Human traffickers’ names absent from case statements and charge sheet
One of the biggest passport scams exposed in the country’s history is now being prosecuted, indicting a number of government officials and common people. But most of the accused are still at large.
Investigators have told the court that they do not know the current whereabouts of many of the accused, though they have collected details relating to their local addresses. They have learnt that 45 of them have travelled abroad on illegal passports.
According to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), 77 ordinary passports were converted into official ones from September 2014 to May 2015.
These official passports are meant for government officials, who are entitled to get on-arrival visas in several countries. To take advantage of the on-arrival visa facility, groups of human traffickers forged documents to turn their clients’ ordinary passports into official ones.
Everything was going well for the miscreants until the Turkish government caught four incoming passengers with such passports and informed the authorities in Bangladesh.
There were a number of departmental inquiries and investigations by several probe bodies which found the incident to be true and cases were filed accordingly.
The accused Department of Immigration and Passports (DIP) officials and general people are now facing trial. But the names of the human traffickers, who allegedly initiated contacts with general people about sending them abroad, were absent from case statements and the charge sheet.
Police have arrested all officials involved, except a director and a member of staff who are on the run. Over 60 of the passport holders are also absconding and only two were present when the court framed charges in the case.
“The court has issued a warrant against the absconding persons. The order was forwarded to police stations concerned across the country but it has not yielded any results yet,” said ACC Public Prosecutor Mir Ahmed Abdus Salam, who is dealing with the ACC case now being prosecuted at the Dhaka Special Judge’s Court-7.
Investigations and findings
Several DIP officials, including two directors, reportedly joined hands with the gangs and received a handsome amount of money for every official passport. They received fake and incomplete documents, kept those in the record and delivered the official passports.
Documents were created to show people, mostly from villages, as employees of government offices.
After a departmental inquiry, the authorities terminated the main accused Munshi Muyeed Ekram, director of Dhaka Divisional Passport Office, SM Shah Zaman, assistant director, and Md Shahjahan Miah, office assistant.
The ACC found suspicious transactions of Tk42 lakh in Muyeed’s bank account from January to April in 2015.
SM Nazrul Islam, director of the DIP, was suspended and is currently living in the United States to evade arrest.
In the case filed by the DIP, 77 people, who received official passports, were named as the accused. Meanwhile, in another case, filed by the ACC, 71 people, including eight passport office employees, were made accused.
DIP assistant directors Umme Kulsum and Nasrin Parvin Nupur, Office Assistant Saiful Islam and former assistant Anwarul Haque, along with several other passport office officials, were made accused after an investigation.
In the ACC case, the court exempted Umme Kulsum and Nasrin Parvin from the charges and 69 people are now under trial, including six government officials.
Two departmental committees submitted their reports in June and August 2015 and found the involvement of officials and staffers in the scam. Muyeed Ekram, Shah Zaman and office assistants Shahjahan Mia and Saiful Islam were consequently suspended.
Later, two Home Ministry probe committees also reported similar findings against Muyeed Ekram and Shah Zaman.
“Anyone could detect the fake documents easily. From receiving the applications to delivering the passports, it was a lengthy process. It should not have eluded the officials’ eyes,” Md Shafi Ullah, ACC assistant director and investigation officer, said in the charge sheet.
Staffers and officials concerned labelled them as “real” and passed them on to others for final approval.
A total of 31 applications were received by Shahjahan Mia, seven by Saiful Islam, one by DIP Director SM Nazrul Islam, 11 by Shah Zaman, five each by DIP assistant directors Umme Kulsum and Nasrin Parvin Nupur and Muyeed Ekram.
Muyeed Ekram, Shah Zaman, Umme Kulsum and Nasrin Parvin provided countersignatures and asked to put up the files for the next course of action.
Office Assistant Anwarul Haque wrote a note on those applications, saying: “The applications have NOC (no objection certificate) and GO (government order) attached properly and machine readable passports can be issued.”
Afterwards, Muyeed Ekram used his user ID to enter data in the computer network system and approved those applications.
The CID’s investigation found that 21 people went to Turkey with such passports, 20 to India, one to Paris and Bangkok, one to Qatar, one to Italy and one from France to New York. India was used as a route to go to Turkey, and then to European countries from there.
The government later brought about changes to the rules pertaining to the issuing of official passports in order to tighten security. Official passports are now issued only to government officials who go abroad on official duty.
Burden of proof on passport holders
ACC Public Prosecutor Abdus Salam said many people had already gone to their destinations and some were in the pipeline. “They are the beneficiaries of the process,” he said.
“The human traffickers and brokers made arrangements with the passport office in exchange for money. I doubt that the passport applicants did not know what the brokers were doing,” he said.
“The names of the accused in the case came based on the passport documents seized from the passport office only,” he said.
Police could not arrest the passport holders and quiz them to find out the brokers’ names.
The ACC public prosecutor said now the passport holders would have to prove in court that the brokers were the ones who had lured them to get official passports illegally. “The burden of proof is on them now because the passports were issued in their names.”
“Ideally, all citizens should know and abide by the laws of the country and they should have known better. They should not have applied for passports through brokers in the first place,” he added.
“But in our country, many illiterate and poor people seek help from recruiting agencies or brokers to go to developed countries as expatriate workers,” said Abdus Salam.
If they surrendered in court and gave deposition against the brokers, the brokers could be brought to trial along with the corrupt passport officials, the public prosecutor said.
“Two passport holders have already informed the court about the human traffickers during charge framing. In the course of the trial, the court may ask the police to arrest those brokers,” he further said.
The ACC case is now at the stage of recording statements. However, two accused have moved the High Court for a stay order. According to the High Court order, the trial process has been stayed till March 2021.
“If police arrested the illegal passport holders who are now in the country, justice could be delivered swiftly,” the ACC official said.
Applicants claim innocence
Two people, who applied for such passports, have surrendered in court in the case filed by the ACC and are currently on bail.
Yasin Arafat of Sonaimuri upazila in Noakhali, one of the applicants, told Dhaka Tribune that he gave Tk11.5 lakh to a broker to go to Europe. “He [the broker] did not tell me anything about the official passport. I just gave him my general passport.”
Yasin said he arranged the money by selling land and borrowing money on interest, and then handed it over to one Shahadat Hossain. “I heard that he fled the country.”
He said after being summoned by the ACC, he met with the commission officials along with necessary documents twice after the scam was uncovered. He later surrendered in court.
Hanif Shiblu of Noakhali’s Companiganj upazila, another accused, said he gave Tk10 lakh to a person named Mostafiz.
“Motafiz had sent one person abroad previously. But we could not go as some people were arrested in Turkey,” he said.