Will money laundering continue to haunt us?
PK Halder, the former MD of a bank and a notorious embezzler, siphoned off and laundered about Tk 10,000-11,000 crore out of Bangladesh. That's equivalent to the combined yearly budget of 51 public universities of the country, which is Tk 10,515.71 crore.
Take a moment to grasp the enormity of this reality. One man embezzled such a huge amount of money and laundered it out of Bangladesh to India, Canada and other countries. He didn't do it overnight. There was no way for him to use the banking channel. How did he manage this extraordinary feat, then?
The money was siphoned off to a place where no one asks about your source of wealth. Dubai is such a place where illegally transferred money can be kept in banks, legally. Many Bangladeshi businessmen and politicians have bought houses and set up businesses there. Some of them are now permanent residents. They can move in and out of Dubai to any destination as they wish. I met a couple of such people in Bangkok about three years ago. They told me they could not return to Bangladesh due to political reasons, and were running their own business in Dubai. One of them regularly visited Thailand for medical treatment. The other said that although he was settled in Dubai now, he spent most of his time in London. He, too, was in Bangkok for treatment. It's not that these two particular individuals were loan defaulters or embezzlers. But they did illegally launder money from Bangladesh. As far as I know, they also bought houses in Canada and London. However, they transferred the money from Dubai through legal channels.
It is quite easy to transfer money from Dubai to other countries. This process is popular among Bangladeshis who engage in loan-defaulting or embezzlement. The same can be said for India, too. However, if the amount is too big, it's impossible to keep it in an Indian bank. PK Halder managed to smuggle a large part of his illegally amassed wealth to India. Did he take the money directly to India, or did he channel it through a third country's banking system? These questions must be looked into urgently.
If the government is sincere about this issue, PK Halder can be easily brought back to Bangladesh from India, where he was arrested a few days ago. It's not difficult to find out how he embezzled and laundered the money. But the question is: Will the government walk that path? Are there any roadblocks ahead?
Generally speaking, the government should not have any problem with moving ahead with the investigation. But if one looks closely, there may be one major roadblock. PK Halder embezzled and laundered money over a long period of time, from several banks and financial institutions. It was Bangladesh Bank's responsibility to detect what he was doing, and to prevent this from happening. It is speculated that the high-ups in the Bangladesh Bank knew about it, but did nothing to stop PK Halder. They allegedly even helped him. Two such individuals are former Deputy Governor SK Sur and former Executive Director Shah Alam. Allegedly, they aided many other embezzlers along with PK Halder in exchange for a share of the bounty. They were ousted from their positions and questioned by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), but it is still unclear as to how the government plans to deal with them.
Questioning the government's position regarding embezzlers and launderers is nothing new. However, in 2020, a message from the foreign minister gave us hope for a change.
"You, the media men, often write about Begum Para in Canada… that many Bangladeshis have purchased luxurious houses there. Unofficially, we have collected information. This is not verified. An expatriate has given us some information about this issue. We were shocked. We thought that it might be politicians who purchased these houses. But we have information that most of these houses have been purchased by government officials," the foreign minister told The Daily Star in November 2020.
No information about any ongoing investigation in this regard has been revealed since then. A few days after the foreign minister's comment, the finance minister said during a parliamentary session, "I don't know who launders money." He also asked the opposition to provide a list of money launderers.
There is clearly a disconnect between these vital ministries and between what we think should happen and the reality.
Ruling party lawmaker from Natore Shafiqul Islam Shimul bought a house in Scarborough, Canada under his wife Sultana Jannati's name, spending 1.46 million Canadian dollars. A report revealed this specific piece of information, yet no relevant government bodies ran any investigation. Two brothers from Faridpur, both Awami League leaders, were arrested for laundering at least Tk 2,000 crore.
Another Bangladeshi lawmaker from Lakshmipur, Mohammad Shahid Islam alias Papul, is already serving in a jail in Kuwait for human trafficking and money laundering. A Bangladeshi businessman procured a number of five-star hotels in Singapore, which the country's media reported. The ill-famed Sikder group bought properties in Thailand and a few other countries and ran business as well.
These are just a few examples of the vast amount of money that is laundered out of Bangladesh every year. Apart from this, traders launder at least Tk 70,000 crore every year through import-export price manipulation. The Washington-based think tank Global Financial Integrity (GFI) has reported on this phenomenon several times. The government is yet to take their findings under consideration.
PK Halder's arrest in India has brought the issue of money laundering to the fore once again. Another new topic may emerge in a few days, burying this issue again.
Does that mean our fate is sealed, and our money will continue to be embezzled and laundered?
(The article was translated from Bangla by Mohammed Ishtiaque Khan.)
Golam Mortoza is the editor of The Daily Star Bangla.