Truth and Accountability Commission (TAC) relevance in question

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, August 30, 2008

The Truth and Accountability Commission appears to have missed its prime mission to put the country’s economic and industrial development back on track as it has found only two businessmen appealing for mercy.

The commission started its operation early this month with high-sounding pledge to allow graft suspects to voluntarily admit their guilt, surrender ill-gotten wealth and get clemency.

Though swamped by mercy petitions from officials of utility agencies and other government departments, the commission only received two petitions from the business community, prompting it to extend the deadline for receiving applications by one month.

The TAC has so far received records of about 182 cases, filed against 184 people, its chairman Justice Habibur Rahman Khan said at a press briefing in his Hare Road office on August 27, four days before the first deadline expires.

Most of the case files involve graft charges against officials of the Rural Electrification Board, Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Ltd, Roads and Highways Department, Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Ltd, Dhaka Electric Supply Authority, Department of Land Registration, Forest Department, Chittagong Port and Bangladesh Road Transport Authority.
   Considering the poor response from the graft suspects especially the businessmen, the commission has extended the deadline until September 30.

The TAC chairman on Friday told New Age that they were hopeful that businesspeople would avail of the extended deadline and come up with clemency appeals.
   Economists and business leaders, however, expressed their doubts about the response to the extended deadline as the High Court on August 28 questioned the legality of the Voluntary Disclosure Ordinance 2008, which gave the basis of the TAC.

They termed the TAC as a ‘futile exercise’ as they felt no sensible businessman would risk being stigmatised by voluntarily admitting financial crimes at a time when many high-profile politicians with graft charges are getting bail from the High Court and the country’s politics is heading for a different shape.

They said that the commission, formed on July 30 only for five months, could hardy bring any improvement in business and investment climate, which is reeling from erosion in business confidence due to crackdown against corruption and tax evasion.

Some of them, without being quoted, even said the commission was put in place to save newly corrupt people and those who amassed huge wealth through shady means but enjoyed blessing from the powerful people.

‘It [TAC] is no more necessary because concerned people are reaching compromise and getting remedy beyond the purview of the commission. It has only added another farcical chapter to the history of governance here,’ said Anu Muhammad, a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies research director Zaid Bakht pointed out that the commission was formed at a wrong time. ‘Businesspeople now prefer waiting to see what happens after the elections as the situation on the political front and judicial arena looks fluid,’ the economist said.

‘It lacks credibility in absence of a political consensus about its formation and functioning. Giving it only a five-month term raises questions in the minds of many,’ said economist Atiur Rahman, chairman of research organisation Shamunnoy.
   He explained that businessmen too did not find confidence in seeking mercy from the commission, despite repeated assurance from the TAC chief that names would never be made public.

The business community, which earlier preferred formation of such a commission to give amnesty to some of them and bring back business confidence, now believes that the commission is of no use for them as it does not guard them against future actions by the anti-corruption or revenue watchdogs.

‘Why will they [a section of businessmen] take the risk of being branded as corrupt for the remaining part of their life? Most people are finding the High Court as safer place and they are getting justice there,’ said Annisul Huq, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, analysing the reasons behind the businessmen’s reluctance to go to the TAC.

In view of poor response from the businesspeople to seek TAC mercy to avert harsh legal measures, it seems that the commission itself is losing its relevance and potentials, the top business leader pointed out.

‘I think that a kind of critical social behaviour has been reflected here. No one wants to be socially identified as guilty,’ said Anwar Ul Alam Chowdhury Parvez, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
 He also observed that the commission had confused the people by coming into operation in a wrong context.

Aftab Ul Islam, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh, said the poor response to the commission’s mercy offer indicated that the concept of the government had totally failed in this regard.
 ‘Obviously, no businessman will like to have a tag and risk his/her career,’ he said, describing the formation of the commission as one of the biggest mistakes of the present government.

One of the fundamental objectives of the commission was to bring back normalcy in business activities and instil confidence in investors.

‘Under the circumstances, existing businessmen and new investors will definitely hesitate, no matter he or she is corrupt or not,’ said Zaid Bakht.

Anu Mohammad said the truth commission was not an effective tool for channelling ill-gotten wealth into the mainstream economy and productive activities in absence of the proper institutional mechanism, and the commission was also not geared to that job.


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