Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader failed to declare expensive watches that he says were 'gifts'. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Aside from the Bangladeshi president and prime minister, very few government officials have been listing the gifts they receive to the Toshakhana – the official federal government depository – on a regular basis, sources in the Cabinet division say.

The issue of people who hold key government posts acknowledging gifts came to light after a Sweden-based website named Netra News published a report, “A wrist of luxury”, which accused an influential Bangladeshi minister of corruption.

Netra News was blocked in Bangladesh within 72 hours of posting the story about Obaidul Quader, the federal minister of road transport and bridges, who is also general secretary of the ruling Awami League party. The story, which was based on a tip from a whistle-blower and photos from Quader’s verified Facebook page, raises questions about his collection of luxury watches – brands including Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Ulysse Nardin.

After the story emerged, Quader told the media that he hadn’t bought these watches but only received them as “official” gifts. But straight after, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) raised questions about why the minister had not deposited or registered these costly watches in the Toshakhana – which means ‘Treasure House’ – as per official policy.

The civil society organization called on the government to carry out a thorough and impartial probe and reveal the findings in a timely manner.

If a person holding a government post receives a gift above a certain amount, they are obliged to submit it to the Toshakhana. This rule applies to the President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Cabinet ministers, plus the Deputy Speaker, State ministers, members of parliament and other state officials.

But in Bangladesh, nearly no one submits gifts received in their official capacity.

Very few gifts declared

The list that this correspondent obtained from the Toshakhana shows only the incumbent minister for power, energy and mineral resources, Nasrul Hamid, has submitted the gifts that he received on a regular basis.

Over the past decade, only two former ministers – Abul Maal Abdul Muhit and Abdul Latif Siddiqui – deposited gifts at the Toshakhana.

Dr Kamal Hossain, leader of Jatyio Oikkya Front (National Unity Front), also submitted some gifts that he received.

Nasrul Hamid told Asia Times that as a member of the Cabinet, he goes to many countries on state visits and many foreign delegations also meet him. “I receive many types of gifts from them. Almost in all the cases, I submit those gifts to the Toshakhana maintaining the register,” Hamid said.

Under the Toshakhana Act of 1974, which was amended in 2014, a member of the Cabinet and Deputy Speaker of parliament can receive gifts worth less than 30,000 taka ($353.60) from a foreign delegate. For the president and prime minister, the amount limit is Tk 50,000 ($590). For members of parliament and other top government officials, the amount is only Tk 5,000 ($59). If they receive any gift worth more than this, they have to submit it to the Toshakhana.

If the gift is of historical importance or a rare archeological artifact, then the receiving person must notify the Toshakhana, the law says. Some gifts, like utensils or machinery, can be used for official purposes, while gifts that are perishable can be sold in auctions and the money received deposited in the state treasury.

Where the gifts go

There are provisions to display gifts at the Toshakhana, which is situated in the Prime Minister’s Office, plus there is another Toshakhana in Bangabhaban — at the president’s residence. The Cabinet division acts as custodian of the Toshakhana and the joint secretary of the Cabinet is usually in charge of the Toshakhana valuation committee.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the newly built State Toshakhana Museum, or depository, in November 2018 near the Bangabandhu Military Museum in Dhaka.

The depository is a modern five-story building with an area of over 50,000 square feet. Construction was supervised by the Bangladesh Army. But the new Toshakhana – built at a cost of about Tk 800 million – is yet to be opened for public viewing.

Monirul Islam Patwari, director of the Toshakhana museum, told Asia Times they had a list of all gifts submitted by senior government personnel. “We are trying to digitize the list and upload it on the website. The work is still going on.”

In India, the list of gifts given to senior state officials is published on the Ministry of External Affairs’ website. The Indian Foreign Ministry published its list in October last year – which had details of 16 officials and some 55 gifts submitted to their state depository.

A tendency to break rules

Dr Iftekharuzzaman, the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said: “In Bangladesh, most of the ministers and other important people have a tendency of keeping the gifts that they receive on various occasions. This is because they don’t have the intention of abiding by the very law that they enact in the national parliament. This is very unfortunate.”

Curiously, the Toshakhana Act doesn’t state clearly what should happen if a government official decides not to submit a gift to the state depository – and there is no provision to take any punitive measures against an official found to have not handed over a gift he or she received.

However, if a person suppresses information in regard to a gift they received or does not list it on their wealth statement submitted to the Election Commission, corruption charges can be filed against that person.

In 1992 a Dhaka court sentenced former Bangladeshi president Hussain Mohammad Ershad to three years in jail for not submitting gifts he had received to the Toshakhana, but the High Court later overturned the lower court’s verdict.

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