Lengthy legal war wears out ACC
For the first time Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) led by Lt Gen (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury is working under a political government. Recently the ACC top brass have paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
A few days after that meeting ACC Chairman HASAN MASHHUD CHOWDHURY in an interview with The Daily Star said under no circumstances the anti-graft watchdog would hesitate to take action against anyone. JULFIKAR ALI MANIK took the interview.
Q. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is responsible to fight corruption. But it is very difficult to do the task alone. You had tremendous support from the caretaker government since combating graft was their prime agenda. How do you feel now that a political party is in power?
Mashhud: Why not, we're still hopeful that we should be able to continue with fighting corruption since all the political parties, especially the one which is in power now, had made it very clear in their election manifestos that fighting corruption will be one of their major agendas. The courtesy call on the prime minister has also encouraged us and we hope we will have no problems with the support from the government for our drive against corruption.
Q. Previous [political] governments had assured the nation of measures against corruption, but none kept their pledges. After meeting new Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina you told the press that the new government has assured of extending all cooperation in fighting corruption. Do you see the assurance signifies any difference this time?
Mashhud: Till now I believe we have got all the right signals from the government. Starting with the manifesto as I mentioned and subsequent developments including forming of the government or nomination of the candidates and then forming of the cabinet. Rare exceptions apart, I believe there is a qualitative change regarding the corruption aspect of the persons, those who would be in the governance of the state.
Q. Could you elaborate on the assurance of cooperation you've got?
Mashhud: No, we didn't go for any specific assurance. It was a general assurance which is I think quite all right at this stage. I think when specific measures are needed, I am confident we will be able to talk it out with the government and we will always maintain safe and a reliable channel of communications at all levels.
Q. What did you ask from the prime minister?
Mashhud: No, we did not go to ask anything. We went to convey our regards and congratulations on assumption of office. But definitely as we went there some relevant matters came up regarding ACC. To be specific we did discuss certain administrative matters of ACC, which we thought need immediate attention of the government. She was kind enough to note those and I'm sure the follow-ups as such will take place in time. Otherwise, generally we discussed the methods and the procedures of ACC and we did clarify some of our points. Overall it was not a so-called give-and-take session; it was more or less a matter of paying compliments to her. And as you had mentioned before, getting an assurance that ACC will be supported by the government in its future endeavours.
Q. We always hear about manpower crisis, lack of logistics and expertise in fighting corruption. Apart from these, what are the other significant challenges, and what kind of support is required from the government to meet the challenges?
Mashhud: Well, first of the major challenges we have indicated is political will. The government must retain the will to fight corruption. But that is not in either of the categories as you have mentioned, this is neither logistics nor money nor manpower, this is something much more valuable, much more important than these. Once this is in place, the political will, other things will automatically follow. So, our job at this stage is to expect and encourage the government to sustain the political will, which it has so far shown.
Q. ACC was formed following dissolution of the controversial Bureau of Anti-Corruption during BNP-led alliance government so that the anti-graft body could function independently. But we saw the first commission could not function effectively as the BNP government controlled it as per their political whims. Your commission was formed during the caretaker rule. Do you think it would be able to function independently under the present political government?
Mashhud: Inshallah, yes. ACC would make it a point that it is not associated with either a group or a party or a profession and it performs its tasks with a very clear and transparent agenda that is fighting corruption wherever it is.
Q. What would you do if you were not allowed to work independently and without interference from the government?
Mashhud: This being a hypothetical question I may not elaborate much on this; rather we should hope that situation will not arise and we should be able to continue working as best as we can.
Q. Last two years saw unprecedented anti-graft drive against high-profile corruption-suspects, especially politicians from both the major parties --Awami League and BNP. Now AL is in power. Many of its leaders including the prime minister are accused in corruption cases filed by the commission. What would be the fate of these cases?
Mashhud: I believe we have mentioned it before that the only thing that can happen to the cases is that the process of prosecution should be allowed to continue and the ultimate purpose of fair verdict should not be hampered by anybody in any manner.
Q. We have seen in the past that when a party comes to power they get rid of cases against their leaders or ministers or lawmaker in many ways. Do you think the same may happen this time? If so, what would be your stance?
