In August 2018, Sabiha Begum (not her real name) was approached by a group of locally influential men who wanted to buy her homestead.
"They told me the government needed the land and that one way or another, they would get it. I was scared of the men and their threats, but I turned down the offer because this land is all I have. A few days later, they came in a bigger group and evicted me from my homestead," said Sabiha.
They handed her just Tk 30,000 in cash though the market price of her
four-decimal land would be approximately Tk 2 lakh.
Had Sabiha sold the land directly to the government, she would be entitled to approximately Tk 6 lakh. Instead, the land now belonged to a syndicate of land grabbers, who just made a profit of Tk 5,70,000.
In September 2018, land acquisition began in Sonapara village under Kalarmarchhara union of Moheshkhali for the Single Mooring Point Project being implemented by Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, according to government documents.
Forty acres of land were acquired there, leading to eviction of at least 400 poor families including Sabiha's. The estimated market value of this land is Tk 14 crore, and the land acquisition value is Tk 42 crore.
Under the Acquisition and Requisition of Immovable Property Act, 2017, the government is supposed to pay three times the market value of land acquired in compensation for the owners.
Like in Sonapara, the land acquisition process for 20 other big development projects in Cox's Bazar has given a nexus of district land officials, politicians, journalists and touts a golden opportunity to rake in a fortune.
The clique managed to contain commotions and quell protests until one person got arrested by Rab with cash and diaries, which turned out to be the key to a Pandora's Box.
Fajle Azim Md Sibgat Ullah, convener of a platform called "Jagroto Chhatra Samaj" formed to protest irregularities in the land acquisition, told The Daily Star that the syndicate forced people to sell off their land at lower rates.
At least 400 shanties such as Sabiha's were vandalised after they refused to sell their homesteads.
"We have had many demonstrations and human chains to draw the authority's attention to the harassment and sufferings of people due to the process of land acquisition. Instead of getting remedies, we were threatened by influentials and named as accused in extremism-related cases," he said.
The victims of eviction were afraid to name the influentials involved.
However, a recent investigation report by the Anti-Corruption Commission, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Star, revealed that Kalarmarchhara Union Parishad Chairman Tarek Bin Osman Sharif and his elder brother Noman Sharif lead the racket of six in the union.
Both of them deny this.
Contacted, Osman Sharif said he was unaware of the ACC investigation. "I actually don't know about it. I was not involved in any racket of land grabbing," he said.
According to the ACC report, the syndicate goes much higher up the ladder than the local union parishad chairman.
According to the ACC report, the land acquisition branch of Cox's Bazar district administration, top political leaders of the district and local journalists, along with middlemen, formed a strong nexus to make huge sums of money from the government's land acquisition and development projects in Cox's Bazar.
On Monday, the ACC froze 11 accounts and seized Tk 17,48,000 from Mujibor Rahman, mayor of Cox's Bazar municipality and also general secretary of Cox's Bazar district Awami League. They also seized Tk 4 lakh in an account belonging to Noman Sharif on the same day.
The ACC earlier on September 1 froze the accounts of former councillor Javed Md Kaisar Novel, where they found around Tk 10 crore.
And on Thursday, the watchdog found Tk 75 lakh from a deposit scheme of Novel and five deeds of land worth Tk 5 crore in the name of Mujibor Rahman.
"It's a huge nexus comprising big shots of the district -- it has held people hostage throughout the land acquisition process. We have identified the nexus and have frozen the bank accounts of local councillors who were actively involved in the racket. Definitely, we will take action against them as per the law," an official of Chattogram district coordination office of ACC told The Daily Star.
Mujibor Rahman or Javed Md Kaisar Novel could not be reached throughout the last week, as their phones were switched off.
As per publicly available data, the government is acquiring around 28,000 acres of land for 21 projects across Cox's Bazar district with a total budget of Tk 3.5 lakh crore.
The projects include coal-based power plant at Matarbari, LNG terminal, Eastern Refinery's Depot, Economic Zones, Hightech Park, Tourism Park, submarine base, rail tracks, Sheikh Kamal International Stadium, expansion of airport and Khurushkul Ashrayan.
Given the intensity of land acquisition activities, the Cox's Bazar district administration created five additional posts of land acquisition officers in 2018 to accelerate the acquisition process.
However, the ACC investigation revealed that, instead of speeding up the process, the officials formed a syndicate to force affected populations to sell off land at low prices so it can be resold to the government at three to five times the cost. They also often compelled landowners to pay huge sums of bribes to get necessary documents.
The ACC filed a case in March this year after Rab-15 seized Tk 93 lakh in February from the houses of three land surveyors and arrested one of them, Md Wasim, with three diaries.
An official of the Chattogram office of ACC, seeking anonymity, told The Daily Star that they analysed over 11 sacks of documents, which Rab seized from those middlemen, to investigate the case.
The ACC arrested middleman Selim Ullah in July and two other middlemen named Sala Uddin and Kamruddin in August this year with a huge cache of documents, which provided details of officials involved with the syndicate and the amount received by each.
