Koko's kickbacks

ARRIVAL of US-UK team to Dhaka to identify the persons involved in laundering of $200 million to Singapore and to help Bangladesh recover the money is a significant development towards retrieving of our stolen wealth siphoned off abroad.
The money was allegedly paid in kickbacks to Begum Khaleda Zia's second son Arafat Rahman Koko and a number of ministers of the BNP-led four-party alliance government and Hawa Bhaban clique.
The US Department of Justice has already moved to confiscate around $3 million from bank accounts of Koko maintained in Singapore and the forfeiture action against the funds has been sought in a US district court in Washington DC. Meanwhile, the US ambassador in Bangladesh has said that the US Justice Department's action in this regard has nothing to do with Bangladesh politics.
The case filed with the US court on January 8, primarily relates to alleged bribes paid to Koko in connection with public works projects awarded by the government of Bangladesh to Siemens AG and China Harbour Engineering Company for building a new mooring container terminal in Chittagong port.
Siemens Bangladesh has admitted that between May 2001 and August 2006, it made illicit payments of at least $5.32 million through purported business consultants to various Bangladeshi officials in exchange for favourable treatment during the bidding process on a mobile telephone project.
The ACC also unearthed information with the help of Singapore government in December 2007 that Koko has foreign currencies worth around Tk 11.43 crore deposited in a Singapore bank. Investigation into the controversial Warid Telecom deal also revealed how Koko ripped off millions of dollars to buy property in Dubai and build bank deposits in Hong Kong.
The caretaker government had been able to retrieve $129 million siphoned off money in its drastic measures taken against the corrupt businessmen and political bigwigs. It recovered foreign currency equivalent to Tk 20.41 crore from controversial businessman and a close friend of BNP's former senior joint secretary general Tarique Rahman, Giasuddin Al Mamun who issued three cheques for repatriation of the money siphoned off to Singapore.
The caretaker government was convinced that in the past few years, corrupt people had siphoned off huge amount of money earned illegally to Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Switzerland, UK, US, and some Middle East countries and tried to reach specific agreements with these countries to get retrieval of the siphoned off money. It also formed a high-powered task force to accelerate the process of repatriating the money.
Bangladesh Bank also formed a special team Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) with the technical assistance from the US to combat financial crimes and to retrieve money stashed abroad. The FIU, comprised of Bangladesh Bank officials and Anti-Corruption Commission and law enforcing agency officials, could not make any progress.
World Bank has offered its assistance to recover the wealth siphoned off from the country by corrupt people. World Bank's South Asia Region Vice President Praful Patel made this pledge during his visit to Bangladesh: "Stolen assets must be recovered and the World Bank stands ready to provide assistance in this regard." United Nations has also offered help for retrieval of illegally earned money sent overseas.
It beggars the imagination, the amount of money that some politicians and businessmen earned, enjoying unchecked power and privilege during the tenure of the last BNP-led government. They turned the country into their private fiefdoms, plundering its wealth and siphoning off huge fortunes to maintain accounts with offshore banks.
Though retrieving of stashed and kickback money by the corrupt politicians and government officials is a common problem faced by many developing countries, success in repatriation is scanty.
A Presidential Commission of Good Government in Philippines had been able to retrieve a tiny portion of money siphoned off to Switzerland by Ferdinand Marcos. The Nigerian government, however, succeeded in retrieving nearly one billion dollars stashed abroad by the late dictator Abacha.
The Bank of Indonesia (BI), the central bank of the country, is hunting the Bank Century's shareholders to retrieve the bank's assets stashed in UK and Singapore. BI's deputy governor said that BI would send letters to banking watchdogs in the two countries to help retrieve Century's assets needed to save the bank and, if necessary, it would seek assistance from Interpol.
Stashed kickbacks of Koko, which may go beyond $200 million, has impelled us to think anew of the magnitude of corruption at top level that has eaten so deep into the fabric of our national life.
The involvement of US Justice Department and FBI in investigation of such trans-border financial crimes has added an impetus to our efforts in combating corruption in high places and to get back the stashed away money.
We expect that the new government would take all measures to ensure that such anti-state elements get severe punishment for the damage that they have inflicted on the country.

A.N.M. Nurul Haque is a Daily Star columnist.


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