In a startling turn of events, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has brought to light a sprawling and intricate money laundering operation implicating the sons of Abdul Awal Mintu, a prominent BNP leader and industrialist, in collusion with the Chinese video-sharing app, Bigo Bangla. This revelation, which is set to send shockwaves through legal and political spheres, is the culmination of an extensive investigation that has unveiled a complex network of financial transgressions and illicit activities.
The Bigo Bangla controversy
At the heart of this scandal lies the Chinese video-sharing app, Bigo Bangla, which commenced operations in Bangladesh under the guise of Bigo Live in 2019. Initially presenting itself as a platform for various digital content businesses, including computer programming, video streaming, and gaming, the app has been accused of engaging in a spectrum of illegal activities. These allegations range from unethical video chatting and online gambling to prohibited gaming and even virtual currency trading.
The CID’s investigation has shed light on the multifaceted nature of Bigo Bangla’s operations, with serious allegations of engaging in unethical practices such as obscene video chats, online gambling, and the trading of virtual currency. The company, which started its operations under the name ‘Bigo Bangla,’ faced legal action when evidence of these activities surfaced under the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies. Subsequently, on November 25 of the previous year, the CID filed a case against Bigo Bangla under the Money Laundering Act.
The rise of video chatting apps in Bangladesh
The backdrop against which this scandal unfolds is the increasing popularity of video chatting apps among smartphone users. While many individuals are legitimately earning substantial incomes through these platforms, the dark underbelly of the industry has also become apparent, with numerous apps facing bans in different countries.
A prime example of such a controversial app is ‘Bigo Live.’ Recent discussions surrounding the mysterious death of actress Humaira Himu have brought this app back into the limelight. Bigo Live’s user base primarily consists of young and expatriate Bangladeshi citizens, offering simultaneous text and video chat capabilities for up to eight participants. The app operates on a virtual currency system, where users must purchase ‘Diamonds’ or ‘Beans’ to engage in streaming and chatting.
Bigo, the money laundering machine
The CID’s investigation into the Bigo Bangla scandal has uncovered a detailed mechanism employed for money laundering. The process begins with live chatting on Bigo Bangla and Likey apps, where users are required to purchase virtual currency, namely ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Beans,’ to access various services. To acquire this virtual currency, users transfer a specified amount of money to the provided Bkash or Rocket numbers within the app.
The investigation reveals that Bigo Bangla, operating under the guise of offering digital content services, resorted to various illegal activities to amass funds unlawfully. The CID asserts that this money, earned through illicit means, was then smuggled to several countries via Singapore. Intriguingly, domestic institutions, one of which is identified as Munsun Holdings, led by BNP leader Abdul Awal Mintur’s three sons—Tafseer M Awal, Tabith Awal, and Tajwar M Awal—were implicated in facilitating this money laundering operation.
Implication of Abdul Awal Mintu’s sons
The CID’s initial charge sheet did not include the names of Mintu’s sons as accused individuals. However, during the course of the investigation, evidence emerged linking them directly and indirectly to the money laundering activities of Bigo Bangla. Consequently, the three sons are now facing accusations in connection with the scandal.
Munsun Holdings, the company controlled by Mintu’s sons, allegedly played a pivotal role in assisting Bigo Bangla in laundering money. The investigation brings to light novel techniques employed for money laundering, including the use of a payment gateway named ‘Surya Pay.’ Notably, there was no formal agreement between Bigo Bangla and Surya Pay. Funds earned by Bigo Bangla were funneled through Surya Pay, specifically its subsidiary Munsun Holdings account, before traversing through various channels and ultimately reaching the hands of Bigo Bangla. A significant portion of these funds was then channeled to different countries through Singapore.
Apart from Abdul Awal Mintu’s sons, the CID’s charge sheet includes several other key figures implicated in the money laundering scandal. These individuals include SM Ashikuzzaman, Chairman of Suryamukhi Limited; Mujtaba Fidaul Haque, Managing Director; Jamil Ahmed, Director; and Zakir Khan, Chairman of UGI Limited. Additionally, Chinese national Yao Jie, the owner of Bigo Bangla, and various officials within the company find themselves on the list of accused individuals.
The CID’s assertion is that a substantial amount of money earned by Bigo Bangla through illicit means was covertly transferred to foreign accounts via Singapore. The investigation suggests collaboration with domestic institutions and intricate financial maneuvers to obscure the trail of the funds. Furthermore, a portion of the unlawfully obtained money is believed to have been paid as commissions to third parties, while the accused allegedly indulged in lavish expenditures.
During the course of the investigation, the CID took statements from numerous subscribers and users of Bigo and Likey apps. These testimonies provide a glimpse into the mechanics of the illicit financial activities. Statements from 23 individuals, obtained under Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code, highlight the modus operandi of these users who sent money from various mobile phones to procure Bigo Bangla’s virtual currency, ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Beans’.
One user mentioned that while conducting business and studying simultaneously, they encountered advertisements for explicit videos on their mobile while using Bigo Live and Likey apps. Clicking on these ads revealed multiple mobile numbers, enticing users to send money and purchase ‘Diamonds’ or ‘Beans’ in exchange for access to the original video.
The investigation underscores the complexity of money laundering, particularly in the digital age. With the advent of digital platforms and virtual currencies, traditional methods of tracking illicit financial activities face new challenges. The CID acknowledges the difficulty in tracing a significant amount of money due to transactions on digital platforms. Additionally, a portion of the funds is believed to have been siphoned off as commissions, creating further obstacles for investigators.
The CID spokesperson, Additional Special Superintendent of Police Azad Rahman, emphasized that the investigation into the money laundering case was conducted with utmost professionalism. He stated that the case was devoid of any consideration for political or other identities, emphasizing the commitment to a thorough and unbiased inquiry.
As the CID finalizes its charge sheet, the money laundering scandal involving the BNP leader’s sons and the Chinese video app prompts critical reflections on the regulation of digital platforms. The case unveils the potential for abuse and illicit financial activities within the burgeoning industry of video chatting apps. It calls for a reevaluation of regulatory frameworks to curb such activities, protect users, and ensure the integrity of digital platforms in an ever-evolving technological landscape. The unfolding narrative serves as a stark reminder of the intricate challenges law enforcement faces in combating financial crimes in the digital era.