The meeting between the World Bank’s external panel and the Anti-Corruption Commission ended inconclusively yesterday, as the panel was unhappy at the commission’s bid to drop the name of ex-communications minister Syed Abul Hossain from the draft enquiry report on corruption allegations in the Padma bridge project.
The ACC will hold a meeting with the WB panel today to reach a consensus on the names of persons to be included in the enquiry report.
Wishing anonymity an ACC high official said the draft report has recommended filing cases against the persons involved in the corruption conspiracy in the project.
ACC Chairman Ghulam Rahman said, “We [the WB panel and the ACC] had an argument over inclusion and exclusion [of names of persons in the enquiry report]…we will sit again tomorrow [today].”
“There had been a conspiracy to exchange bribes, but we [the WB panel and the ACC] could not reach a consensus on who the conspirators are. They [the WB panel] put forward some certain arguments in this regard.”
Ellen Goldstein, WB country director for Bangladesh, said, “At this point, we are still in discussion with the ACC and we believe that some progress has been made, but we will be meeting again tomorrow [today] in order to see if we can fully resolve any outstanding issues that we have.”
She made the comment after the WB panel met with the ACC officials to review the draft report filed by the ACC enquiry team.
Sources in the ACC said the two sides had a difference of opinion over the draft enquiry report, as the ACC dropped some names, including that of Abul Hossain, though the WB gave sufficient evidence of corruption against him along with others.
The WB panel argued that there was no scope for excluding their names from the enquiry report, said the sources.
On November 13, the WB Integrity Vice Presidency sent the ACC a third report on corruption evidence.
The report contained detailed evidence of corruption against public officials concerned as well as others, said an ACC official wishing anonymity.
The WB prepared the third report based on information received from the Canadian government and other sources.
The third report mentioned the names of those against whom corruption allegations had been raised in an earlier report. But the latest one contained more evidence, said the official.
The ACC thinks that all the corruption evidence provided by the WB might not be acceptable in Bangladesh courts as some laws vary from country to country, said a source in the ACC enquiry team.
ACC Commissioner Mohammad Shahabuddin said, “There may be a difference between the laws of our country and theirs. What they consider as corruption might not be regarded as crime in our country.”
These issues should be taken into consideration, he told reporters.
On the draft enquiry report, he said, “The report stated what they [the alleged conspirators] have done individually or collectively.”
He said the report mentioned that the offences the conspirators had committed could fall within the purview of the Corruption Prevention Act, 1947 and the Penal Code.
Shahabuddin said the commission may sue the alleged conspirators tomorrow after evaluating the enquiry report.
The ACC commissioner said less than nine people would be sued for their involvement in the corruption conspiracy, while the ACC chairman said the number would be less than 10.
Referring to the report, the ACC chairman said corruption had been committed in the bridge project but no bribe was exchanged.
The ACC launched the enquiry in September last year after the WB raised corruption allegations in the project.
The WB external panel headed by Luis Moreno Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, earlier visited Dhaka in October.
The two other panel members are Timothy Tong, former commissioner of the Independent Commission against Corruption of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and Richard Alderman, former director of Britain’s Serious Fraud Office.
ACC sources said that unless the anti-graft body files a First Information Report, it cannot proceed from its enquiry to an investigation as expected by the global lender.
The WB cancelled its $1.2 billion funding on June 29, saying it had proof of a “corruption conspiracy” involving Bangladeshi officials, executives of a Canadian firm and some individuals.
The global lender on September 21 decided to revive the loan after the Bangladesh government agreed to the WB’s terms and conditions.
The Anti-Corruption Commission has finally found out that a few individuals may indeed have committed some crimes in dealing with the Padma bridge project. What the World Bank had been vocal about all along, leading to the cancellation of its $1.2 billion loan, the largest in any country in the multilateral agency’s history, has now belatedly been vetted by the ACC.
But meantime, a lot of questions have been raised about the role of the ACC and its chief’s past remarks and the government’s reactions to the WB allegations. Many of the ACC chief’s comments were contradictory and gave a different impression about the independence of the anti-graft body.
Let’s look at some of the past comments of ACC Chairman Ghulam Rahman. On July 11, just 12 days after the World Bank had cancelled its loan, he said some companies might have “misguided” the World Bank which led to the cancellation of its loan for the bridge project.
All along the topsy-turvy journey of the project, one person, Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister Dr Moshiur Rahman, created a lot of hurdles to the donors’ engagement in the project. First he refused to step aside, as a precondition set by the Bank for revival of its loan. Among many things, his refusal resulted in the loan cancellation. But finally he went on leave, paving the way for the global lender’s return to the scheme.
Then again Moshiur cast another long shadow over the project when he suddenly returned from abroad and claimed he had joined his workplace after the leave. The donors were highly irritated and the project became uncertain again.
Just when the whole nation desperately wished that Moshiur would not torpedo the project by his sudden return to office, the ACC chief blurted out that even if Moshiur remained at work, it would not influence ACC’s inquiry in any way.
If one looks back at the project history, one finds that two SNC Lavalin officials were charged with corruption by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and put on trial. However, the ACC (and also the government) seemed to be quite apathetic about this fact and tried to ignore it.
At one stage, Ghulam Rahman said the ACC was not sending any team to Canada to collect information related to the Padma bridge graft allegation.
However, the same ACC later changed position when it said it would not be able to file a first information report (FIR) over graft allegations in the project unless Canada provided it with relevant information.
Without an FIR, the ACC cannot upgrade its “inquiry” into “investigation” as expected by the WB.
And only a month ago, quite unnecessarily, the ACC chairman said they had not found until then any evidence of corruption in the bridge project based on which they could file an FIR.
But when journalists interacted with the Bank’s expert panel that oversees the ACC’s inquiry, we got a clear feeling that the panel thought the ACC had wasted time and sat on the graft allegation for about a year. The frustration was clear that the ACC did not find strong enough a case to upgrade the allegation from “inquiry” level to “investigation” level.
An official requesting anonymity also said the anti-graft body had repeatedly requested the Canadian authorities to allow an ACC team to visit that country. The ACC is yet to get any response.
But then we also see reports that the Canadian police have found proof that SNC Lavalin had offered at least six influential Bangladeshis, including former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain, huge bribes to obtain the consultant’s job in the Padma bridge project. We also come to know the RCMP shared this information with the ACC.
The government’s reaction to the graft allegation was bizarre. From the beginning the government, from the top to the bottom, defended that there could not be any graft because the work had not been awarded. The government and the ACC also aired the view that graft conspiracy could not be a crime in Bangladesh law.
However, the position has changed and it has been accepted that “corruption conspiracy” is also a crime.
And now the same ACC finds “efforts of a corruption conspiracy” in the same project.
The whole episode of the Padma bridge project has opened up scopes to rethink how efficient and independent our anti-graft body is.