Millions being extorted from freight trucks

Allegedly the extortionists are identifying themselves as Chhatra League leaders and activists. The former foreign minister had addressed the issue in the national parliament.

Vegetable-laden trucksProthom Alo file photo
Traders say that on average Tk 600,000 to 800,000 (6 to 8 lakh) are extorted daily at the three entrances of the city. There was an incident of a fruit truck being hijacked at Temukhi area in the city on last 1 February.   

Trucks carrying vegetables and fruits are being subjected to extortion in Sylhet city. If not paid, the extortionists beat up the transport workers, loot their money or even goods. Traders have complained that at least 12 such freight transports have faced extortion and hijacking in the past four months.

Traders claim that Tk 600,000 to 800,000 (6 to 8 lakh) are extorted from the freight trucks every night. At that rate, almost Tk 20 million (2 crore) is being extorted monthly.

This are going on openly at the three entrances of the city. Yet the police aren’t taking any action. Victim traders have alleged that the extortionists are identifying themselves as Chhatra League leaders and activists.

Talking to farmers and traders it has been learnt that winter vegetables and fruits grow in abundance in different upazilas of Sylhet. These agricultural produce are transported to Sylhet in trucks and pickups for sale.

Member of parliament from Sylhet-1 constituency and former foreign minister and AK Abdul Momen has also raised allegations of extortion from freight trucks.

During the discussion of ‘calling attention to a topic of urgent public interest’ in the national parliament on last Tuesday, AK Abdul Momen said that some miscreants are extorting freight trucks carrying daily commodities on a regular basis in his parliamentary constituency, Sylhet. He called upon the government to stop the extortion.

They stop the trucks at night

Visiting in person, five to six youths were found loitering with motorbikes in the manner of patrolling at Bateshwar, Shah Paran, Majortila and Tilagarh areas on the Tamabil-Sylhet road from 12:00am to 2:00am on 15 and 16 January night.

Some of them wore helmets. Whenever a truck or pickup was approaching, they were stopping them to collec "toll". On the first day, those youths signaled at least 14 trucks to stop within just two hours.

Similarly, four youths were found standing on the side of the road with a car at Lakkatura area on the Bholaganj-Sylhet road on 17 January night. Till 1:00am that night they were noticed extorting three vegetable laden trucks. At one point when the correspondent tried to talk with them identifying himself as a journalist, they quickly left the place.  

Truck drivers, traders and local residents allege that the extortionists identify themselves as activists and followers of the top city and district level Chhatra League leaders.

While at least 12 vegetable-laden trucks have been robbed in the last four months, the victims did not file any complaint with the police out of fear. Lastly, a fruit-laden truck was hijacked in Temukhi area on 1 February.

Sylhet city traders’ oikyo kalyan parishad president Abdur Rahman said that the extortion is also impacting the prices of fruits and vegetables. Demanding the extortion to be stopped, traders submitted a memorandum to the local administration and police on 4 February.

Extortion on three roads

Several traders who had been the victim of extortion said that freight trucks enter the city from 10:00pm till dawn. In those hours, members of the extortion gang wait for them at the three entrances to the city, from Bateshwar to Tilagarh on Tamabil-Sylhet road, from airport road to Ambarkhana on Bholaganj-Sylhet road and Temukhi bypass on Sunamganj-Sylhet road.

As soon as the trucks reach these points, the gang blocks the trucks and pickups by forming a barricade with motorcycle or private car to collect extortion money from them.

It was found in investigation that Chhatra League is extorting more than Tk 20 million (2 Crore) monthly from vegetable-laden trucks. On average Tk 600,000 to 800,000 (6 to 8 lakh) are extorted daily at the three entrances of the city.

None of the wholesale or retail traders are spared from this extortion. Based on the quantity of the goods, Tk 2,000 to 5,000 is collected from each of the vehicles.

This correspondent has talked to ten traders who have been the victim of extortion. They alleged that they were compelled to pay the extortion money while travelling with the goods-laden trucks. They however didn’t want to reveal their names out of fear.

Apart from them, five other traders and six local residents have also confirmed the allegation of extortion from freight trucks. They complained that the extortionists are identifying themselves as Chhatra League leaders and activists at the time of the extortion.

They believe it’s impossible for the extortion gang to be this active right on the outskirts of the city without police’s indulgence. Some even hinted at police being involved in this matter.

Police commissioner in Sylhet Md Zakir Hossain Khan told Prothom Alo about the allegation, “I have recently joined in Sylhet. I have come to know about the extortion from the traders. Police is trying to arrest the persons involved in the hijacking of the good-laden truck lately. Plus, the police have geared up security so that nobody can extort anyone at the entrances of the city.”

Chhatra League’s denial

Local Chhatra League leaders have claimed to Prothom Alo that none of the Chhatra League activists are involved in the extortion. Sylhet district Chhatra League president Nazmul Islam, general secretary Rahel Siraj and Sylhet city Chhatra League general secretary Naeem Ahmed said that nobody can produce any proof against any of the Chhatra League activists of being involved in the extortion. This is just propaganda.

Meanwhile Sylhet Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Tahmin Ahmed told Prothom Alo, “Traders are fed up with the extortion going up excessively. Though the name of a student organisation has come up in this case, we believe criminals don’t belong to any party at all. Even there has been allegation of some police member being involved as well.”

Notably, some traders used to transport sugar imported from India in illegal ways, to Syhlet city via Tamabil-Sylhet and Companyganj-Syhlet roads earlier. Similarly, allegation was brought against Chhatra League and police of extorting the trucks used for transporting this illegally imported sugar.

This sugar is locally known as ‘Bungar Chini’. Prothom Alo had published a report on this sugar on 24 August last year. The extortion had stopped for some days after that because of the police being more active. But allegedly the extortion is going on again like before.  

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