Bangladesh fights corruption, But Britain covers it up
Bangladeshi police escort Giasuddin Al Mamun, a businessman close to the family of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia,third from left, to a special court, in this May 16, 2007 photo. A special court convicted Giasuddin on corruption charges and sentenced him to three years in jail on Thursday, June 7, 2007. (AP Photo/Pavel Rahman)
NEW YORK - A military-backed civilian government in Bangladesh has been cracking down on corrupt officials and crooked politicians with a vengeance.
When one of the arrested politicians was asked why he did not declare his ownership of several luxury villas and at least six high-priced sports utility vehicles (SUVs), he is quoted as saying: "Well, I forgot."
A US politician, under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has been caught stashing hundreds and thousands of dollars in cash, mostly kickbacks, deep inside his refrigerator.
The headline writers could have had a field day on this developing story: "Frozen Assets Found in Refrigerator" or "Politician Caught with Cold Cash."
Last week, London newspapers reported the story of a major defence contractor, British Aerospace, doling out over $2 billion dollars as "improper secret commissions" to a senior Saudi official in return for arms sales to Riyadh worth over a staggering $50 billion, going back to 1985. An inquiry into the charges last December was cancelled by the British government on the ground that it would jeopardize a vital strategic relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia. Currently, Britain is one of the largest arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia.
Speaking outside of the G8 summit in Germany last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said if the probe had continued, it would have involved "the most serious allegations in investigations being made into the Saudi royal family." And so, the matter was diplomatically swept under the carpet.
But a parliamentary oversight committee is now trying to reopen investigations into what can turn out to be a major corruption scandal in England.
Roger Berry, chairman of the committee, is quoted as saying: "It's bad for British business, apart from any thing else, if allegations of bribery popping around aren't investigated."
Since weapons manufacture involves suppliers from different countries, there is a strong possibility that US defence contractors may have been key suppliers of components to the British-made weapons shipped to Saudi Arabia. If this link is established, the US Justice Department could bring charges under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act under which American companies are barred from paying commissions to win contracts or even be involved in transactions that are found to be illegal.
The intense anti-corruption investigations in Bangladesh, on the other hand, is being watched closely by international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as by Western donors, who occasionally lose track of how development aid continues to line the pockets of sleazy politicians and corrupt officials.
Since January, the interim government in Bangladesh headed by former Central Bank Governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, has arrested more than 170 on charges of bribery and corruption.
Those detained include Awami League party General Secretary Abdul Jalil, and a slew of former ministers who served the governments of former prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
The probe has reached the highest levels of government with Sheikh Hasina Wajed being dragged into an investigation that involves the purchase of some $223 million worth of arms. The former Prime Minister has denied the charges.
The outcome of the investigations may serve as a model for neighbouring South Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, where corruption is fast becoming a way of life.
If Bangladesh succeeds in getting convictions, corrupt officials may be forewarned that the long arm of law can reach them even after they leave office — or seek haven in greener pastures.
President Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire and President Sani Abacha of Nigeria, described as two of the most corrupt heads of government, had their hidden bank assets unearthed long after they died.
Although both escaped prosecution, their designated heirs were never able to enjoy the ill-gotten gains.
Abacha, whose foreign assets were worth nearly $3 to $4 billion, was described as the world's fourth most corrupt leader, ranking behind Indonesia's Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu.