THE BLOG

Why I'm Taking on Telecoms Corruption in Bangladesh

14/05/2014 13:26 BST | Updated 14/07/2014 10:59 BST

Respect for the rule of law is not high on the list of priorities for several of Bangladesh's government ministers and and state agencies.

But even by Bangladeshi standards, the country's state-owned telecoms company, BTCL, has achieved a spectacular legal double, defying a court order demanding they reinstate a telephony connection. It was the second such order the company has refused to comply with. BTCL is now in contempt twice over.

This came against the backdrop of the publications of a damning Transparency International report on corruption within BTCL. According to the report, malpractice at BTCL, combined with unwarranted government interference, has cost the Bangladeshi taxpayer close to $300 million dollars.

The report made for depressing reading, but for me, at least, it was no surprise. I've experienced first hand the malign influence of corruption on Bangladeshi business and society.

I am the Managing Director of Zamir Telecom. We are a London-based telecommunications carrier - employing over 50 people in the UK and over 120 globally - that does business all over the world. One of our main partners is BTCL, and it is our connection into Bangladesh that BTCL is refusing to plug back in.

We started working with BTCL in 2007, connecting international telephone calls in and out of Bangladesh.

In spite of a deepening of our relationship in 2009, when we became an external point-of-presence for BTCL, we found ourselves in dispute over billing and record keeping, as well as preferential rates being offered to our rivals in spite of our arrangements.. When we raised this issue in early 2010, we soon found ourselves disconnected deliberately by the BTCL management. After five weeks, the High Court ordered that our connection be restored and maintained. Shortly afterwards, our company entered into arbitration with BTCL. The Arbitration Tribunal made it clear that the connection must be kept in place as per the court ruling.

Zamir Telecom has been fighting all these actions through the arbitration court since then. The Bangladeshi High Court ruled that while this arbitration was ongoing, our service must remain in place.

But in March of this year, our connection was cut again. Again, the court ordered the restoration of the service. This time, this has not happened. BTCL executives have been given a few days to explain why they should not be prosecuted.

The disconnection happened on the direct orders of the controversial and volatile Telecommunications Minister, Abdul Latif Saddique, a man who, as textiles minister, said garment workers calling for strikes should be shot. This came just months after the Rana Plaza tragedy. More recently, he is reported to have beaten a civil servant with a stick.

While there are scores of serious issues for Bangladesh's telecoms, repeatedly reported in news media and now confirmed by Transparency international, my company, which was not implicated in any malpractice, has been targeted by the Telecommunications Minister. Why?

It appears some people would like me to stop doing business in Bangladesh, leaving them to carve out the spoils of corruption among themselves.

But I refuse to yield to unjust and arbitrary decisions made by officials and politicians. By allowing them to continue with actions that hurt business, government and, in the end, Bangladeshi citizens, we would effectively be writing off the country, something I am not willing to do.

While the events I've described here are bad enough for my business, the real tragedy is the backdrop against which this is taking place, and the consequences for Bangladeshi people. My colleagues and I are far from the only people suffering from Bangladesh's endemic bad practice and corruption.

Transparency International says Bangladesh ranks 136th out of 177 countries for perceived corruption. In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster - widely blamed on corruption in the granting of building permits - US president Barack Obama rescinded Bangladesh's trading benefits, citing its poor record on human rights and workplace rights. The country ranks 92nd out of 99 in the World Justice League's Rule of Law Index.

Bangladesh needs to be open to the world, and in order to be so, it needs to live up to international standards in business and public life. Britain and the EU need to push Bangladesh to meet these standards; our government must make it clear that if the rule of law is not respected, there will be serious consequences.