Why this relentless assault on anti-graft efforts?
The proposed Income Tax Bill 2023, which contains a section that restricts officials of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) from accessing tax files of suspects under investigation without a court order, serves as yet another threat to the fight against corruption in Bangladesh. This provision, if enacted, would unnecessarily complicate and lengthen investigations, potentially allowing corrupt individuals to exploit legal loopholes and evade justice. While speaking to The Daily Star, some ACC officials have rightly expressed their frustration, saying they don't know for whose benefit is the anti-graft body's investigative power being curtailed.
That is precisely our question as well. Tax returns play an important role in uncovering illegal wealth and serve as crucial evidence in investigations. Under the current system, the ACC initiates an investigation upon receiving a complaint regarding illegal wealth. ACC officers obtain tax returns from the National Board of Revenue and cross-check the information provided in the wealth statement of suspects. They also verify the details of movable and immovable properties through records from banks and other relevant organisations. If any irregularities are detected, they proceed to file cases. But the proposed restriction seems to benefit the very individuals the ACC is tasked with investigating, thus undermining its ability to tackle corruption.
As some have pointed out, it also contradicts article 20(2) of the Constitution, which criminalises unearned income, and even overrides the ACC Act itself, which empowers it to access information from government organisations during corruption inquiries. Why then, we must ask, are the authorities empowering potentially corrupt individuals when they should be empowering the ACC? The latest move comes at a time when its investigative authority stands severely diminished. In the past years, we have seen various efforts, legal and administrative, to curtail the power of the ACC in investigating corruption, especially high-profile cases. We have seen how it has been virtually turned into a "toothless tiger", its track record marked by woefully low conviction rates and a backlog of unresolved complaints/cases.
The proposed income tax bill is only the latest assault on the ACC and its investigators. And it is totally unacceptable. The fight against corruption requires a strong, independent, and empowered ACC that can hold the corrupt accountable, regardless of their influence and standing. We urge the government to recognise the ramifications of this provision, and drop it from the bill.