's Bazar Sadar.
Among these four, plot 20307 is the largest with 75 decimals of land with the other three plots making up the rest of the land.
The 10-member syndicate hatched a conspiracy centring around these four plots.
Led by Edris CIP and Nurul Haque, the syndicate included the numbers of these government acquired plots in their claim on 54 decimals of land they actually bought through four powers of attorney in two phases in 2018 and 2019 from Chandrima Abasik area, which is half a kilometre away from the plots acquired for PBI, according to documents from land acquisition office.
The land acquisition office treated these fake owners as real on this basis throughout the whole process, despite several appeals by the genuine landowners.
The land acquisition office disbursed payment to one Nezamul Haque for 18 decimals of land against plot number 20306 -- however, the khatiyan (record of rights) and land trace map shows only seven decimals of land in that plot.
Nezamul received Tk 5.25 crore from the land acquisition office on March 25, 2020 -- just one day ahead of the countrywide shutdown began due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Edris CIP's wife Jinnat Rehana withdrew money twice using one sale deed (number 1020) -- first as the payment for 4.41 decimals of land and then the payment for nine decimals of land.
Though she only possessed 10 decimals of land based on the fake sale deed, she received payment for 13.41 decimals in March 2020 to the tune of around Tk 3.5 crore in four cheques.
MONEY RELEASED IN RECORD TIME
Documents obtained by The Daily Star revealed that initially, the then land acquisition officer Azit Deb in his payment assessment -- a thorough assessment of the land documents before paying the money -- held back payment on October 9, 2019 citing 10 cases regarding 80 decimals of the land intended for the PBI office were pending with the Joint Session Judge's Court in Cox's Bazar.
As per the law, the money cannot be released until the disposal of cases relating to the intended land.
The payment assessment, a copy of which The Daily Star obtained, further said the land deed that claimed ownership over the 80 decimals was for land in Chandrima Abasik area -- out of the area selected for acquisition.
As Azit Deb had held back payment, Nurul Haque posing as plaintiff submitted a fake memorandum of agreement to new land acquisition officer Shamim Hossain on November 10, 2019 saying that the disputing parties had agreed to take back the cases from court and thereby urged the land acquisition office to release the money.
The land acquisition office led by Ashraful Afsar, former additional deputy commissioner (revenue), and land acquisition officer Shamim Hossain accepted the fake memorandum of agreement and released the money though Nurul Haque was not a plaintiff in any of the cases that were filed relating to the disputed land.
In his review report on December 1, 2019, Shamim Hossain, while overturning Azit Deb's reservation regarding the payment assessment, said that the matter relating to the reservation and cases were resolved through investigation and recommended that the payment process be facilitated.
As the Cox's Bazar district administration reshuffled work distribution in the land acquisition office on March 24, 2020, the file relating to the PBI land acquisition was then handed over from group 3 to group 1.
"It takes at least one week to transfer the files from one group to another. But group 3 transferred the files immediately and group 1 released 17 cheques worth Tk 17 crore to 14 people the very next day," an ACC official investigating the forgery told The Daily Star, adding that such quick disbursement was a first in the history of land acquisition payments.
The official said as lockdown was looming, the syndicate anticipated that the office would delay the payment and they got the cheques released as fast as they could.
The ACC filed a case on March 10 last year after arresting two middlemen and one surveyor with Tk 96 lakh in their possession, linked to the land acquisition forgery.
DC-LED PROBE BODY INCLUDED ONE OF THE ACCUSED
Nurul Alam, one of the victims who lost two decimals of land in the PBI acquisition, filed a case seeking court intervention on August 10, 2020 accusing 14 people including Ashraful Afsar, former additional deputy commissioner (revenue), and land acquisition officers Shamim Hossain and Abu Hasnat Md Shahidul Haque.
The court in its order on the following day asked the Cox's Bazar deputy commissioner to investigate the matter regarding the allegation raised by Nurul Alam and submit a report within 30 working days.
However, the then DC of Cox's Bazar formed an investigation committee on May 17, 2020 including one of the accused, Ashraful Afsar.
The committee, in its investigation, not surprisingly found nothing wrong in the land acquisition process and submitted its report to the court.
Nurul Alam, who underwent a surgery recently, was unable to talk in detail about the matter. He only told The Daily Star that the case he filed with the court has not seen much progress.
However, an official of Chattogram ACC integrated office-02, who is looking into the forgery case, said an investigation committee with an accused among them couldn't be expected to investigate the matter thoroughly. The committee did not look into the allegations raised by the people deprived of their compensation, he added.
He said that they have got evidence that the syndicate led by Edris CIP, Belayet Hossein, and Nurul Haque resorted to forgery at every stage of the land acquisition process.
Six fraudsters -- Edris CIP, Nurul Haque, Nasir Uddin, Tipu Sultan, Golam Moula, and Shamimur Rahman -- signed a registered agreement on June 18, 2019 delineating who would bear the bribery costs and everyone's share of the loot after receiving payment from the land acquisition office.
The Daily Star obtained a copy of the agreement, which divided the fraudster into two parties -- Edris CIP alone was the first party and the rest five formed the second party in the agreement.
As per the agreement, the six agreed to open a joint bank account. The second party could only withdraw Tk 1 crore as per the agreement while Edris was entitled to the rest of the money as he was bearing all costs relating to the illegal land acquisition.
The land in question was chosen by PBI and approved by the district land acquisition committee in 2017, based on which the home ministry gave administrative nod for this the next year.
Md Moniruzzaman, the then additional police super of Cox's Bazar PBI, told The Daily Star on April 26 that as an expectant agency they had no major role to play in land acquisition. "It was done by the land acquisition office of Cox's Bazar district administration."
Asked why an expectant agency would choose a disputed land, he said he was in charge of Cox's Bazar PBI till March 25, 2018 and the process was about to begin during his term.
"So we did not know then who owned what amount of land, it is up to the land acquisition office to verify everything," said Moniruzzaman, now posted in Khagrachhari.
PRESENT STATUS OF THE ACCUSED
Both Edris CIP and Nurul Haque were recently arrested by the ACC.
Nezamul Haque, one of the accused who withdrew Tk 5.25 crore against 18 decimals of land while owning only seven decimals of land on paper, claimed to The Daily Star that documents proving his ownership of 18 decimals of land were publicly available.
However, a search of the e-mutation website of the Cox's Bazar land office revealed that the khatiyan number 7545 against the land belonging to Nezamul was found suspended.
Another accused Belayet Hossein did not respond to multiple phone calls.
Asked how the money was released to fake owners of land despite dozens of cases pending with the court, land acquisition officer Shamim Hossain told The Daily Star that he wasn't authorised to make any comment without permission from his supervisors.
Ashraful Afsar, former additional deputy commissioner (revenue) of Cox's Bazar, now transferred to the Ministry of Science and Technology, told The Daily Star that he could recollect one incident when one cheque was pending due to some complications. After forming a three-member committee, they released the cheque later.
"Apart from this, everything was done following due procedure," he claimed.