Harris Chowdhury |
Another rags to riches story
Julfikar Ali Manik and Sharier Khan
Harris Chowdhury, ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia's political secretary, sentenced to a three-year term Monday, was an ordinary car dealer who became a multi-millionaire in just five years through corruption and abuse of power.
Using close link with the prime minister between 2001 and 2006, Harris made enormous wealth illegally at home and abroad by helping inappropriate contractors win government and private business. He also amassed money in return for transfers and promotions of government officials. Harris was the one who pushed projects through the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) if the 'speed money' suited his liking.
Harris took bribes in cash and kind. For instance, he received a Tk 4 crore Infinity sport utility vehicle from Obaidul Karim of Orion Group in exchange for awarding the deal of the Gulistan-Jatrabari flyover project to the company.
Sources said his rampant corruption contributed to the creation of the current administrative chaos left by the immediate past four-party alliance government.
Harris has been the only high profile corrupt BNP leader who had access to both Hawa Bhaban led by Khalda Zia's elder son Tarique Rahman, and the then PMO. BNP sources said that was possible because Harris was strategically backed by various senior leaders of BNP to prop him up against Mosaddak Ali Falu, who enjoyed the maximum access to and influence on Khaleda Zia.
Investigators so far detected cash and properties of Harris worth Tk 22.5 crore in Bangladesh under other peoples' names. Besides, they found that Harris has a house and a shopping mall in London under a different person's name, said an investigator of the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC).
"He is very cunning and probably has more properties in the country which did not come to our notice," an investigator quipped.
Investigators are also probing into his possible link with the murder of ex-finance minister of the last Awami League government SAMS Kibria. "Although there is no direct evidence linking Harris to the murder, we have knowledge that he had good connection with many of the accused and suspects in the murder," said an investigator.
Harris' ill gained properties include five houses in Dhaka and fixed deposits worth Tk 10 crore in banks. These are under the names of his wife, children, brothers-in-law, and his personal staff.
Harris owns a large number of shares of different companies worth crores of taka. For instance, he has shares in National Tea Company, Mutual Trust Bank, Ocean BD Ltd, etc. His shares in Ocean BD Ltd alone are worth more than Tk 10 crore.
Harris in his last tax return showed that he had total savings worth Tk 12 lakh. But tax officials found that according to his own tax statement his savings stood at Tk 18 lakh.
Harris started his political career in BNP by joining the party's youth front Jubo Dal during late president Ziaur Rahman's regime. He was made the joint secretary general of BNP in 1993 -- a profile he continues to possess, as the party has yet to oust him despite his conviction.
Along with his political profile, Harris maintained a humble car sales centre, Asha Car, owned by his wife, in Bijoy Nagar in the capital. On his tax returns he had shown himself as a 'small business operator' till he became the political secretary to the ex-prime minister. He however did not specify the nature of his business on the tax returns.
In BNP circles, Harris has been known for asking for money from the better off leaders on various occasions. In the 1990s, he took a large sum of money from others for his treatment abroad. Interestingly even after becoming the political secretary in 2001, he would call up the 'moneyed' ministers during special occasions including the Eid-ul-Adha to give him money, according to a senior BNP leader.
He used to live in a rented house in Shantinagar.
When Hawa Bhaban was set up in 2000 right before the 2001 national election, Harris was deputed there from a group of BNP leaders. Insider sources said Hawa Bhaban was founded basically to collect money from persons interested in contesting the 2001 election with BNP tickets. Officially it was however claimed that Hawa Bhaban is the party's research and coordination centre, which is headed by the party's Senior Joint Secretary General Tarique Rahman.
Insiders claim that young and older leaders trusted by Tarique, including Harris Chowdhury, raked in a humongous amount of money from election nominees. They claim that at least a third of the BNP candidates bribed them for nominations.
With election money bloating his personal account, Harris moved out of his humble Shantinagar residence into a house in posh DOHS area in the capital.
By the time the election was over, Harris became very close to Khaleda. Sources said coupled with his proximity to the erstwhile prime minister, Harris had strong recommendations from Tarique for the position of the political secretary number one to the prime minister with the rank and status of a state minister.
After assuming the position, he enjoyed both the power of his post and of Hawa Bhaban -- making him immensely powerful overnight.
"The first year was not unusual. But from the second year , Harris became restless and reckless to make a personal fortune," said an ACC investigator.
Harris has a house in Block A of Bashundhara Residential Area under his daughter Samira Tanjin's name. "He did not buy this land. A developer gave him this land, while another person built him the house," the investigator added.
He also bought a palatial house in upscale Gulshan of the capital under a third person's name for a nominal price from the government during his tenure as an official of the PMO, sources said.
Documents of Harris' shares in National Tea Company worth Tk 1 crore were found in his Asha Car Centre office. But the shares were issued under the name of Mosharraf Hossain Thakur, president of BNP's cultural front Jasas.
Harris has four brothers. He has been in bad terms with one of the brothers Hasnat Chowdhury, and little link with his another brother who lives in Iran. He also has a brother living in Sylhet. Another of his brothers Selim Chowdhury has been very close to him, who also appears to have shared Harris' fortune between 2001 and 2006, investigators said.
Like Harris, Selim also became a multi-millionaire from an ordinary businessman during the same period. Apparently Harris placed more properties under his brother's name than under his wife Josneara Chowdhury.
Harris has a son and a daughter. But law enforcers could not trace any of them or his brother Selim, in the country. "We gather that his children are staying in London. They are either studying there or just overseeing their father's fortunes," commented an ACC official.
Harris also served as a ladder for his family, his in-laws and his staff for making quick fortunes.
Investigators found that Harris took money from bureaucrats for promotions and appointments at the top level. He shamelessly took money for appointments of teachers under the education ministry, and for bringing private educational institutions under the monthly pay order (MPO) support of the government.
A BNP leaning agriculturist and a relative of Mirza Abbas joined hands with Harris in making quick money. This agriculturist opened an office in Gulshan to provide lobbying services to bureaucrats. Many officials from the 1973 batch of the government cadre and those who had been in the black book of the alliance government for being accused of participating in Janatar Mancha in 1996 sought help from that office for promotions, reinstatements and transfers. The rate of bribes ranged between Tk 5 lakh to Tk 20 lakh, 'depending on the case'.
Harris took bribes for all power projects during the alliance government's rule, which were selectively awarded to Harbin Power of China and BON Consortium of Obaidul Karim. He also took bribe from Lahmayer International Palli Power Company (LIPPS), unleashing a reign of corruption involving hundreds of crores of taka in Rural Power Company Ltd, sources said.
A part of that bribe also went to Hawa Bhaban, the sources added.
He took commissions for different kinds of construction contracts of the government under the roads and highways department, and at local government levels.
He also took bribes from many NGOs in exchange for awarding government projects to them.