It can be difficult to keep up with the political heat that forced out the top two leaders of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), ruling party Awami League’s powerful student front, on September 14, apparently at the wishes of the prime minister, and eventually snowballed into a major clampdown on gambling, as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) on September 18 raided at least six illegal casinos in Dhaka city and arrested a Jubo League leader who had also run afoul of the premier’s good graces.
During the raids, the elite force also seized around Tk 40 lakh, gambling equipment and illegal liquor, among other items, from three of the casinos. Many of these casinos were reportedly run by leaders of ruling party affiliate organizations, according to sources and locals. More than 180 men and women, including casino staff and gamblers, were detained during the raids, after which mobile courts jailed them for different terms.
The first raid, conducted by a RAB 3 team, went down at a casino inside Fakirerpool Youngmen's Club in the capital’s Fakirapool area in the evening. This casino was fully furnished with betting tables, slot machines, and roulette tables, where journalists saw large bundles of cash and bottles of empty illegal liquor confiscated by RAB officials.
Club president and Jubo League’s Dhaka South unit Organizing Secretary Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan was taken into custody hours after another RAB team cordoned off his home on Road 59 at Gulshan 2. RAB said Khalid was arrested with an illegal firearm, several rounds of bullets and yaba pills. Two more firearms he was in possession of were also seized as they breached the conditions mentioned in their licences to use them.
Even before the axe had come down on Golam Rabbani and Rezwanul Haque Chowdhury Shovon, the ousted BCL leaders, word had gotten around that Hasina had her sights set on two Jubo League leaders in particular. It even prompted the Jubo League, which parades as a youth front for the ruling party, to announce a move to rid itself of errant elements a day after the two top leaders of Chhatra League lost their posts for their controversial activities.
It was announced that JL would hold a meeting of its tribunal, where two key leaders of its Dhaka city unit were summoned to appear before it. But it wasn’t allowed to come to that. The move followed the stern warning from Prime Minister and AL President Sheikh Hasina communicated at a meeting of the AL Central Working Committee. The AL chief expressed anger over various allegations against some Jubo League leaders, according to meeting sources.
At the beginning of the meeting, Hasina said she didn’t want to celebrate her birthday on September 28 after seeing the agenda of the meeting. Celebrating her birthday topped the agenda. A couple of party leaders then said they wanted to celebrate the day with festivity.
At one stage, AL Joint General Secretary Jahangir Kabir Nanak, also ex-chairman of Jubo League, informed her that Jubo League already took up month-long programmes, including doa mehfil and discussions, to mark the day.
At this, Hasina angrily said she was very much aware of incidents of “extortion” by some Jubo League leaders, and the celebration of her birthday would be nothing but a veiled attempt to legalise extortion money,said meeting insiders.
“I don’t want any doa mehfil to be organised with extortion money,” she was quoted as saying.
Hasina further said she had warned a Jubo League leader to stop extortion but he didn’t pay heed to her warning.
The AL president then showed her deputy Obaidul Quader a photo in her mobile phone in which a Jubo League leader was brandishing a gun.
She also showed it to her other party colleagues at the meeting, and said, “Not a single procession was brought out after Bangabandhu’s assassination. But now these people are staging showdown with firearms.”
One of the central leaders, who attended the meeting, identified the man carrying the firearm as Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan. Following his arrest, he has been expelled from JL as well. Hasina is also supposed to have hinted her anger at Ismail Chowdhury Samrat, president of Jubo League Dhaka (south) city unit. Samrat has apparently dug himself in at his office in Kakrail to avert arrest and is desperately looking for ways to leave the country. On September 24 it was revealed that the government had asked the immigration police to remain alert so that Samrat cannot leave the country.
The National Board of Revenue (NBR) and the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) meanwhile asked all operating banks in the country to freeze all personal and institutional bank accounts of expelled Jubo League leader Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan, and GK Shamim, another expelled JL leader whose business was raided on September 20. The revenue board asked banks to send details of all bank accounts of arrested Shamim and Khalid, their businesses and family members, and freeze their accounts. NBR also sought to know import details of casino equipment brought from abroad by their companies.
“We have asked banks to know the details of bank balance and transactions of GK Shamim and Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan, members of their families and their owning and associate companies. We asked them to freeze their bank accounts also,” NBR Chairman Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said.
Sources at the NBR said the income tax department already launched investigation into the tax files of GK Shamim and Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan to unearth tax evasion, if any. The instruction of BFIU also asked banks to submit detailed statements of their bank accounts. The BFIU is the central agency of the government that was established at the Bangladesh Bank headquarters in 2002 to deal with money laundering crimes. In 2010, it was renamed as BFIU with operational independence from the previous name of Anti Money Laundering Department.
BFIU chief Abu Hena Mohd Razee Hassan said there were constant directives for banks to comply with laws relating to Money Laundering Prevention Act 2002 (amended 2012) immediately in case of any complaints filed with police stations or any other law and order agencies.