Diaries seized from the three exposed the names of Additional Deputy Commissioner (revenue) Mohammad Ashraful Afsar, Cox's Bazar Municipality Mayor Mujibor Rahman, land acquisition officers Dewan Moudud Ahmed, Mominul Haque and Razaul Karim, additional land acquisition officer Bijoy Kumar Singha, and district administration office assistant Abul Kashem.
Apart from this, the names of three journalists from Cox's Bazar made their way to the list. Two among them are from television and another one works for a national daily.
Major Mehedi Hasan, company commander of Cox's Bazar Rab-15, told The Daily Star that all documents seized by them have been handed over to the ACC for the investigation.
He said the government is implementing at least 13 big projects in Moheshkhali upazila of Cox's Bazar. They received allegations earlier this year about the racket which has been depriving people of due land price.
"As per the allegation, we started spying around the land acquisition office and came to know about this racket. On February 19, we arrested a land surveyor and seized cash money from his residence …. A total of Tk 93 lakh was seized by the Rab," he added.
Dewan Moudud Ahmed was in-charge of land acquisition for Matarbari Coal-Based Power Plant, which is being set up acquiring 1,212 acres, as per the ACC's investigation.
The anti-graft body found he formed a syndicate of 12 middlemen and surveyors at his office.
Muhibullah, a middleman of the syndicate, was found to have transacted Tk 50 crore through his three bank accounts in the last two years although he had no business or any other income source.
SHARE OF THE PIE
An analysis of middleman Kamruddin's diary, a copy of which The Daily Star obtained, revealed that he gave a total of Tk 1,23,75,000 to land acquisition officer Bijoy Kumar Singha and 14 surveyors in 2018.
From interrogation by the ACC, it was confirmed that they got the money as commissions.
Md Salauddin, another middleman, handed over Tk 3,45,85,000 to seven surveyors and kanungos (land office clerks), and Bijoy Kumar.
According to ACC sources, one diary mentions Selim Ullah sent Tk 6,70,000 to district administration office assistant Abul Kashem, and Tk 62,000 to land acquisition officer Rejaul Karim and a surveyor named Farid.
Ashraful Afsar, additional deputy commissioner (revenue), was in charge of issuing "advice," which is a written form aimed at verifying the authenticity of the cheque.
ACC officials said Ashraful Afsar did not issue any advice unless people paid him two percent against the price of acquired land. They discovered that he did not issue any advice for 570 cheques since February, when a surveyor was arrested and Tk 93 lakh was seized from the houses of three surveyors.
The ACC observed that no transaction in the accounts of those people -- who were name appeared in the diary -- took place since February. The dates of transactions coincided with the dates of releasing cheques and issuing advice by the land acquisition officer.
When an owner deposits his cheque received from the government for land acquisition, the bank asks the district admin about its authenticity.
Then the ADC on behalf of the district admin issues an advice form which contains the cheque number and which asserts that the cheque is valid.
Ashraful Afsar claimed that the allegation against him was completely baseless. "I hope it will be revealed in the investigation," he added.
Mohammad Rejaul Karim, land acquisition officer, now serving as the UNO of Hatiya upazila, claimed to The Daily Star that he was not involved in such practice and he has any idea why his name surfaced in the diary.
District administration office assistant Abul Kashem could not be reached for comment.
Bijoy Kumar Singha, now serving at Khagrachhari district administration, admitted to knowing Salauddin as he used to come to his office over his land affairs.
"He [Salauddin] used to come to take payment of his land. But I did not know that he was a middleman. If he has my name in his diary, ask him about it," he said.
Mominul Haque, land acquisition officer of Cox's Bazar, now the UNO of Ramgoti upazila in Laxmipur, told The Daily Star that the middlemen were using his name as diversion.
"I tried to ensure 100 percent clarity in my work and the allegation is quite false," he added.
Dewan Moudud Ahmed, former land officer now serving as the UNO of Ullapara upazila of Sirajganj, said it won't be fair to comment on something that is still sub judice.
Secondly, the ACC can and should investigate if any allegation arises centring the land acquisition and he would clarify things from his end if the watchdog contacts him.
"There are several thousand acres of land being acquired in Cox's Bazar with massive legal tangles involved, particularly in Moheshkhali," he said on Thursday.
He said people bought land but did not do the mutations while many families had no partition deeds. When the land acquisition office asks them for those things, they take it as harassment.
On the other hand, the office could not properly maintain documents as there was a huge work pressure. Shortage of manpower made it worse, he added.
When asked about the involvement of the middlemen, he said he would talk later as he was on an official assignment.
Cox's Bazar Deputy Commissioner Md Kamal Hossain did not receive phone calls or reply to text messages of this correspondent over the last few days.
On Thursday, Md Maksudur Rahman Patwary, secretary of the land ministry, told The Daily Star that they transferred land acquisition officers after the allegations surfaced last year and initiated departmental action.
He welcomed the ACC investigation, saying it was a criminal offence if there were such transactions of money and none would be spared if found involved.
"I have warned the Cox's Bazar district admin if anything like this further happens, stern action permitted by the law would be taken."
He also said he ordered conducting mobile court drives against the middlemen roaming around the district land office.