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Safe haven for traffickers

Penniless Bangladeshis turn into trafficking kingpins under the protection of law enforcers

With people desperate to go abroad in search of a better future, corrupt law enforcers and money mongers with political influence in the Bangladesh coastal areas are in league with the agents of ruthless trafficking gangs.

The Daily Star, in an investigation based on police records, identified 15 godfathers, who rose from rags to riches in less than a decade. Of them, 11 are Bangladeshis, two are from Thailand, and one each from Myanmar and Malaysia.

These godfathers control a countrywide network of at least 230 traffickers and 300 brokers, a police probe has found.

Most of these people are from Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf, the southernmost point of the mainland. With easy access to the Bay of Bengal, the place is considered the heart of the business.

Two of these 230 traffickers, along with another associate, were killed in a “gunfight” with police in Teknaf on May 8, after the Daily Star started publishing a series of investigative reports on this modern-day slave trade.

Deceased Jahangir Alam, 30, was the 24th and Dhalu Hossain, 55, the 207th on the list.

This paper has obtained part of the 2013 probe report, which was never made public.

Mohammad Islam, brother of Awami League lawmaker Abdur Rahman Bodi, was identified as one of the 26 Hundi businessmen of the country, handling the clandestine trade’s transactions.

A group of people prepare a boat to sail from Khurer Mukh in Teknaf. This is one of the starting points of trafficking to Malaysia. (The Daily Star)
A group of people prepare a boat to sail from Khurer Mukh in Teknaf. This is one of the starting points of trafficking to Malaysia. (The Daily Star)

Another 1,600 people were said to be involved in the trade at different levels.

“Alongside them (the trafficking rings) are people from different sections in the society and local public representatives,” read a paragraph in the report.

Traffickers’ connection with “established” and “influential” people of the society help them evade the police dragnets, the report stated.

The investigation discovered 60 “converging points” where fortune-seekers from all over the country were gathered before being put on boats or ships to Malaysia. Almost all of these points are located along the coasts of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong.

The godfathers

Apart from Mohammad Islam, the other Bangladeshi godfathers, identified in the police report, include a couple ― Rebi Akter and Nurul Kabir from Ukhia’s Jaliapalong union in Cox’s Bazar.

The rest are Foyez Ahmad Shikder Bhuttu alias Foyez and Mohammad Sumon from Ukhia; and Abdul Hamid, Abdul Amin, Akter Hossain, Salim Ullah, Dil Mohammad and Anar Ali from Teknaf.

Of them, Sumon operates from Malaysia and Dil Mohammad from Myanmar.

The Thai nationals are known only as Mong and Then, both from Runang of Fudaba district in Thailand.

The Myanmar national has been identified as Abdul Gafur while Malaysian national known as Mrs. Manking is pulling the strings from Thailand.

The Daily Star has managed to get an insight into the rise of some Bangladeshi kingpins of human trafficking trade.

Rebi, 38, spent half a decade as a field-level insurance broker before stepping into the trafficking business in 2011.

“And in just four years, she became ‘Rebi Madam’ for the people here,” said Abul Kashem, executive director of the Ukhia branch of Help, an NGO working on safe migration.

Raised at her stepfather’s house in Ukhia’s Borobil village, Rebi married Nurul, a day laborers, almost two decades ago.

Rebi started the business at Borobil and brought her husband and three brothers into the business in no time, putting herself on top of the district police’s list of wanted criminals.

Rebi is having a five-storied building constructed in her village with the money she is believed to have made from the business.

Officer-in-charge Jahirul Islam Khan of Ukhia Police Station described Rebi as a “dangerous and evil woman.”

She goes to any length to silence whoever raises a voice against her, said another police official.

For instance, Rebi threatened anti-human trafficking activist Abdul Hamid for organizing a rally in Ukhia on July 18 in 2013.

When Hamid filed a general diary with the local police following this, Rebi had her teenage daughter file a rape case against him, Hamid told this paper.

And this is the weapon she uses against anyone who comes in her way, said Anwar Hossain, chairman of local Jaliapalong union parishad.

“You never know when you are going to be framed in a case by her,” he said.

