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Bangladesh anti-corruption chief steps down

Oliver Scanlan
3 April 2009

Lt General (ret'd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury stepped down on Thursday from his position as head of Bangladesh's Independent Anti-Corruption Commission. Beyond alluding cryptically to an awkward situation which "required no elaboration," he gave no explanation in his brief conference with reporters. This has only added to the intense speculation that his abrupt departure has already generated.

Chowdhury, who has held several senior appointments in Bangladesh including army chief and special adviser to the caretaker government of Iajuddin Ahmad, was appointed to head the IACC on 22 February 2007 by Fakhruddin Ahmed, the head of the military-backed caretaker government which handed over power to the current Awami-League government elected in December. His tenure in charge of the still fragile IACC, which was established by Act of Parliament in February 2004, has been characterised by some reports as "controversial".

Declaring a "war on corruption" on his first day in office, the IACC vigorously prosecuted cases against senior politicians during his tenure, including both Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. In the view of some commentators, these actions amounted to a witch hunt. Sheikh Hasina herself had accused the Commission of abusing its powers.

Regardless, heading the anti-graft effort in what Transparency International had named the world's most corrupt country four years in a row was always likely to prove a near intractable task. Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia were released prior to December's election, as were dozens of other leading political figures. In an interview in January this year, Chowdhury had bemoaned the fact that, due to procedural obstacles, the IACC was only successful in prosecuting roughly one in ten of the cases filed. Corruption continues to drain two-three percent of Bangladesh's GDP every year.

The mixed reaction to his resignation from the political parties confirms the view of several commentators that he made too many enemies among the rich and influential in conducting his duties to achieve a substantial breakthrough in Bangladesh's fight against corruption. M.K. Anwar, vice chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has welcomed the resignation, calling for an investigation into Chowdhury's tenure. Anwar went on to say that the resignation will not hamper continuing anti-graft efforts, saying that the present government is dedicated to a "neutral and impartial anti-corruption drive."

Hasina asks Khaleda Zia to vacate home

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently called on the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party Khaleda Zia to vacate her home in Dhaka cantonment. Zia has been living in her cantonment residence since 1981 when, in the aftermath of her husband Ziaur Rahman's assassination, she was apparently allocated the property by Justice Abdus Sattar, her husband's successor as president.

Hasina has pointed out that the regulations of the cantonment, where the headquarters of Bangladesh's army, navy and air force are located, stipulate that the residence cannot be mortgaged, nor used as a base for political activities. Observing that Zia is in breach of both of these regulations, and even questioning the validity of the original allocation decision itself, the Bangladesh Prime Minister has urged Zia to leave the house on Shaheed Mainul Road. Hasina has vowed that, if this were to happen, the house would be replaced with apartments to house army wives widowed by the recent Bangladesh Rifles mutiny.

This move by the Prime Minister is the latest episode in a feud between the two political figures, which is a permanent fixture of Bangladesh's dynastic political scene. Hasina has, predictably, drawn criticism from allies of Khaleda Zia, who have also accused her of using the tragedy of the BDR mutiny for her own political purposes.

Bangladesh-Russia nuclear deal imminent

On Thursday, a draft proposal was agreed between the government of Bangladesh and a visiting Russian delegation that will pave the way for Russia's aid in constructing civilian nuclear plants in Bangladesh. It was reported earlier in the week that the representative of the Bangladeshi government at the talks, M.M. Neazuddin, would present a proposal for Russia to set up two 1,000 megawatt (Mw) reactors as a key step in solving Bangladesh's chronic energy crisis.

Yesterday, Neazuddin, who is joint-secretary to the Ministry of Science, Information and Communication Technology, confirmed that the proposal had been agreed to in principle, and that a Russian minister would be visiting Bangladesh by the end of the month to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to cement the arrangement. The two-member Russian delegation was headed by Vladimir Averkiev, who is head of international co-operation at Russia's State Atomic Energy Corporation. The cost of each plant is estimated by Bangladeshi experts to be between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

Preliminary discussions have also been held with South Korea and Bangladesh has additional agreements relating to the peaceful development of nuclear power with China and the United States. Ministry sources say that the aim is for the plants to be fully operational by 2017.

The day after the signing of this draft proposal, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on the Ministry of Power to solve the electricity crisis as soon as possible. As an immediate remedy to the current power shortage, which has made regular power cuts a feature of daily life across the country, she suggested seeking access to the excess supply of neighbouring countries.  

Low turn-out for generally peaceful Bangladesh by-elections

On Thursday, by-elections in six parliamentary constituencies saw a dramatic fall in voter turnout compared with the December general election that saw the hand over of power from the military-backed caretaker administration to an elected civilian government. In December, there was a stunning 80 percent voter turnout. In contrast, election commissioner M Sohul Hussain estimates that on Thursday only 50 percent of those eligible to vote did so. However, despite sporadic clashes which resulted in one arrest and seven injuries, the elections were generally very peaceful, like their predecessors in December.

The elections saw the Awami League gain one seat, further increasing its already dominant two-thirds majority. The AL now holds 231 seats in Bangladesh's 345 seat parliament, up from 230. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party's strength is unchanged, holding 29 seats. The Jatiya Party has been reduced to 26 seats.

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