They were doing business for a long time, right under the nose of police and administration.
Some of their establishments resembled the luxurious casinos of Las Vegas, stocked with gambling equipments, expert operators, and liquor, but no one was ever aware of this just before Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) launched a raid in some Dhaka sporting clubs on Sept 18.
The establishments appear so lavish that people are beginning to wonder if police officials were letting the casinos operate with kickbacks in commissions or shares.
Over the last two months, during the drive styled as crackdown against casino and corruption, law enforcement agencies conducted around 50 raids across the country where 275 people were arrested for their alleged involvement.
The list includes many leaders and activists of Awami League and its front organizations, local city corporation councillors, in addition to contractors, businesspersons, etc.
How it all began?
At a joint meeting of the Awami League on September 7, Prime Minister and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina had directed to launch anti-corruption operation inside the party.
She had criticized two leaders of Dhaka Metropolitan South Jubo League at the meeting.
Following the directive, RAB raided at least six illegally run casinos including ones running inside the Fakirerpool Youngmen's Club, Dhaka Wanderers’ Club, Muktijoddha Sangsad Krira Chakra in Dhaka city and arrested an Awami Jubo League leader Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan, later expelled from the organization, who allegedly ran one of those establishments.
Since then, whenever raids were conducted in either at houses or establishments of businessmen or party leaders, seizure of huge stock of cash, liquor, and arms were quite common.
Has the drive slowed down?
Law enforcement agencies said they conducted operations against approximately 50 casinos and anti corruption operations over last two months. Out of them, RAB conducted 30 raids, Narcotics Control Department conducted one and police the rest.
Sources said that around 275 people were arrested during the raids. Most of the arrestees were leaders of various front organizations of Awami League. This includes six leaders of Jubo League, three councillors of Dhaka city, and one Krishak League leader.
RAB arrested 236 people and filed 32 cases over the past two months. Now, RAB is investigating nine cases. Of these, chargesheets of two cases were submitted to the court. RAB has also applied to investigate two more cases.
A total of 18 firearms, 277 rounds of ammunition, about Tk8 crore in cash, huge amount of foreign currency, narcotics and gambling equipment were recovered during the operations, said RAB officials.
No operation, however, was conducted this month after RAB nabbed Moinul Haque Monju, a ward councillor of Dhaka South City Corporation, in a raid on October 31.
When asked whether the drive has slowed down, RAB Director (legal and media wing) Lt Col Sarwar Bin Kashem said that RAB’s work in anti-casino operations was successful.
“We have been able to close all the casinos. We have arrested many in connection with this ‘casino business’ and many are under our surveillance,” he said.
RAB is investigating those people whose names came up during investigations. If we find their involvement in any way, legal actions will be taken against them, he added.
Since the beginning, people have showed their support in favour of the drive.
Whenever a person was arrested, if they were public representatives, people held processions supporting the drive.
According to a nationwide phone survey conducted across eight divisions of Bangladesh over the recent casino drives, 97% of the people supported the crackdown.
Research International, a research and communication strategy development affairs firm, carried out the survey among 4,100 people between Sept 28 to Oct 3.
A total of 58% respondents believed that leaders of all parties, who came to power in different terms, were directly involved with the illegal casino business while 34% thought that some of the current leaders have indirect involvement, according to the survey.
Former executive director of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) and human rights activist Nur Khan Liton said that it is not possible to operate casinos in Dhaka without the cooperation of law enforcement agencies and influential political figures. “Reluctance is being noticed to arrest and release their names.”
There is a perception among the people whether such a program is eyewash. People also suspect that in future similar drives may be conducted on people from opposition parties or people with difference of opinion, he added.
He also said that law enforcement agencies arrested two to three mid tier leaders in different times. After that, names of patronizers came out in different media outlets. Several have been expelled from their respective parties. Neither the alleged patronizers were cleared off nor any punitive actions followed.
Nur Khan said that no campaign can reach its ultimate goal when question arises in people’s minds.
How political activists see it?
Some leaders and activists think that the anti-casino and purification drive was started to warn top leaders of the Jubo League. Others say that the campaign was triggered due to the troubles of the Jubo League’s top-notch leaders with business groups.
Some of the leaders of the Awami League-affiliated organization (Jubo League) said the ministers of the ruling party (Awami League) were giving different answers in response to the media's question about the campaign. But even they did not seem to have a clear understanding of the operation.
At the time, it was important to disclose how the “influential persons” were involved in each ward. No one was taking that path, they said.
When contacted Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader did not receive the phone call.
However, at different programs he spoke on the matter and said that the “purification campaign” has begun. “Someone's interests may be hurt, but the ‘purification campaign’ under the direction of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is being praised across the country and internationally.”
“Sheikh Hasina has courage. If anyone from the team does wrong, he will be punished,” said Quader, adding that transparent leadership will be rewarded in line with the anti-casino and corruption operation.
Among the names that surfaced in the anti-casino drive was that of Dhaka South Jubo League President Ismail Chowdhury Samrat, who was later expelled from the organization following his arrest by RAB. He has been termed as the kingpin of the casino business.
Awami Jubo League leader Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan, Samrat's close aide and Jubo League leader Enamul Haque Arman, were also arrested.
Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Ward No 32 Councillor Habibur Rahman Mizan alias Pagla Mizan, Ward No 33 Councillor Tariquzzaman Rajib and DSCC Ward No 39 Councillor Moinul Haque Monju are some known faces locally who were arrested by RAB.
GK Shamim, a top government-listed contractor, is among the list. Shamim was arrested with bank fixed deposits or FDRs worth Tk 1.65 billlion, around Tk 18 million in cash and a large stash of dollars.
Among sporting clubs, previously mentioned Arambagh Krira Sangha chief AKM Mominul Haque, Kalabagan Krira Chakra Club President Shafiqul Alam Feroz, and previously named Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan, president of Fakirerpool Youngmen’s Club came under the spotlight.
Another businessman, Salim Prodhan, was also arrested.