There has been no progress in the investigations and trials of the cases filed all over the country under the Money Laundering Prevention Act.

Investigations into these cases carry on for years. Of the cases filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission and in 13 of Dhaka's courts, only 56 have been settled so far.

The progress of the cases regarding money being siphoned off overseas is even worse. Of the over 100 cases in this regard, investigations of only 15 have been completed. And the credibility of the investigations in many cases is questionable.

The weakest part of the investigations is that the officials are unable to submit to court the documents from the relevant countries to support their allegations of money being illegally transferred out.

Legal experts blame the incompetence and lack of training of the concerned officials for this state of affairs. That is why, despite there being so many agencies, they are unable to play an effective role in preventing money laundering. In the meantime, those involved in money laundering are getting away unpunished.

Details of 752 cases were obtained by reviewing various records of over the past two years, including the relevant registers of 13 Dhaka courts and lists of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), CID, the Department of Narcotics Control and the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate. These cases were filed from 2002 till 30 September last year. These included 429 cases of ACC, 170 of CID, 150 of Customs Intelligence and three of the Narcotics Control Department.

Money laundering cases in the country are conducted by the divisional special judge courts. However, Prothom Alo does not have a full list of how many cases are being investigated or are under trial outside of Dhaka division. Investigations into such cases are supposed to be completed within six months at the most. But in reality, none of the investigations into these cases have finished within time. Investigations of some of the cases have taken from four to nine years even.

A study of information regarding the cases reveals that after the Money Laundering Prevention Act was passed 20 years ago, in the first eight years, there were four cases a year on average. But after 2020, the average number of cases has been 59 per year.

This correspondent spoke to seven senior officials of three agencies involved in the investigations into these cases. They said that the investigating agencies lacked the required advanced technology, intelligence surveillance equipment and adequately trained workforce. Also, gathering evidence from abroad was a time-consuming process. Then again, the responsibility of investigation in certain cases were switched to different agencies at different times. These are reasons that the investigations cannot be completed in time.

In 2002 the Money Laundering Prevention Act was passed to prevent crimes pertaining to money laundering and bring those involved to book. Money laundering was explained as smuggling out, transferring or converting money. Money laundering will cover money earned through 27 types of crimes including smuggling out money. Directly involved in the investigation of such crimes are the Anti-Corruption Commission, CID, Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate and the Department of Narcotics Control.

Also, according to the money laundering prevention act, the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) collects primary information about the money laundering suspects and hands this over to the law enforcement agencies. Then if there is substantial proof of the allegations, the investigating agency files a case.

Former head of BFIU, Abu Hena Razi Hasan, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, "Many cases are dragging on for years and so the criminals are not properly brought to justice. International agencies have specifically pointed out that the law is not even being properly applied in our country." In the 2016 evaluation report of the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG), it is said that the number of money laundering cases in Bangladesh is on the increase, but the number of disposed cases is absolutely negligible.

Trade-based money laundering

In the cases examined by Prothom Alo, there are 119 cases regarding siphoning off money overseas or illegal monetary transactions. Of these, 77 are trade-based money laundering. Funds are siphoned out of the country by over-invoicing in the case of imports and under-invoicing in the case of exports. Investigations have been completed in only four of these cases. Investigations into the remaining 73 have been continuing for the past two to seven years.

In August 2019, ACC filed five cases and the customs intelligence and Investigation Directorate three cases against the chairman of Rupali Composite, MA Kader, and 10 officials of Sonali Bank, on charges of laundering Tk 15 billion (Tk 1500 crore). The customs intelligence says that such cases entail a complicated process and hence the delay.

Head of the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate's intelligence unit, Shamsul Arefin Khan, says that the investigations cannot be completed in time due to 'lack of workforce'. He recently told Prothom Alo, "We do not get officials round-the-clock to investigate money laundering cases. An official starts investigating a case but cannot complete it. When a new person takes over, he has to start all over again."

The national strategy paper on preventing trade-related money laundering, published in 2021, says that effective measures must be taken so that importers and exporters cannot manipulate the prices of items in the Letters of Credit (LC), showing these as higher or lower than the market price. After an LC is opened, the concerned commercial bank will check the price of the product. At the same time, each and every bank will build up data banks containing all sorts of details concerning import items. The strategy paper carried the findings of a study carried out by the Washington-based non-profit research organisation, Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on money laundering of developing countries from 2006 to 2015. This indicated that 87 per cent of the money laundering from developing countries is done by over-invoicing and under-invoicing for imports and exports.

ACC report of 17 February 2022 also stated that around 10 per cent of the funds siphoned out of the country are sent out under the shield of trade and business or imports and exports.

Executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), Iftekharuzzaman, told Prothom Alo, "There is a lack of competence in our country that is required to investigate money laundering cases. There is no coordination among the investigating agencies. Those involved in trade-based money laundering are all big fish. They have political connections. In our parliament, 62 per cent of the members are businesspersons. These agencies do not have the capacity to nab the influential persons involved in money laundering."

