Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Truth and graft in Bangladesh

Truth and graft in Bangladesh
By Farid Ahmed
Source: Asia Times Online
August 6, 2008

DHAKA - Just as Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed's newly formed Truth and Accountability Commission (TAC) became functional this week, it ran straight into criticism from domestic economists who've called it conceptually flawed and ultimately unworkable.

Ahmed's government took power under emergency in January 2007, after widespread street violence prevented the scheduled general elections. The new administration soon launched a nationwide anti-corruption campaign that netted hundreds of rich and influential people. But their absence also greatly slowed down the economy of impoverished Bangladesh.

"The government set up the truth commission [TAC] in a bid to spur economic activities which slowed down after the crackdown on corruption suspects," Anisul Huq, one of the authors of the truth commission law and a Supreme Court lawyer, told Inter Press Service (IPS).

The military-backed interim government announced retired Supreme Court judge, Habibur Rehman, as the head of the (TAC). Its members will be a former comptroller and auditor general and a retired army general. As a whole, the commission will be tasked with boosting the economy as well as meting out justice. No easy task in Bangladesh.

"Corruption is everywhere in society and there are some people who were unwillingly involved in it," said Huq. "Moreover, the move [to set up the commission] will lessen the burden of the courts of law dealing with the corruption cases."

But Zaid Bakth, an economist with the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, was not optimistic about the success of the commission. "It may bring respite immediately, but it will not bring in any success in the long run," he told IPS in Dhaka.

"Corruption increases the cost of transaction and the government ultimately needs to curb corruption and ensure good governance for a sound economy," Bakth said.

"The truth commission is the consequence of contradictions in the policy of the present government. They apparently wanted to change the country without changing the policy framework. So, negotiations even with corrupt persons are a must," said Anu Muhammad, professor of economics at the Jahangirnagar University.

He pointed out that the commission would not be able to correct the flawed policies that hindered the growth of business, investment and employment.

But Rehman, the newly appointed chairman of the commission, has a wait-and-see attitude. "There is nothing to be optimistic or pessimistic about it ... [I] will just try to do my job and the end results will show whether the commission succeeds," he said.

Rehman told reporters said that following the series of arrests made by the caretaker government there has been some economic instability and that the investment climate has dimmed. "The truth and accountability commission has been created to avert economic disaster,'' he said.

Under the Right to Voluntary Disclosure Ordinance of 2008, persons willing to voluntarily disclose ill-gotten wealth are exempted from prosecution and imprisonment as long as they surrender the illegal holdings or deposit an equal amount of money with the government.

The commission, formed under the Voluntary Disclosure Ordinance, may grant mercy to corruption suspects if they file petitions for voluntary disclosure.

According to the ordinance, no person already charged or convicted in a graft case will have the right to apply for voluntary disclosure. Persons disclosing their corruption will be barred from national or local elections for five years and from holding any public office or executive positions in banks or financial institutions.

More than 200 high-profile suspects, mostly politicians from the country's two main political parties - the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League - and including their leaders and former prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed were jailed.

Charges have already been filed against Sheikh Hasina in two corruption cases. Khlaeda Zia is yet to be charged.

"There is scope for discrimination as the commission is formed from certain groups of people," Awami League leader Matia Chowdhury said. "The government has formed the commission to help its own people to escape punishment."

The Berlin-based global corruption watchdog Transparency International regularly lists Bangladesh as among the most corrupt countries in the world. Economists say corruption has seriously eroded the country's gross domestic product.

According to Huq, under the commission's scheme business people who have been detained, or who are on the run after being named as graft suspects, would be pardoned if they confess to their crimes.

Meanwhile, profits are reportedly nose-diving at some 30 leading businesses whose owners are in jail or have gone underground to avoid the anti-corruption dragnet. The downturn has cast doubt on more than 300,000 jobs, according to a report in the New Age daily newspaper,

In fact, the average production capacity of these business has decreased between 20 and 50% over the past few months. Some of the businesses have already announced thousands of layoffs, others have allegedly not paid workers' wages for three to seven months.

The country's top trade body, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, has complained that the anti-corruption drive has caused a "climate of fear" that has dampened the national economy.

Still, as Rehman puts it, the commission will not pursue a "name-and-shame" policy and the identities of those making voluntary disclosures will be withheld from the public.

(Inter Press Service)

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