But in case of Hamid, Rebi, who along with her husband stands accused in at least a dozen cases, didn’t stop just there.

Detained in November last year, she walked out of jail on bail on Jan. 16 this year and allegedly attacked Hamid twice in the next few days before being arrested again on Jan. 21.

She along with her husband is currently on bail.

Fisherman turns big fish

Son of a fisherman from Chhepotkhali in Ukhia, Foyez had lived on fishing for 40 years until he started human trafficking in 2010.

He is believed to be the one who started using different canals and tributaries ending in the Bay of Bengal for trafficking people.

This helped him climb the ladder quickly and soon the petty fisherman emerged as one of the big fishes in the business.

He now owns a luxurious mansion and a multi-story commercial complex in Jadimura Battoli area of Ukhia town.

Accused in at least three human trafficking cases, Foyez is currently on the run, said Jahirul Islam Khan, officer-in-charge of Ukhia Police Station.

However, a local journalist preferring anonymity told the Daily Star that Foyez is often seen roaming around the town in microbuses or on motorbikes. “But police do not arrest him as, we believe, he bribes the law enforcers regularly.”

The other fisherman

Like Foyez, 30-year-old Abdul Hamid too had been a fisherman until joining the band of traffickers in 2011.

The man, who lived in a shabby hut only four years back, now has two concrete houses in his village Kachubuniya under Sabrang union, a commercial complex in Teknaf town, and a number of shops in Noapara Bazar.

Hamid is accused in three cases and currently absconding, said officer-in-charge Ataur Rahman Khandaker of Teknaf Police Station.

However, a number of locals said they often see Hamid moving about the area freely under the nose of policemen.

Apart from the four, Abul Kalam of Sonachhari village in Cox’s Bazar is considered another big fish in the blood-spattered trade.

Visiting the village under Jaliyapalong union, these correspondents hardly found any youth in the village.

A number of elderly villagers approached the reporters with photographs of their sons who, lured by Kalam and his cohorts, set out on illegal sea journeys for Malaysia and never came back.

Kalam has been on the police’s wanted list for years but is yet to be arrested.

The nexus and the loopholes

“From police to politicians ― everyone is linked to trafficking gangs in one way or the other,” said Aminul Haque, a field officer of Ovibashi Kormi Unnayan Program, an NGO on safe migration.

The police in the antitrafficking report stated 3,793 fortune-seekers were rescued from different places over the last five years.

A total of 276 cases were filed against 1,589 alleged traffickers in these connections.

It, however, did not mention how many of them were arrested or tried.

Interestingly, in seven such cases in Ukhia since 2012, police dropped the names of almost half of the total 75 accused, court documents show.

“Weak police probe ruins most cases,” said Special Public Prosecutor Mohammad Nurul Islam of Cox’s Bazar Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal that deals with human trafficking cases.

Ukhia’s Amena Khatun narrated a terrifying story of police’s complicity in the business.

Her husband was killed by traffickers in a Thai jungle in July 2013 though she paid 20,000 taka ($257) ransom to broker Abdur Rahim but failed to meet the deadline.

“I reported Rahim to police. But they called me to the Inani police outpost. Then Rahim, together with the policemen there, forced me to accept 70,000 taka and asked me not to proceed any further with my husband’s murder,” Amena told the Daily Star.

Mohammad Yakub of Narsingdi said he along with 29 others was escorted by eight people, including four policemen in uniform, on to a boat to Malaysia at an unknown location.

He was later released from the traffickers’ captivity in a Thai jungle after paying a hefty ransom.

On Nov. 7, 2013, a rescued victim of trafficking testified before the Cox’s Bazar tribunal that a BGB member named Habibullah had sold him to traffickers, prompting the court to order a police investigation into this.

Not just Bangladeshi law enforcers, a Reuters report last year revealed how Thai, Myanmarese and Malaysian police, navy and border guards also were involved in the modern day slave trade.

Delwar Hossain, former in-charge of St. Martin’s Island police outpost, thinks law enforcers can “easily” contain all criminal activities, including trafficking. “But it requires a strong commitment from politicians who run the state and controls the law enforcers.”

By Emran Hossain, Mohammad Ali Zinnat and Suhas Chowdhury

(The Daily Star)