Thursday, December 10, 2009

How Committed is Bangladesh Government about boosting CPI?

How Committed is Bangladesh Government about boosting Corruption Perception Index (CPI)? by Habib Siddiqui

[Published also as: Question mark over govt.’s anti-corruption stance, New Age, Op/Ed, November 21, 2009,]

Nothing could be more gratifying for a government which finds itself being perceived positively in matters of fighting corruption. An improved perception can attract foreign investment. Bangladesh is one of those countries which has been able to drastically improve her corruption perception index. This year she improved her ranking to 139 out of 180 countries. She was 147th last year. Bangladesh scored 2.4 on a 0-10 scale rating (with lower numbers signifying more corruption perception), a number still below the 3.0 - cutoff value for the top 100 and bottom 80 countries, meaning corruption is still rampant. But compared to how Bangladesh began with a score of 0.3 points nearly a decade ago, it is definitely a good achievement. Nor should we forget that the country was placed at the bottom of the list for the fifth successive years from 2001 to 2005 (during the BNP rule).

In recent months, after the Mahajote came to power, the government has taken some positive measures that are bound to improve country's perception index. These include: election commitment of the current government against corruption, continuation of institutional reforms, formation of parliamentary standing committees and information commission. The government has not, thus far, interfered with the activities of the Anti-Corruption Commission giving it freedom to do its tasks independently. These are all positive signs and are sure ways to boost country's perception rating. Unfortunately, there are still areas which may put a dent to Bangladesh's image.

It was not too long ago that the ACC Chairman, Mr. Golam Rahman, had vehemently complained about the impotency of the agency. Sure enough, many of the verdicts by the High Court Bench granting bail to individuals, convicted of corruption, are making a mockery of the agency’s efforts to wipe out corruption from the country. News media accounts suggest that most of those convicts were probably freed on grounds of technicality and not on the weaknesses of the charges brought against them. If such public perceptions are true, unless the ACC is strengthened by bills passed by the parliament or presidential decree, its activities are going to result in zero-sum activities at a tremendous cost to the country’s economy.

In a widely covered interview, Mr. Rahman was bold enough to correctly call the ACC a 'toothless tiger', which finds itself in a no-win, difficult and precarious position to be state’s corruption fighting agency without the right mechanisms set in place to make it more effective. (During my meeting with his predecessor back in February, I heard similar complaints from Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.) And in spite of such candid and correct assessment from its current Chairman and the constraints it has to work under, it is highly gratifying to see the ACC's unwavering battle to put a stopper to corruption by charging many corrupt individuals, including politicians. In recent months, the agency has been more scrupulous than anytime before in its filings of corruption cases against politically connected bigwigs that have siphoned off country’s money through shoddy deals. It is also showing great discrimination and clarity in dropping cases against some individuals who were wrongly charged by the immediate-past interim government.

But like every other things that seem to go wrong with Bangladesh when we least expect them, the recent presidential pardon of sentences against Shahadab Akbar, son of deputy leader of parliament Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, is sure to put a questionable mark on the government’s sincerity to fight corruption. Chowdhury was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment and fined Taka 1.6 crore in absentia in four cases filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission and National Board of Revenue during the tenure of the last caretaker government. News reports suggest that Chowdhury had failed to appear before the court and did not even file any appeal against his convictions and yet the President had no qualms about pardoning him. This act of clemency can’t simply be overlooked. Yes, like the presidential pardon of bigwigs under Clinton and Bush before they vacated the White House, Bangladesh’s President Zillur Rahman has all the constitutional rights to pardon anyone, even a serial killer. But when the only criterion appears to be partisanship such an act of presidential clemency gives a bad name to the government, and is neither easily forgotten nor forgiven by the public. They perceive such as an abuse of justice and presidential power. There are even charges that in pardoning Chowdhury, the President had failed to follow usual legal procedures. The ACC lawyers are also calling foul on the matter. If any of these accusations are true, the current government’s high pitched election promise to weed out corruption seems too hollow and insincere. The clemency of Chowdhury also opens the door for other convicts who had not surrendered to the court to follow this backdoor of presidential clemency under political consideration.

The High Court on July 13 this year in a verdict scrapped the 13-year jail sentence against another politician – Awami League lawmaker Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir -- in a case that was filed by the ACC, adjudging the conviction against him illegal. On Nov. 16 the ACC filed an appeal with the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict that scrapped the sentence against him in a corruption case. While no one likes to see an innocent human being falsely charged and convicted in a kangaroo court, the judiciary branch of the government must carry out its civic duty diligently, transparently and justly so that no one can question its verdicts.

No one should belittle people’s perception since such actually helps to mold our realities (even when perceptions are not always correct). And that is what corruption perception index of Transparency International is all about. All the recent gains in the CPI rating may evaporate unless the government is sincere in its declared commitment to fight corruption. I can only hope that the Hasina government will have the wisdom to take the CPI rating seriously and thus, not to take Bangladesh on a wrong track. People have long memories; it is the politicians who don’t and they are fools.

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