Some 22 business companies are named in the 119 cases regarding trade-based money laundering. And yet the office of the chief controller of imports and exports has no information concerning these cases. Head of the organisation, Sheikh Rafiqul Islam, told Prothom Alo, the law enforcement agencies do not give them any list in this connection.

No documents come from abroad

A review of the cases also revealed that allegations of laundering around Tk 70 billion (Tk 7000 crore) were made in the 119 cases of unlawful transfer of money overseas. The cases mention that these funds have been siphoned off to the US, UK, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia and a number of other countries.

A money laundering case was filed on 12 September 2019 with the Motijheel police station against three persons including the proprietor of a company, Deco Foods. It was alleged that the company transferred out USD 111,000 under the guise of exports. The investigation into the case is still not complete. Sources involved in the investigation say that the investigations cannot be finished as the relevant documents are not coming from abroad.

In eight cases being investigated under the money laundering law by CID, 10 persons have been accused of laundering Tk 5.53 billion (TK 553 crore). Investigations into the cases have been carrying on for five years. According to CID, the investigations are being delayed due to unavailability of evidence.

Reports without information from abroad

ACC is investigating 14 cases of money being unlawfully sent out of the country. Over the past five years, they have submitted investigation reports of 9 cases to the court. A review of these reports reveal that there is no information about when, how and how much and to which foreign bank account the funds have been sent.

ACC has filed 36 cases under the Money Laundering Prevention Act against former managing director of NRB Global Bank, Prashanta Kumar (PK) Halder. Of these, ACC has submitted one investigation report to the court in a case concerning illegally amassing wealth and money laundering. The report says that from 2012 to 2020, there had been a transaction of 11.70 billion Canadian dollars (1 crore 17 lakh Canadian dollars) between PK Halder and his brother Pritish. But ACC submitted no papers from Canada in this connection to the court.

In the money laundering case against Jubo League's expelled leader Islam Hossain Chowdhury, ACC's report stated that he had sent around Tk 1.22 billion (Tk 121 crore 80 lakh) to Singapore by means of illegal money transfer 'hundi'. But no evidence or proof was provided regarding how much money had had kept in banks in Singapore and Malaysia, in which banks he had deposited they money and in which companies he had invested.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, ACC secretary Mahbub Hossain told Prothom Alo, the charge sheet was placed before the court in accordance to the rules. Efforts are on to bring information from overseas.

ACC prosecutor Mir Ahmed Ali Salam told Prothom Alo, if documents were brought through due procedure from the countries where funds were illegally transferred, the banks where the funds were deposited and from the concerned companies, then it would be easy to prove the allegations in court. The court passes its verdict on the basis of evidence.

There is no cadre for law officers... If there were a cadre for law officials, a team of experts could conduct investigations under it. As long as there is no law cadre, this disorder situation will prevail
Shahdeen Malik, Supreme Court lawyer

Slow trials

Of the 752 cases reviewed by Prothom Alo, investigation reports of 387 have been submitted to the court. And 355 are under investigations. Of these, investigations of 221 have been hanging from 2 to 12 years. So far 56 cases have been settled in court. And the accused have been sentenced in 44 of these cases.

A review of the money laundering cases under trial in 12 special judge courts of Dhaka shows that three to 16 years have passed since the case, but depositions remain incomplete in 242 cases. The main reason for this delay in hearing the depositions is that ACC or the police fail to bring the witnesses to court.

On 21 November 2006, a case was lodged against businessman Niaz Ahmed for laundering USD 40 million (USD 4 crore) in the name of wheat import. In 2014 ACC submitted a charge sheet against him in court. But the trial process remains incomplete.

Former law minister Shafiq Ahmed told Prothom Alo, the country's prosecution system is extremely weak. It should be more strict, but it is not so. Due to weakness in the prosecution, money launderings are being left off the hook. The government is just letting things run in this manner, not really bothered. With such an attitude, nothing will be accomplished.

Even amid this slow pace of trials, 56 money laundering cases have been disposed of in the trial courts. Of these, the accused have been punished in 44 cases. The rate of sentencing in cases under this law is higher than in other criminal cases.

A decade ago, 46 persons including the MD of Destiny Group Rafiqul Amin and former army chief M Harun-Ar-Rashid were sentenced for misappropriating Tk 40 billion (Tk 4000 crore).

Nine persons including the former MD of Sonali Bank, Humayun Kabir, were given varying sentences in several money laundering cases.

Supreme Court lawyer Shahdeen Malik told Prothom Alo that while there are various cadres in government service, there is no cadre for law officers. The government understands that it wants to run a hospital, but does not understand it needs doctors. If there were a cadre for law officials, a team of experts could conduct investigations under it. As long as there is no law cadre, this disorder situation will prevail.