3 Dev projects in Cox’s Bazar: Syndicate finds mines of money
A syndicate of bureaucrats, politicians and officials of Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) in Cox's Bazar have systematically siphoned off Tk 78 crore in public money from three development projects.
For two of the projects, they acquired land that was far more expensive than available alternatives, costing the government an additional Tk 48 crore. Around Tk 30 crore more was embezzled in the name of land requisition for another project.
The findings, by the Anti-Corruption Commission's Chattogram office, shed light on how powerful syndicates make their fortune at the expense of taxpayers' money.
The 750-page probe report, prepared by an investigator in relation to three graft cases involving the three projects, names 44 government officials, including 23 admin cadre officers.
They include a former deputy commissioner of Cox's Bazar, former additional deputy commissioner, former UNO, four former and current officials of PBI Cox's Bazar unit, including the SP and ex-additional SP. The gang also includes 23 surveyors, seven kanongos, six additional land acquisition officers and two sub-registrars.
In addition, the list names seven political leaders, including Cox's Bazar district Awami League president and secretary, detailing the scale of their involvement and share of responsibility in the fraud.
The ACC office in the port city received the report on June 30. Usually, an official submits his report to a deputy director, who then forwards it to the director general (investigation) of ACC.
Afterwards, the report is sent to the ACC chairman for approval. Subsequently, it comes back to the investigation officer who then submits it to the court as part of the charge sheet.
As of yesterday, the report was still sitting at the desk of Mahbubul Alam, the deputy director at Chattogram ACC office.
"We are reviewing it. As the report is too long, it will take time [to be forwarded]," said the deputy director when asked about the status of the report a few days back.
THE LONG CON
The government has undertaken 73 mega projects in this coastal district worth Tk 3.5 lakh crore, and decided to acquire land worth Tk 25,000 crore for the purpose.
In its investigation, the ACC found evidence of graft from the very start of three projects involving the construction of a PBI administrative office, a surface water treatment plant for Cox's Bazar Municipality and a Single Point Mooring for Eastern Refinery.
For the PBI office and the water treatment plant, the District Land Acquisition Committee (DLAC) led by the deputy commissioner chose disputed sites, overlooking legal barriers.
The DLAC acquired 100 decimals of land for Tk 29.29 core at Kolatoli for the PBI office and two acres at Tk 36 crore for the municipality water treatment plant last year.
With proper procedures, the total land would have cost a little over Tk 17 crore, the investigator stated in his report.
It was a violation of the guidelines under the law for land acquisition and requisition. The guidelines state that the land-requiring body and DLAC representatives must look for an alternative cost-effective site and check whether the land was already acquired by any other government body.
As it was later discovered, another government body already acquired parts of the land years ago.
And, when it came to compensating the landowners, the syndicate defrauded ordinary people, the ACC investigation found.
The graft watchdog found that 15 fake owners received over Tk 29 crore in the name of land acquisition for the PBI office last year.
Similarly, posing as landowners, Cox's Bazar Municipality mayor's family members pocketed Tk 36 crore from the water treatment plant project, documents obtained by The Daily Star show.
Md Kamal Hossen, former deputy commissioner of Cox's Bazar, now posted at the Local Government Division, and Ashraful Afsar, former additional deputy commissioner (revenue), now posted at the Ministry of Science and Technology, facilitated the payments, the investigator found.
In the process, thousands of landowners were denied their rightful compensation. Victims held press conferences and lodged complaints with the land acquisition (LA) office, but nobody paid heed to them.
Nazim Uddin, one such victim, said he did not receive any notice for land acquisition, as is the law. When he came to know about it, the acquisition process was already underway.
"As I am the owner, I applied for compensation. But the land acquisition office behaved so rudely that at one stage I lost all hope. Later, in the middle of last year, my caretaker told me that a team of PBI officials led by its high-ups took the land under their control," he told this paper.
Three top police officials, who supervised the PBI construction project in phases, were fully aware that all the land documents submitted to DLAC were fake, the ACC investigator mentioned in his report.
They are Sarwar Alam, current superintendent of police of Cox's Bazar PBI, Md Moniruzzaman, ex-additional SP of the PBI unit now posted in Khagrachhari, and Abdullah Al Mamun, ex-additional SP of the unit now serving at the headquarters of the Bureau.
The DLAC, responsible for verifying land-related papers, certified fabricated documents and authorised payments to fake owners, according to papers obtained by this correspondent.
GRAFT IN LAND REQUISITION
From the Single Point Mooring project, local public representatives and land officials embezzled Tk 30 crore in the name of land requisition, the report said.
A Chinese company won the contract to build a depot on 191 acres of khas land requisitioned for this project in Kalamarchara area.
