33,000 tonnes of wheat gone!

Iftekhar Mahmud | Update:

.As much as 33,000 metric tonnes of wheat, imported to boost the government food stock, was smuggled out from warehouses in the Chittagong port area and sold to traders in the port city.

A South Korean insurance company has resorted to the courts for settlement.

The price of the wheat was fixed at US$ 346.35 per tonne, or Tk 27,708 at the time of purchase. The total value of the looted wheat stands at about Tk 900 million.

The grain was stolen before it reached the government warehouses and the shipping agents and warehouse owners sold off the wheat.

A leader of Juba League, the youth wing of the ruling Bangaldesh Awami League, and several pro-AL businessmen, were allegedly involved in the scam, according to investigations by several government agencies. 

Samjin Limited, the South Korea based company which supplied the wheat, has been trying to trace the stolen wheat for the last three years. It came up against a blank wall when they complained to the food ministry and other government departments.

The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC), Special Branch of Police, and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) have been investigating the matter. According to their investigations, seven people of the shipping agents and owners of port warehouses were involved. They were sued in four cases.

In connection with the incident, an arrest warrant was issued against six people in a case filed by the South Korean company.

Two of them are on bail while the rest are fugitives according to police records, although they are roaming around freely. They are active in the social media and post pictures of their lavish lifestyles.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, executive director of Transparency International of Bangladesh (TIB), Ifthekharuzzaman, said this incident has raised people's concerns about the country. It seems as if cheaters rule the roost. Ultimately it is the people who have to bear the burden of the pilferage.

Allegations of two more irregularities and food theft were raised against two of the seven accused.

Abdul Aziz, a local agent of the supplier, alleged no legal action is being taken against the accused as they are pro-government businessmen and leaders.

Has the ministry no responsibility?

Speaking to Prothom Alo, food minister Quamrul Islam said, "The supplier could not supply wheat within the stipulated time due to legal complexities although wheat was imported for the government. I can't say anything about what has happened under the custody of the supplier. Officials at the Korean embassy talked to us on the matter. We have no responsibility as they failed to supply the wheat it in time."

Agent Abdul Aziz alleged the ministry and the directorate of food remained silent and indirectly assisted the wheat embezzlers. According to a court order, all stakeholders should jointly monitor wheat in the warehouses. How was it possible to smuggle wheat out from there?

According to Prothom Alo investigations, in November 2014, the High Court issued an order restricting the unloading of wheat supplied by Samjin Limited at Chittagong port. The court also ordered that the wheat be kept under the custody of the importer, and monitored by all stakeholders including the Directorate General of Food, Chittagong Port, and Chittagong Customs.

Despite that, no government department took any steps to stop the smuggling of wheat from the warehouses in over 5,000 trucks. The directorate general of food in a letter told the supplier that it would not accept the wheat due to breach of contract conditions.

During the import of the wheat, Tofazzel Hossain was the director of procurement at the Directorate of Food. He was also in charge of joint monitoring of the wheat import. No steps were taken from his department in connection with the stolen wheat. Tofazzel Hossain is under ACC investigation on allegations of corruption.

Speaking to Prothom Alo about the wheat disappearance, Tofazzel Hossain said, "I can't remember. It all happened so long ago. I have retired now."

The Chittagong port also evaded responsibility. Member (admin) of Chittagong port, Zafar Alam, told Prothom Alo that wheat was unloaded outside the port’s jurisdiction. "It is not our responsibility to see where the wheat was kept and what happened."

Involvement of Influentials       

Meritz Fire & Marine Insurance, a South Korean insurance company, resorted to the Bangladesh courts as the supplier did not get any satisfactory explanations in three years. On 20 June, a case was filed with the High Court. On 2 August, another case was filed with the Chittagong Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court accusing seven people.

Of the accused in two cases, one is owner of Rokeya Flour Mills, Saiful Islam, and the initial buyer of the wheat. He is former vice president of the Chapainawabganj Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Four officials of JK Shipping were also accused.  One of them is a JK shipping company official and also the Khulna Jubo League president of ward 36.   

Chairman of JK Shipping Nurul Islam, chief executive Quamrul Islam, and managing director Abdus Salam, were also accused. Two others accused are Abdul Malek Mazi in charge of storing wheat in godowns, and shipping agent Akhtaruzzaman Khan.

Two investigations

After the ACC investigations, the CID was assigned to investigate further. After changing the investigation officer twice, the charge has now been given to CID inspector Liton Dewan.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Liton Dewan said most of the accused are in hiding and so it is not possible to get statements and information from them, he added.

Investigating the wheat theft, Prothom Alo talked to three of the fugitives, two of whom are on bail. Of them, Saiful Islam and Malek Mazi came to the light for two other criminal incidents.

Juba League leader Showkat and JK Shipping

Local agent Abdul Aziz filed two cases against JK Shipping in connection with the wheat theft. An arrest warrant is in force against six people, including the owners of JK Shipping, Nurul Islam and Quamrul Islam. According to police records, they are fugitives, but they are roaming freely.

JK Shipping asked Jubo League leader Shawkat Hossain to contact the police and government departments.

According to the case filed by the Korean insurance company, Shawkat Hossain sold a portion of the wheat on the open market.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Shawkat Hossain said, "I served as an employee of JK Shipping. Why are you asking me? Ask those who have become rich by selling that wheat".

Lavish lifestyle of fugitives

Arrest warrants were sent to all police stations concerned for the arrest of Akhtaruzzaman Khan and Quamrul Islam in connection with the wheat theft. But they are fugitives. Their passport numbers and their photos were sent to the immigration departments at all airports, including Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. Police are yet to locate them.

Akhtaruzzaman has been uploading photos on Facebook of his visits to casinos abroad. When contacted by Prothom Alo, Saiful Islam said it was his responsibility to take the wheat to the port. Akhtaruzzaman brought the wheat to the warehouses after it was unloaded. Akhtaruzzaman disconnected his phone when called.

Saiful Islam's involvement

According to the ACC probe report and statements from two recent cases, former vice president of Chapainawabganj Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Saiful Islam is the principal buyer of the 33,000 tonnes of wheat. Later, he sold the wheat to five businessmen of Khatunganj in Chittagong. The five businessmen include the president of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mahbub Alam.

No statement by Mahbub Alam was available as he was abroad.

When contacted, Saiful Islam said, "We are members of a renowned family of Chapainawabganj. I bought the wheat lawfully. The case filed against me is a conspiracy."

In 2011, Saiful Islam was arrested on allegations of smuggling wheat from warehouses of the Directorate of Food. In June 2012, an allegation of supplying low quality wheat to the food directorate was raised against his business firm, Rokeya Flour.       

 

Malek Mazi's involvement

Wheat was imported in November of 2014 and stored in seven government and private warehouses in the port area under the custody of Abdul Malek Mazi. The wheat was stolen from there.

Last July, Malek Mazi was accused of smuggling rice from the central storehouse of the food directorate at Halishahar of Chittagong. Earlier, allegations of smuggling rice from the government and private warehouses were raised against him.

On these allegations, Malek Mazi said, "Why will I be guilty if anybody stores goods in my warehouses? I have no connection with politics. I do not refuse any poor man who comes to me for help."

Stakeholders said steps are not taken against anybody in connection with the wheat theft as the culprits are influential people.     

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam 

 

 

 

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