After over a year of investigation, the ACC has begun taking tough measures against Hajj agencies that are mired in corruption.
Religious Affairs Minister Motiur Rahman on Thursday said 64 Hajj agencies had lost their licenses, while 12 more had their licenses suspended and punitive action was taken against 112 others, due to the discovery of “irregularities” within them.
The punitive measures follow in the wake of 397 aspiring pilgrims having failed to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj in 2017, as most suffered visa and ticketing problems after registering through fraudulent Hajj service providers and brokers.
A source of the religious affairs ministry said that 98 of the deprived pilgrims had filed complaints against 18 agencies. These include Kashem Tours and Travels, ASA Aviation, MCO Travels and Tours, Masum Air Travels, Sadman Travels, M/S Lailatul Qadr Tours and Travels, and K Kalam Travels and Tour.
Allegations and evidence against other agencies were revealed when investigating these initial complaints, the source said.
ACC Assistant Director (Public Relations) Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya said details of the allegations could not be revealed as the matter was under investigation.
Of 127,198 pilgrims who flew to Saudi Arabia for Hajj last year, 23,000 travelled under government supervision, while the rest used private Hajj agencies.
Earlier in 2016, complaints over irregularities and corruption were filed against 228 Hajj agencies.
Md Quddus Bepari, a pilgrim from Goshairhat Thana under Shariatpur district, told the Dhaka Tribune: “My wife and I deposited Tk6 lakh to an agency to perform Hajj two years ago (in 2016). But we could not go to Saudi Arabia that year, and went last year instead.”
When asked why he could not travel in 2016, Quddus said: “I am not an educated person so I do not know the details. When the agent wanted more money, we gave it to him, and when he called we went with him to Dhaka.”
However, Quddus added that when they finally got to the airport in Dhaka, the agent said there was no seat on the plane and that he had to return home with his wife.
After the complaints were filed in 2016, the ACC selected 18 agencies for investigation, appointing ACC Assistant Director Masudur Rahman to look into the matter. Although drives were conducted at the agencies, most of their offices could not be found and phones were switched off. Some of the agencies had shifted their offices without changing the address on their website.
On January 10 this year, the ACC interrogated four members of the Religious Affairs Ministry: Personal Secretary to the Deputy Secretary Dr Abul Kalam Azad, APS Md Shafiqul Islam Shafique, and Personal officers Mazharul Islam and Abu Sayed.
When asked why he had been interrogated, Personal Secretary Dr Abul Kalam Azad said: “Some Hajj agencies were involved in fraudulent activity. The ACC was looking into whether members of the ministry were assisting them in the crime.”
Also in January, the ACC summoned the owners of 18 hajj agencies over allegations of their involvement in corruption. They included the owners of Ms Al Safa Air Travel, Asa Aviation, Golden Bengal Tours & Travels, Golden Travels & Cargo Services, United Tours and Travels, Bushra Tours and Travels, Al-Balad Overseas, Gulshan e Mohammadi Travels, Mashallah Travel & Tour, Midge Aviation, Modina Air International Aviation, N. E. Air Service, Sad Air International, Eco Aviation and Tours, Euro Asia Travels And Tours, Siddikia Travels & Tours, Sawan Air Travels and Ulama Awulia Hajj Group Bangladesh.
The owner of Al-Balad Overseas told the Dhaka Tribune: “We are trying to solve the problems that people have complained about. We responded when the graft body summoned us. A client complained that he was unable to travel to Saudi Arabia. We have asked for six months time to resolve the complaint.”
Abdus Sobhan Bhuiyan, president of Hajj Agency Association of Bangladesh, said there was no chance of irregularities with Hajj agencies in Bangladesh as they all wished to work with the Religious Affairs Ministry to send pilgrims to Hajj.
“Some pilgrims are unaware of how the Hajj registration process works. If the ministry wants to punish corrupt agencies by cancelling their licenses, they can do so,” he added.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Religious Affairs Minister Motiur Rahman has said that the registration process for Hajj will run till February 28 this year, with 127,198 pilgrims having already registered.