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chicagotribune.com >> Nation/World

Military fights Bangladesh's infamous graft

By Laurie Goering
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published April 21, 2007

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- For five of the past six years, Bangladesh's people have ranked their nation the most corrupt on Earth on an international graft watchdog list. It isn't hard to see why.

Economists estimate that thieving politicians, including the families and cronies of the country's two feuding political dynasties, have pocketed more than $5 billion a year by taking a cut of nearly everything sold in the country. About $40 billion in foreign aid has been misappropriated over 35 years in this poor and densely populated delta nation, analysts say.

In Bangladesh, judges throw cases for cash, bureaucrats sell jobs, businessmen run strong-arm cartels and, until recently, outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's eldest son, Tarique Rahman, was known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his rapacious skimming.

But this month, Mr. Ten Percent is in jailed awaiting trial, along with a few dozen of the country's other top politicians. His powerful mother is expected to head to exile in Saudi Arabia within days, rather than face corruption charges. And her longtime political rival, Sheikh Hasina, has been told that if she returns Monday as planned from an extended holiday abroad, she faces prosecution on corruption and murder charges.

In surely one of the strangest political turnarounds in the world, this South Asian kleptocracy now finds itself run by a military-backed government took power three months ago intent on restoring democracy by prosecuting or exiling the nation's most powerful politicians as part of an unprecedented war on corruption.

That the top two targets are women -- usually seen in aid circles as the less corruptible sex -- only adds to the oddness of the whole affair.

"It's definitely surreal," said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of the Bangladesh branch of Transparency International, the leading international anti-corruption watchdog that releases corruption rankings each year. "But this country was left with no options."

'Unprecedented' turnaround

In January, Bangladesh's military declared a state of emergency in the moderate Muslim nation and installed a caretaker government after efforts to hold elections failed following violent street protests between supporters of the two political parties that for 15 years have battled for Bangladesh's political spoils.

Since then, with enthusiastic backing from the country's fed-up population of 140 million, Bangladesh's new rulers have launched a campaign to root out political corruption as a prerequisite for holding new democratic elections next year.

Poor, crowded and set on a vast flood-prone delta, Bangladesh is best-known for huge death tolls from seasonal cyclones and monsoons. But in recent decades the Iowa-sized country of rice paddies and shrimp farms has emerged as a perfect cauldron for graft as plundering politicians, greedy bureaucrats, bribe-proffering businessmen and the least savory of the nation's many non-profit aid groups look for a way to make an unearned buck, sometimes by tapping into billions in aid money passing through each year.

The new government says it now hopes to change that. After years of foot-dragging, the country signed a United Nations anti-corruption charter that will help its leaders recover illicit funds stashed abroad. It has reinvigorated an ineffective anti-graft commission, demanded financial statements from top politicians and is strengthening laws barring politicians convicted of corruption from office.

"There's never been an example of this kind of turnaround. This is unprecedented," said Zaman, whose organization finds itself in the odd position of consulting closely with an unelected, military-supported government to promote democracy. "It's not the process we wanted. We wanted this done by political leadership. But since they miserably failed to deliver, it has come to this."

Turning around Bangladesh's culture of political corruption will not be easy. Most of the investigators charged with tracking down the real estate records, bank statements and other documents needed to prosecute those now jailed have never done the work before and may be a little anxious about trying to put their former, and potentially future, bosses in prison.

Those arrested have powerful friends and the money to hire the best lawyers in the country, and the country's prosecutors have never prosecuted corruption cases before. In some cases, caretaker officials may be faced with having to prosecute colleagues, friends and neighbors.

In a country where court cases typically drag on for decades, the government has limited trials to 60 days, with adjournments -- a favored stalling tactic -- limited to three days. It has also hired private attorneys as prosecutors and dangled offers of incentive pay for investigators who find evidence that helps win convictions.

But with limited resources "we're going mad trying to investigate all these high-profile cases at once," admitted Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, chairman of the country's new independent Anti-Corruption Commission.

The fear, said Ataur Rahman, a political corruption expert at the University of Dhaka, is that "if you can't get convictions, the message will be that nothing has changed."

The anti-corruption commission and caretaker government also are trying to revamp key institutions, from removing executive influence in the judiciary to rebuilding the electoral commission, in an effort to stifle future pilferers.

One of the keys, officials agree, is making sure Bangladesh's two political leading ladies exit politics for good. To that end, the government is willing to let them, and perhaps their families, avoid prosecution as long as they agree to leave Bangladesh permanently.


Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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