Vol. 5 Num 1083 Mon. June 18, 2007  

What constitutes extortion?

Following the withdrawal of the ban on Sheikh Hasina's return to her homeland, I wrote a piece for The Daily Star (May 11), entitled "Pragmatism prevails over utopianism." Haplessly, it did not take long for my skepticism to become a reality. On June 13, yet two more cases of extortion, one of the three (two others are reform and remand) buzz words in the current political arena of Bangladesh, have been filed against Sheikh Hasina.

One of the two plaintiffs at this time is a businessman, who until recently, was considered a very close confidant of the accused and was an unsuccessful candidate of her party in the 2001 general election. He was also the tagged candidate of the party for the derailed January 22 election until an adjustment was made to accommodate the candidate of an alliance partner of the so-called mega-alliance. It was until the case was filed there was no indication that the plaintiff in any away was disgruntled with the accused.

It was also reported in the media that the plaintiff was taken in to the custody of the joint forces for sometime and was released on condition that he would make himself available whenever the joint forces need him. Within days, there came the case of extortion in which the plaintiff accused Sheikh Hasina and her two relatives of extorting Tk 5 crore in exchange for mediating between the Power Development Board (PDB) and his firm to finalise a power plant in 1997.

In a similar manner, an AL candidate, a renowned businessman and one of the handfuls of civilian decorated heroes of the famous Crack Platoon of our liberation war, was picked up from his house and his whereabouts was not known to his family for more than three weeks. A few of his valiant war time comrades of 1971 expressed concerns about his detention through a press statement. However, all on a sudden he was released while his family was busy in the high court with a habeas corpus writ against his presumed detention. Meanwhile during the period of his disappearance, he filed an extortion case with Gulshan Police Station against a detained Awami League presidium member. Notwithstanding the alleged extortion, the plaintiff did not run away from AL's shadow, rather he was able to manage the much-coveted AL nomination bypassing even the first chief of staff of the Armed Forces.

Extortion as defined by Random House dictionary is "an act of wresting or wringing money, information etc. from a person by violence, intimidation, or abuse of authority." The accused in question was the chief executive of the government when the alleged "extortion" took place. Natural intuition would attest the assertion that a chief executive of a government does not have to go to a business firm to extort money. Conversely, there would be a competition among the business firms to get close to the office of the highest authority to extract favour in sealing off any lucrative deal. These are very common phenomena in countries even where political ethics always reins over the laws of the land. The favour of the power of authority in many instances are returned in kind to the person of authority for his/her personal use, which is termed bribery or to the fund of the political institution the beholder of the power of authority belongs, which unambiguously matches the classical definition of political donation.

In the absence of any sate law to regulate the fund of a political party or the independent auditing process of the fund by the parties themselves, it would be almost impossible to differentiate between the bribery and donation, especially if the chief executive of the government and the chief executive of the party happen to be the same individual. Even in model democracies where states provide some funding for the political parties or politicians with some pre-defined support level, part of the funding for the party comes from the donations of its well wishers, while the bulk of it is generated through the donations of the big businesses, unions etc. In some cases business establishments with severe disliking for the party even contribute more for their own strategic interest and to keep there enemies at bay. However, political donations are different from charities; a political donor is not a philanthropist, some form of dividend is implicitly expected in return.

In Bangladesh, in the absence of any funding by the state, donations of the businessmen have always been the main or may be the only source of funding for the major political parties. It is not a new revelation that some business organizations pay regular donations to almost all the major political parties. It is an open fact that even Bangabandhu's AL was funded by some wealthy Bengali business magnates, a few of them even got the party tickets to contest the election of 1970. Late President Ziaur Rahman, considered to be an icon of personal honesty, was able to collect so mach donations for his newly formed political party that he made history in the subcontinent by owning a palatial party office which even the India's oldest political party could not do.

The alleged extortion in question occurred in 1997. In the next four years the plaintiff must have been maintaining a steadfast relationship with the accused, or else he would not be blessed with her party's nomination in 2001. The next five years happened to be the hay days for of the opponents of the accused, where scores of legal suits have been brought against her and she was almost physically eliminated, to settle the old scores. Quite to the contrary, the plaintiff presumably got closer to the accused and even was tagged as her party's nominee once again in 2006 overriding even a much wealthier candidate who reportedly was willing to make even a billion taka donation to the party fund to get the coveted nomination. When the basic right of the citizen is re-established, it would be likely to be revealed that the case was filed under duress. At this time, the simple instinct leads to the deduction that the plaintiff does not have a case.

As indicated earlier, in the absence of state financial mechanism to regulate the party fund, the state lacks the legal jurisdiction to find out if it was a case of bribery or donation if the alleged payment was proven to be made. The incident should only be investigated by the party officials and they in turn should let the people know if it was anything other than a normal donation for the party fund.

The current CTG was perceived to command the wide support of the general people when it was installed. It has carried out some laudable acts of cleaning the mess of a few constitutional institutions. However, a few ill-advised decisions have created some dents on its numerous seemingly undoable deeds and have led to cutting aspersions on its noble intentions. It is no more a concealed fact that, in its reform agenda of the political party, the CTG is more focussed on the individuals rather than the system. The Adviser for law and information, who claimed to have obtained people's mandate (even without an election!), had made no bones about his government's priority a few days ago while making observations about the on-going reform talks of the political parties.

It is now apparent that after failing to keep Sheikh Hasina out of the country, the current decision makers are on the process of implementing Plan B and filing of the recent two extortion cases could only be the tip of the iceberg. They are not likely to be the last ones, since the donor's list of AL, over the years, is by no means inconsiderable.

It looks like a fait accompli if good sense, albeit seems bleak at this stage, does not prevail once again. Our people are not at all devoid of the basic faculty to the extent all our government leaders have always presumed. I would have been one of the happiest to see the current ones as rare exceptions.

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh. He writes from Toronto, Canada.