The Chattogram Customs House has been sitting on incidents of money laundering for years and only recently filed two such cases a year after being asked to do so.
The CCH had discovered that some importers would declare that they are importing high value and low tax products but when they inspected them, they found that the products were of low market value or of no value at all. Sometimes, importers would import high value products but declare low value to customs to dodge tax.
Either way, importers sent money abroad via legal and illegal channels.
CCH had not been filing any money laundering cases for these incidents until recently.
The two money laundering cases were filed against Dewan Bulbul Islam and Nur Al Mamun Rubel, owners of N Islam Enterprise, and Abdul Barik and Kabir Hossain, owners of Grambangla Food Corporation with Bandar Police Station in the port city on August 30.
The cases were filed a year after Bangladesh Bank and the National Board of Revenue instructed the customs authorities to file such cases.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Md Nooruddin Milon, deputy commissioner of customs, said after the instruction of BB and NBR, they formed an anti-money laundering section and conducted further investigation and filed the cases.
“We have already collected information about other money laundering incidents in the last two years,” he said, adding that more cases would be filed soon.
According to a BB report and customs documents, the authorities seized two large consignments of cigarettes worth Tk 22.77 crore, which was declared raw materials of textile goods by Grambangla Food Corporation. N Islam Enterprise declared the cigarettes as machinery in May 2018.
Customs sources said, the tax on machinery and textile goods is up to three percent, while tax on cigarettes is up to 600 percent.
The report suspects that the consignments were imported by the same gang as they were sent by Singapore’s Sri Vaari International (GS) through the same shipping agent, Fastex Logistics Maritime.
The importers exist on papers only and their documents on house rent, trade licence, address, bank accounts, letter of credit and credit report of supplier were forged, the report added.
IGNORED FOR LONG
Before filing of the two cases, the custom house had been turning a blind eye to money laundering incidents committed through imports of valueless goods, ignoring recommendations of investigation committees formed by the BB and the NBR to file cases.
The customs authorities do not have any records on how much money had been laundered abroad in the name of importing goods. However, The Daily Star found records of at least 20 such instances that took place in the last four and a half years.
In most of those 20 consignments, officials found items like sand, soil, cement block, ashes and water instead of declared goods like scrap steel, GP sheet, seed, machinery, edible oil, and even empty containers were also brought in.
In one of the consignments, the importer showed the value of the goods to be 600 times higher than actual.
After finding those irregularities, customs authorities filed only departmental cases against the 20 importers. They did not file any case under the Anti-Money Laundering act 2012 (amendment 2015).
Chattogram Customs and Custom Intelligence and Investigation Directorate (CIID) sources confirmed that there was no accurate statistics on the money laundering incidents, although they formed internal investigation committees soon after every incident.
Customs officials said they set up an anti-money laundering wing last October but failed to file any such case for a shortage of skilled manpower.
M Fakhrul Alam, commissioner of Chattogram Customs House, told The Daily Star, “Recently, NBR and BB recommended filing cases against Grambangla Food Corporation and M/S N Islam Enterprise, as they were found involved in money laundering.”
He said they were gleaning information about previous money laundering incidents and would file cases in connection with all the incidents.
“I joined this position recently and I do not know why the money laundering cases were not filed earlier.”
According to documents, Femas Bangla Electronic Industries Ltd imported ‘cutter blades’ showing a value at $1,008 a kilogram in December 2015, although other importers brought the product at an average of $1.7 a kg.
Customs authority did not file any case against the importer, even though the importer sent abroad money that was 594 times the actual value of the product.
In May 2016, customs officials found that Germania Corporation Ltd was engaged in laundering Tk 85 lakh by showing container rent 21 times higher than actual.
Officials said usually containers are rent for $800 but the company paid $17,000 for each of the seven containers it used.
Later, an investigation committee was formed but it is yet to submit a report.
On October last, the CCH found 410 sacks of sand inside a container although it was brought by Progress Impex Ltd declaring as AA4 size papers worth Tk 12.81 lakh from China.
Arif MA Akbar, managing director of Progress Impex Ltd, told The Daily Star “We have been a victim of fraudulence by exporter and trying to contact them through the related bank and asked Bangladesh Bank for remedy.
In the same way, valueless goods were imported by Lucky Trade, CAP Trading International, Yasir Enterprise, RSB Enterprise Ltd, SR Metal Industries, M M International, Roja Foods Ltd, Dada Bag Industries Ltd, Aramit Thai Aluminiam Ltd, AB&D Corporation Ltd, LSI Industries and Shenzhen Industries Ltd.
After the incidents came to light, all of these importers claimed that they were victims of fraudulence by overseas exporters.
Mahbubul Alam, President of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it was not sure that all the incidents were money laundering cases. He said in most incidents, importers were cheated by the exporters.
Economist Moinul Islam, former professor at the Economics Department of Chittagong University, told The Daily Star, “A strong money laundering gang was involved.”
According to the Global Financial Integrity report, he said Tk 5,30,000 crore were laundered from Bangladesh between 2006 and 2015. This money has been laundered in the name of importing goods, he claimed.
“Unfortunately, there is no activity to curb money laundering even though around 90 percent of the country’s trade is done through Chattogram Customs,” he added.
He said, “A team of the Anti-Corruption Commission should monitor the import-export documents at the customs house to stop these incidents.”