Mashhud: Getting rid of the ACC cases is rather different. As far as I know only ACC can withdraw the cases filed by it. So in this case there will be a difference in the scenario that you mentioned. The cases were filed by ACC and not by the government or any other party, only ACC would decide whether the cases have to be withdrawn or not. To tell you at this stage we have no such plan. As of now the ACC has no inclination, it has no intention of tampering with the prosecution of the cases. The cases should be allowed to continue.
Q. We have a perception that a huge amount of money had been laundered abroad over the years. How would ACC prove the money laundering, and bring the fortune back home?
Mashhud: Now the first point is proving the case, which is ACC's job and we are doing our best to do so in some cases as you have recently noticed. We must agree that this is altogether a new area of operation for any agency in Bangladesh and there is a long way to go before either we master the tricks or we show results in terms of getting the money back.
I would only say that in my mind we have made some initial success and we will build up on that for the overall satisfactory conclusion of these cases, which should include getting the money back. But as I mentioned that part is not exactly within the purview of ACC. Other agencies are fully involved like the Bangladesh Bank, like the diplomatic channels and all that. So our first job will be to prove that money laundering has taken place.
But I said again this being a sensitive matter only one case has been made public till now; the others should wait primarily because foreign governments and agencies are involved and they should not be embarrassed by premature disclosures and secondly because no opportunities should be given to the suspects to disperse or dispose of the cash and the property they have accumulated abroad.
Q. It is a tradition here to go after corruption of the previous government. But we have no instance to take steps against corruption of the administration of a party in power. Do you think we will see any change this time in this regard?
Mashhud: If we remain steady in pursuing our goal then there should be no difficulty in prosecuting people, those who are involved with the present government. The matter of prosecuting individuals from the past governments would continue as part of our duty but then under no circumstances inshallah ACC would hesitate to take action [in case of corruption] against any persons who would be in the present administration.
Q. If ACC gets any information of corruption of present ministers, lawmakers or any bureaucrats serving in the administration, how far the commission would be able to go after this?
Mashhud: As I said again, nothing should stop ACC, nothing. We are at the stage no way to be constrained to pursue any case against anybody, whether it is of this party or that party or this profession or that profession. I know people would be watching very closely as to who would be targeted by ACC in near future. I can assure you, we will not make any change in our standard regarding who should be investigated or who should be prosecuted. Only corruption will be the criteria.
Q. What would be your strategies of work in the changed situation?
Mashhud: Basically, I think the strategy should be that we should not go on a collision course with any agency including the government. We should rather be patient and try to make the other parties see the reasons, the logic of certain corruption. This is because by doing so everybody gains except the corrupt people. The government gains in terms of its image, misuse of government resources are minimised, common people are not harassed and Bangladesh as a country gets rid of the stigma of being the most corrupt country in the world.
Q. We did not see any major steps regarding corruption allegations against bureaucrats and policemen, but still the ordinary people have been suffering from petty corruption in the police force and administration. How ACC can make a meaningful change in this regard?
Mashhud: As I keep on saying unfortunately a very large number of cases which were initiated against government officials did not get the attention of the common people as everybody including the media was interested in the high-profile cases. To repeat I may say that more 1,200 cases have been filed by ACC of which more than 700 are related to such petty corruption that you mentioned, and this involves the whole of Bangladesh not only Dhaka. So there is nothing to stop us from following this method of dealing with corruption at all levels. But I believe it would be better to prevent corruption, the petty corruption, because prosecuting all of them will be simply impossible. So both the aspects of prosecution and prevention should be aimed at regarding corruption at the lower levels as you indicate.
Q. Does ACC own up the corruption-suspect lists, which surprisingly include some people with good reputation along with many others, who have scores of graft allegations against them? Do you think a few names were included by some quarters of the caretaker government with some purpose? Why ACC did not take any steps till now to clear those names, excepting for a few politicians?
Mashhud: The list of the names that were provided by the security agencies, by the intelligence agencies were an initial help for ACC. But under no circumstances ACC got down the business of making list of people. As information was already available several names were provided to ACC. Therefore, either to include or to exclude a name is not ACC's job. ACC should confine its activities in inquiry and investigation. And if the merit of the case deserves to be prosecuted then it should be taken to the court.
Q. We saw earlier ACC worked efficiently on allegations, pressed chargesheets but the cases stumbled onto the court eventually. How do you plan to overcome this hurdle? Do you have any plan to get judiciary's support to ensure that corrupts cannot use courts to delay or derail ACC?
