In 2004, the German industrial giant Siemens was keen to land a telecom deal with the government of Bangladesh, a country of 150 million, where mobile phone use was soaring. Taking no chances, the company paid $5 million in bribes to government officials to secure the bid. There was certainly nothing unusual about that: bribery is a way of life in Bangladesh, which was ranked the most corrupt country in the world between 2001 and 2006 by Transparency International.
But in January, while investigating the country's chronic corruption problems [I spent a year reporting in Bangladesh in 2005], I noticed something unusual and potentially alarming about the Siemens bribe.
According to court documents [PDF] filed by prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice, Siemens had bribed the former telecommunications minister in Bangladesh.
The documents didn't name the minister, but further investigation revealed that he was Aminul Haque. I also discovered that during the time Haque was receiving bribes from Siemens, he was also patronizing Jamat'ul Mujahadeen Bangladesh, or JMB, an Islamic militant group in Bangladesh.
The revelation was surprising enough to get me on a plane back to Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. The day after I arrived, a national tragedy erupted that would have profound implications for my story: In events that made headlines around the world, soldiers in the Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, the country's border security forces, staged a bloody mutiny killing scores of their own senior officers and burying bodies in shallow graves inside their military headquarters. It soon emerged that some of the mutineers had belonged to JMB and that logistics of the attack further suggested the imprint of the extremist group.
David Montero (left) with the Daily Star's Julfikar Ali Manik reporting in the district of Rajshahi in northwest Bangladesh.
As investigators probed links between the soldiers and JMB, I headed to Rajshahi, a district in northwest Bangladesh where Haque was born and where the JMB first emerged as a militant threat. When I asked residents about Haque's involvement with extremists, local prosecutor Ekramul Haque told me that the former minister and barrister had formed a deadly alliance with the JMB, which has been charged with a wave of abductions and killings in the region.
Haque was a powerful politician in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the country's two political parties. Its main rival is the Awami League. According to victims, Haque allegedly used JMB militants to kill Awami League members to ensure his party's supremacy in the area. In return, Haque provided the group with political cover to continue its Islamist agenda.
A newspaper clip of the former telecommunications minister Aminul Haque, currently at large.
Breaking down in tears, one villager told me that his son was tortured and beheaded by JMB for no other reason than that his son belonged to Awami League. The boy's body was later left as a warning.
The JMB has become a nationwide menace in Bangladesh. Although six of its leaders were arrested and hanged in 2007, it continues to operate underground. Every week the police arrest new cells and seize weapons stockpiles. The mutiny in Dhaka that shocked Bangladeshis may prove to be JMB's most devastating attack to date.
Although Haque was sentenced to 31 years in prison in 2007 for supporting JMB, he fled Bangladesh before he could be apprehended. At the time of sentencing, Public Prosecutor Ekramul Haque said, "The JMB came into being, flourished and continued criminal activities with the finance and assistance of barrister Aminul Islam [Haque], Shish Muhammad [a BNP party official in Rajshahi] and other ruling party men of the BNP-Jamaat alliance."
Today, Haque's whereabouts is unknown. Although, this week, through his lawyers, Haque petitioned the government to withdraw five cases filed against him.
Although there is no evidence that money paid to Haque by Siemens made its way to JMB, it underscores how bribe money can easily fall into the wrong hands.
Thank you for your superb reporting. It's information we need to know. And it's so well presented.
touhidul touhid - London, UK
Thanks for revealing this truth.
hi David, good story.
David, you are right to question whether Bangladesh is in a cycle. But you should have also questioned the legitimacy of the anti-corruption drive. Its legal validity is very questionable and led by an unelected group setting a dangerous precedent for our country. Great work and interesting footage. Much thanks.