Tarek Bin Osman Sharif, chairman of Kalamarchara Union Parishad, and Mosharrof Hossen, chairman of Kutubzum Union Parishad, made a "deal" with the company to remove houses and other structures from the land and took Tk 10 crore for the job.
They forcibly demolished the houses and evicted the poor people who used to live on the land, though the task of eviction lies with the district administration, according to the ACC investigator.
When any immovable property is required temporarily for public purpose or in public interest, the district administration may requisition it in accordance with the law.
In case of requisition of immovable property, compensation shall be paid to the rightful owner or owners.
But thanks to the collaboration of surveyors, kanongos and land acquisition officials, Tarek pocketed Tk 20 crore, originally allocated by the government for farmers who used to cultivate the 144 acres of land on which the Chinese company built its office, the investigation found.
The land officials dropped the real farmers from the government list, thus depriving them of their rightful dues.
Contacted, Tarek said, "I have given my statement to the ACC when they called me. I don't think there was any chance to siphon off money from this project."
Mosharrof said Tarek and representatives from the Chinese company used to determine the compensation.
"As per the deal, he [Tarek] used to receive 10 percent from the total compensation. I have a business partnership with him. The ACC might have found my name this way. Beyond business relations, I don't have any collaboration with him."
ARRESTEES SPILL THE BEAN
The Rapid Action Battalion arrested a surveyor named Md Washim in Cox's Bazar on February 18, 2020, and the ACC Chattogram office filed a case two days later.
Three middlemen -- Sala Uddin, Kamruddin and Selim Ullah -- were arrested by the ACC separately later that month. They all "confessed" that they had paid commission to LA office staffers.
The trio admitted to bribing Tk 10,123,000 to two land acquisition officers alongside dozens of surveyors and kanongos.
Eleven sacks of documents, including applications of people seeking compensation, cheques and award books, which were supposed to be preserved at the additional deputy commissioner's office, were seized by Rab from their apartments.
Their diaries have details of the commission they paid to the LA office staffers.
The ACC came to know details about the graft in the three projects after quizzing the arrestees and analysing the seized documents.
It found that a surveyor used to work as the "commission collector" for the then DC Kamal Hossen and ADC Afsar.
Mohammad Edris, an arrested syndicate leader who is also a commercially important person (CIP), confessed to handing over Tk 40 lakh to a PBI inspector for forwarding it to ex-additional SP Moniruzzaman, according to ACC sources.
NO ONE DID ANY WRONG!
Denying any wrongdoing, SP Sarwar Alam said he had found some discrepancies in the papers.
"I wrote to the district administration to fix the discrepancies. Then representatives from the Roads and Highways Department and the district administration conducted a digital survey and corrected those," he claimed.
But the ACC did not find any such letter when it analysed land documents relating to the PBI project.
Asked about it, Sarwar said he submitted the letter himself and when the investigation officer came to him for land-related documents, he provided him with a copy.
But the investigation officer told this paper that he did not get any such letter.
Moniruzzaman, ex-additional SP of Cox's Bazar PBI, neither received calls nor replied to the text messages requesting his comments. Another ex-additional SP of the unit, Abdullah Al Mamun, also could not be reached.
Documents show that Moniruzzaman submitted the proposal to the administration for land acquisition for the PBI project on March 14, 2018. The proposal included wrong plot numbers and concealed the fact that parts of the proposed site had been acquired by Roads and Highways in 1992.
After the proposal was submitted, a joint feasibility report prepared on November 18, 2018, led by the then UNO AHM Mahfuzur Rahman and a police inspector on behalf of PBI, overlooked these issues and certified the papers as genuine.
The DLAC led by the then DC Kamal Hossen approved the joint feasibility study and decided to acquire the land bypassing legal issues on January 1, 2019, the investigation officer found.
Kamal Hossen, now posted at the Local Government Department as deputy secretary, rejected the ACC findings. "I know nothing about the allegations. I did everything adhering to the law," he told The Daily Star over the phone.
Former ADC Afsar, now posted at the Ministry of Science and Technology, said the land selection was solely the business of the acquiring body. They selected the land considering their "strategic requirement," he claimed.
"Land acquisition law has been followed in full while acquiring land for the PBI project," he said in a text message to this correspondent.
Mahfuzur Rahman, former UNO of Cox's Bazar Sadar upazila, now posted as the ADC of Sylhet, claimed he did not remember anything "as the land acquisition happened a long ago."
Shamim Hossain, the land acquisition officer, who released the compensation cheques to fake owners in the PBI project, also denied being involved with any syndicate.
Cox's Bazar Municipality Mayor Mujibor Rahman, also general secretary of district Awami League, could not be reached for comments over the phone.