Mashhud: I think, basically, we must face the reality and admit that the present judicial system does grant certain relief to any accused and if they obtain those relief through legal process then we should not have any complaint about that. We do feel disappointed, we do feel frustrated that the procedure is lengthy and in many cases we could not obtain the verdicts in time but then we are also confident that we will pursue these cases as long as it takes.
I think we should not say that we would get the judiciary support because that is a wrong way of expecting assistance or backup. The judiciary should be able to function independently as it is supposed to and we should be able to prove our cases, our point and till now we are trying to do that despite, as I said, some frustrations, some setbacks. We have no option but to pursue the legal courts as it exist in the country.
Q. You're leading a crusade against corruption. We can understand how much pressure from influentials you people have to endure. Do you think the hate campaigns against you [the Trust Bank allegation] might derail ACC from its focus? How do you plan to come out clean?
Mashhud: Basically, if you say that it is a hate campaign then it should not bother us at all or they should not bother me. But then it would be fair and it would be necessary to clear my name even if it is a mala fide complaint as ACC had indicated before the matter was that part of the government and lately the government had indicated ACC itself should find out the means to deal with the matter which is being done now at this stage. To elaborate further the two commissioners of ACC have kindly agreed to look into the whole matter, indicate and recommend measures if there is a need to do so. So very soon the matter should come to a conclusion.
Q. Many think ACC drive against institutional graft was premature and not well planned. They feel ACC is just not equipped yet to get into that battle. What's your view?
Mashhud: Basically, I don't think that we cannot deal with them if not follow them at a time, so there is the point. I think the nature of the incidents or corruption is not very complicated. It is either misuse of power or getting illegal benefits, etc, especially, when the government agencies are concerned. The only point is how many cases you can initiate, how much resources you can employ against all these agencies. We are, as a matter of fact, in stages we have dealt with the Roads and Highways Department and most of them have gone to the Truth Commission and tried to get themselves absolved of the crimes they have committed. We will be looking into other agencies that you have indicated. We have the plan to go for this institutional corruption, slowly but steadily.
In the mean time we should be able to enhance both our manpower and the methods so that we can handle these matters efficiently.
Q. Politicians never got punished for their corruption as yet. Either political clout, loopholes in the laws or presidential mercy saved them. Do you think ACC can make that happen by following up a case till the end?
Mashhud: This commission is breaking fresh grounds and not following the old precedence blindly. I believe ACC should be satisfied as long as it can prosecute an accused till the final stage that is the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. ACC should not be the agency to determine or demand what punishment should be meted out to the accused if he or she is proved guilty. Again it is the privilege of the president to grant clemency in his own wisdom if he wants to. So that is an area the agency should not have any intention to get into.
Q. No substantial progress was seen in corruption allegations against several high-profile graft-suspects. The probe into alleged corruption by Arafat Rahman Koko also gained pace after the Siemens scandal and Singapore probe came to light. What actually held back ACC?
Mashhud: The cases against all such high-profile personalities will be pursued with full vigour and may be right now all the things are not visible but we are quietly and surely working both at home and abroad to prove the cases of corruption against many high-profile personalities. You indicate that ACC was held back by somebody or some reason, I told you the only reason would be the sensitiveness of the cases. We should not do anything in a premature manner, where either the case gets compromised or the accused gets the benefit before the case goes to the court.
Q. Where do you think that ACC has failed so far to make any headway? What goal have you set for yourself during this assignment?
Mashhud: Yes, we should be very clear in what we have failed. We have failed in seeing the end of the cases; the cases in the court could not be settled at a final stage. Because, the existing system would not permit us to do so in a hurry. Where else we have failed most probably is the capacity building of ACC has not progressed as smoothly as we had intended. Inshallah by now things are getting under control. We have started the process of firing or rather inducting new officials as you must have noticed. And by the middle of this year we should be able to set ourselves up properly including the automation to move with full speed. The other aspects of weakness could be the expertise in terms of forensic finance and obtaining legal assistance from abroad. Again these measures are being looked into and we hope to have the resources at our disposal in the near future in this regards.
What bothers me most at this time is that the number of cases in which we got verdict is only 10 percent of the cases filed. If we had initiated 100 cases, we got verdict only in 10 cases in the last two years. So, we have to have a better mechanism to improve the number of cases disposed at least at the trial court level. And that is a time consuming process.