Actions against Benazir, Aziz: A shift towards true rule of law?

Benazir Ahmed and Aziz Ahmed

At a press briefing on 28 May, Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of ruling Awami League, slammed the media for its failure in uncovering corruption of Benazir Ahmed during his tenure as the Inspector General of Police (IGP).

He clarified that it was the government that inquired about the former police chief and moved the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate his corruption.

The statement reflects the prevailing reality as who else but the government could dare point fingers at a sitting or immediate past IGP?

The situation seems even riskier when the IGP is widely believed to be a confidante of the ruling block, and there are numerous instances of imprisonment following media reports or social media comments against influential figures.

A journalist later corrected Obaidul Quader that a Bengali daily first reported on the former IGP’s corruption, and he had no choice but to comply with the correction.

Still, there are strong grounds to consider his initial statement as more reflective of reality. On 26 May, Finance Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali said the government supports legal proceedings against the former police chief. It would not be surprising if someone said that the authorities had supplied the news to pave the way for legal actions against him

By allowing corruption and later cracking down, the ruling block sends a message: the bosses are watching, so never think of going against their interests, they can ruin you, no matter who you are.

We have seen throughout the last one and a half decade that high-profile individuals, who are believed to have the ruling block’s blessings, have enjoyed impunity despite strong allegations of corruption and other serious offenses against them. Many extremely severe financial scams have taken place in broad daylight, yet the key perpetrators received a free pass.

When the United States sanctioned IGP Benazir Ahmed and his previous workplace, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), in 2021 for alleged human rights violations, the government launched an all-out campaign against the US action.

A similar reaction was seen when Al-Jazeera released an investigative report on corruption by then-Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed. The government exerted its utmost effort to shield the general, even blocking the website in the country.

Both officers maintained unique professional portfolios. Benazir Ahmed is the only police officer in the recent past to have held three key positions—Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner, RAB Director General, and IGP. Similarly, Aziz Ahmed commanded both the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and the Bangladesh Army.

Their track records bear testimony of the ruling block’s trust in them, particularly when they served in sensitive positions during two ‘largely questioned’ elections where the role of security and armed forces was crucial.

Despite their faithful services, why has the situation turned upside down now? What has put them in confrontation with the ruling block?

Recently, the US imposed entry restrictions on Aziz Ahmed for alleged corruption, but the government’s reaction was not as severe as during the sanctions against Benazir.

Also Read

Aziz Ahmed claimed the US action discredited the government too, but Obaidul Quader said the government is not embarrassed and suggested the ACC may investigate the former army chief. On the other hand, the anti-graft agency is already investigating allegations against Benazir, with the court ordering the seizure of his assets.

The current course of action gives rise to some pertinent questions. Why did the allegations seem authentic only after their retirement? What were other monitoring agencies up to during their service? How was Benazir awarded the national integrity award in 2022?

It is very possible, if not sure, that the authorities were well-aware of the illegal wealth accumulation by the then police chief and the corruption by the then army chief.

The current actions against these officers can be explained from multiple perspectives:

Firstly, there might be dissent between them and influential quarters or the ruling bloc itself. There are widespread speculations that a pro-government business group is behind the police chief’s current predicament.

Secondly, there might be serious international pressure on the government regarding rampant corruption. As Bangladesh requires international cooperation, particularly on the trade front, following its graduation from the group of least developed countries (LDC), the government is trying to address the international communities’ concerns to some extent, through the apparent anti-corruption drives against the two ‘controversial’ former officers.

Also Read

Thirdly, governments that rule for extended periods typically see various issues within the state apparatus, particularly in security and armed forces.

As the Awami League has been in power for more than one and a half decades, they might be using the 'most influential' former officers as examples to maintain its grip over current influential officers, out of their unknown fears or overcautiousness.

By allowing corruption and later cracking down, the ruling block sends a message: the bosses are watching, so never think of going against their interests, they can ruin you, no matter who you are.

Whatever the reasons are, a majority will agree that the situation is likely to remain the same for the commoners in the coming days. The ruling block is presenting the developments as rule of law, but these are widely considered as ‘motivated actions against their once-confidantes.’

Still, we, as law-abiding citizens, want to believe that all incidents of corruption will be tried, all financial scammers will be booked, all laundered money will be brought back home, all syndicates that rob consumers unethically will be dismantled, and all injustices will be addressed.

*Misbahul Haque is sub-editor of Prothom Alo English Department