Then on September 24, Members of Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) in simultaneous drives recovered Tk 5.5 crore in cash, 730 tolas of gold and six firearms from three houses of Awami League leaders in the city’s Sutrapur and Wari areas. Tipped off, a team of Rab-3 conducted a drive at the house of Gendaria Thana AL Vice-president Enamul Haque at Banianagar in Sutrapur and recovered Tk 1.5 crore in cash, 730 toals of gold ornaments and five firearms from three vaults, said Rab-3 Commanding Officer Lt Col KM Shafiullah.
Another team of the elite force conducted a raid on the residence of Enamul’s employee at Lalmohon Das Lane of Wari and recovered Tk 2 crore, one revolver, 18 bullets and a vault.
The Rab members also raided the house of Harunur Rashid, vice-president of Wari unit AL, and recovered Tk 2 crore in cash. The money seized from the house belongs to Enamul, said Rab.
Earlier in the day, Rab members cordoned off Enamul’s house to arrest him and joint general secretary of Gendaria Thana AL Rupom Bhuiyan for their involvement in casino business. Residents of the building are relatives of Enamul and Rupon, according to the sources.
The drives were conducted based on information that the two AL leaders took five vaults on rent from English Road and they kept the money received from casino business at the vaults, said the Rab official. However, the elite force could not arrest the AL leaders as they went into hiding. Of them, Enamul fled to Thailand. Both Enamul and Rupom were involved in the casino business based out of Dhaka’s Wanderers Club.
In between, police on Sunday, September 22 raided Mohammedan Sporting Club and Victoria Sporting Club and busted illegal casinos there. The unearthing of such a widespread underground casino culture centred in the capital caught the vast majority of people by surprise. But many who were aware of the phenomenon pointed out that it was allowed to thrive and flourish right under the authorities’ noses, and that it was preposterous to pretend police didn’t know of the matter earlier.
Still others were disappointed to learn of Dhaka’s sporting clubs of old getting caught up in such illegality. The Constitution of Bangladesh contains a clear mandate on the part of the State to prevent gambling. Article 19 under the Fundamental Principles of State Policy confers upon the State a responsibility to “adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution and gambling”. Club officials vehemently denied that they were running the business themselves. They said the groups running the gambling operations only paid the clubs rent for using the clubhouse. A common thread that emerged from their pleas was that most of the clubs were under financial pressure, so they agreed to the arrangement of renting space for casinos as this would be a “win-win scenario”. Those running the gambling operations had strong political affiliations, thus it was difficult to avoid the pressure.
A necessary cleansing
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the casinos have gotten caught up in what is essentially a cleansing operation of the AL ranks at the behest of the party president and head of government. The fact that they were illegal brooks no doubt. At the same time, despite being an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country, the public sentiment against the casinos probably isn’t as straightforward a matter. In the wake of the raids, a number of voices have sprung forth to opine in favour of bringing in a legal provision for casinos, with strict regulations in place to prevent it from adversely affecting society in any way. Civil Aviation and Tourism Secretary Md Mohibul Haque has said casinos should be allowed for foreigners at exclusive tourist zones.
“I think it would be better if there’s a system that foreigners can visit casinos only with their passports,” he said while addressing a press conference at the ministry’s conference room. The press conference was organised on the occasion of World Tourism Day.
“There’ll be exclusive tourist zones in Bagerhat, Khulna, Satkhira and Cox’s Bazar. We’ve a plan so that foreigners can go to casinos at the exclusive tourist zones with their passports like other countries,” the secretary said.
It remains to be seen what comes of such suggestions. For the moment though, the initiative to cleanse the AL ranks starting with its two powerful front organisations, BCL and JL, must be welcomed. As the AL has dug in, no exceeding a decade in power, these two organisations have grown more and more monstrous. Before the December 2018 election, Dhaka Courier had predicted that the most worrisome aspect of a third successive term for the AL would be the prospect of BCL growing more monstrous.
“I will eradicate all the inconsistencies of the society. Whatever necessary will be done to prevent crime and lawlessness. Those who need to be held will be detained," the prime minister said, when a delegation of BCL led by its acting president Al-Nahean Khan Joy and acting general secretary Lekhak Bhattacharjee, met her at Ganabhaban on September 19.
"It's a difficult task [to bring discipline to the front bodies] and challenges will appear but the government will continue to do so to bring back people's confidence and trust," she added.
At the meeting during which she first expressed her displeasure with the Juba League’s leadership in the capital, Hasina had also urged her party colleagues to find new leadership for the party.
“The time has come for me to retire. I have to go. You will have to find new leadership for the party,” she was quoted as saying. She also expressed disappointment at the party high-ups’ failure to hold councils of grassroots units, and said a party cannot run as the AL was running, according to meeting sources. Given the power it wields at present in Bangladesh, a successful cleansing operation of the party would go a long way towards cleansing the country as well.