Death at the airport exposes web of corruption in Bangladesh

A restaurateur who flew in from Heathrow with pounds 4,000 was never seen alive again, reports Mark Gould in Dhaka
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The Independent Online
The last time Siraj Miah was seen alive was when he was taken away from the arrivals hall in Zia International Airport in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. He had refused to pay the customary bribe, known as "rent", to customs officers.

The 35-year-old Sunderland restaurant owner was looking forward to a reunion with his wife and five children, who had been on holiday in Bangladesh. Although born in the country, Mr Miah had lived in northern England for 20 years, and was dressed in the Western style, wearing a cream short- sleeved shirt and blue lightweight trousers. He had done well out of a house sale, and had pounds 4,000 in his pocket.

The next time his family saw him he was lying on the slab in the mortuary of a Dhaka hospital. According to a coroner's report, Mr Miah had been beaten to death. His head, stomach and genitals were severely lacerated, his clothes, passport, luggage and cash were missing - and he was wearing typical Bangladeshi dress, a white long-sleeved shirt and black trousers.

Mr Miah's death in May caused uproar among the 275,000-strong Bangladeshi community in Britain, most of whom travel frequently to and from their country of origin. It has also spotlighted rampant official corruption: at Dhaka airport there is a gang of police and customs officers who supplement their pounds 80-a-month salaries by demanding between pounds 30 and pounds 50 from returning expatriates.

Despite an emergency debate yesterday in the Jatiya Sangsad, Bangladesh's parliament, Mr Miah's family, friends and fellow foreign-based businessmen are no closer to finding out what happened to him. They have heard nothing of the investigation from the authorities, and have been denied access to the official autopsy. Airport officials say that he was found unconscious in the street outside. Dhaka newspapers have variously claimed that he fell through a plate glass window while drunk and bled to death, or suffered a heart attack. But the general consensus, supported by a leaked CID crime report, is that Mr Miah was murdered, almost certainly by being beaten to death. After being taken to two hospitals, the restaurateur was pronounced dead at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. His body was identified by two cousins who travelled the 300 miles from his home village in the rural district of Sylhet, where nearly all British-based Bangladeshis have their roots.

Last week Mr Miah's widow, Shamseer Begum, accompanied by a British barrister, Emily Thornberry, and a 15-strong delegation of family and British Bangladeshi businessmen returned to Zia International to establish what was being done to find the killers. Dozens of white-suited customs officers fell silent as the party walked through the customs hall and stood briefly where Mr Miah was last seen alive. Ms Thornberry has waived her fee to support the campaign. Apart from seeking assurances that everything is being done to find the killers and trying to obtain compensation for the victim's widow, she said that the group wanted "to reassure the expat Bangladeshi community that they will not face the ordeal of bribery again". By coming out of seclusion, Shamseer Begum has crossed the boundary of what is seen as decorous for a Muslim widow, but she said: "I came here for my husband and to see that those who are responsible for this death are punished. I think he would be proud of me for doing this."

Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has promised that the killers will be caught and bribery stamped out. However, Humayen R Choudhury, the parliamentary speaker, doubted that the vast feudal pyramid of corruption could be breached, saying: "I know that people are treated very badly at Dhaka Airport, and we want to change that, but I imagine that you will come up against a brick wall when you want to talk to customs officers."

Britain, which gives Bangladesh pounds 50m a year in aid, and other donors are pressing for greater efforts against corruption. A new report by the World Bank says that stamping out bribery in the civil service, police and government must be a precursor to turning around the economy of one of the poorest nations in the world, but the British High Commissioner in Dhaka, Peter Fowler, warned: "There are strong vested interests at work."

The death of Mr Miah, however, may have brought another force to bear - the expatriates, whose remittances are vital to the Bangladeshi economy. An organisation of 3,000 wealthy British-based Bangladeshis has threatened to boycott Biman, the national airline, and close their accounts at the national bank if justice is not done, and is spreading the campaign to other countries with large numbers of Bangladeshi expatriates, such as Canada and Australia.

If the mysterious murder at Zia International remains unsolved, Bangladesh could yet be made to pay a very high price.