Vol. 4 Num 17 Sat. June 14, 2003  
Front Page

Australian PM orders probe into asylum to 'convict' Kazi Zafar

Prime Minister John Howard ordered inquiries yesterday into why Australia has granted asylum to a former Bangladeshi prime minister convicted of stealing from his impoverished people.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Kazi Zafar Ahmed, who was sentenced in absentia by a Dhaka court to 15 years jail on corruption charges in November 1999, is now living in Sydney with his family and drawing a disability support pension.

The paper said Ahmed fled to Australia two months before the sentence was handed down.

The Ahmed case is the latest in a series of cases involving immigration authority decisions granting asylum in questionable circumstances.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who was not personally involved in the Ahmed decision, was forced last week to explain to parliament why a migrant was granted a visa after money was donated to the Liberal Party.

Ruddock yesterday defended the decision to grant refugee status to Ahmed, whom he said had disclosed in his application for refuge his criminal conviction, which was found to have been "politically motivated".

Ruddock said the immigration officer who made the decision accepted the criminal proceedings were politically motivated, but the decision would be reviewed by senior officials.

Ahmed, a former Maoist reportedly known in Bangladesh as "Sugar Zafar" because of his alleged role in the hijacking of a multi-million dollar aid shipment of sugar, was granted refugee status by Australia's department of immigration.

He is said to have since made at least two return visits to Bangladesh and on one of these trips was reported by the Bangladesh media to have resumed leadership of the Jatiya political party.

On one trip in 2001 he was arrested but released on bail after lodging a High Court appeal against his sentence. He was also granted bail on four other corruption charges against him involving the sugar shipments.

He was taken to hospital with a kidney complaint in 2002 and soon afterwards returned to Sydney to live with a daughter who had settled here.

The Herald said it understood he was granted a disability pension because of his kidney condition.

The Dhaka court was told that as prime minister in 1989, Ahmed had allocated grain for works on a landfill site where his government planned to build a cancer hospital, but the supplies were later sold on the black market.

Ahmed was also reported to have been implicated in the theft and sale of millions of dollars worth of sugar donated for flood and disaster relief in his country.

Howard said the first he heard of the matter was when he read it in the newspaper, and found it puzzling but would investigate why the man was granted refugee status.

"The decision was apparently taken by the department without, apparently -- as the newspaper report said -- any reference to the minister," he said.

"On the face of it, it seems a puzzling decision, but there may be a proper explanation, to be fair to the people who made it. I don't know anything beyond what is in the papers, but I intend to find out this morning."

Kazi Zafar Ahmed