"The Arabian Sea may dry up one day, but my wealth will not" – this is how Mohammad Shahid Islam alias Kazi Papul introduced himself at a political reception just after getting elected as a member of the parliament from Lakshmipur.
The remark perfectly encapsulates the cult of personality created around Papul. But this is just the rosy side of his life, the opposite side, which Papul would not show, is marked by human trafficking, bribing, money laundering and other forms of corruption.
Papul went to Kuwait as a cleaner in 1989, and turned into a self-made billionaire in two decades. He would later become an MP in Bangladesh and help make his wife one too.
But then he bribed Kuwaiti officials over running a racket of human-traffickers and was caught, convicted and sentenced to four years' rigorous imprisonment by a Kuwaiti court.
In the meantime, he and his family member have been accused in three cases in Bangladesh on charges of human trafficking, money laundering and accumulating wealth illegally.
Besides, the High Court is set to pass a ruling in at least two cases – for him submitting fake certificates to the Election Commission and his wife and daughter filing a bail plea with forged documents.
The rise of Papul
Born in the southern district of Lakshmipur, Kazi Papul went to Kuwait on a working visa in 1989. He travelled to Iraq, returned home from there as the Gulf War broke out and then returned to Kuwait again in 1992.
Mizan Al Rahman, a Bangladeshi businessman in Kuwait who closely saw the rise of Papul, told The Business Standard that Papul was just a mid-level employee at Kuwait's Marafie Kuwaitia Group until 2000.
He had a close tie with the Bangladesh Embassy staffers in the Middle Eastern country, said Mizan, adding that his involvement in unlawful activities started at the embassy.
"In 2004 or 2005, Papul used the embassy influence in terminating a Nepalese manager at Marafie Group and somehow managed to reach the driving position of the private company," he said.
In 2008, when the caretaker government was in power, the Bangladesh ambassador to Kuwait blacklisted Papul to the embassy on human trafficking allegations.
At that time, Papul brought some Bangladeshi workers to Kuwait for Tk7-8 lakh per person, and forcefully sent them to war-torn Iraq.
Ataul Gani, general secretary of the Awami League's Kuwait chapter, told TBS that despite the blacklisting Papul came to the limelight offering a hefty donation to establish a school in Kuwait for the children of Bangladeshi nationals there.
"In guise of the donating, and school establishment, he again gained access to the embassy. And soon he resumed bringing people from Bangladesh by offering them good salaries.
"Even the ambassador's family members got jobs at Marafie Group with lucrative salaries in 2017 and served under Papul until 2020. These incidents helped Papul clean his slate and flex muscle in the Kuwait labour market," added Ataul Gani.
Though Papul was a high achiever in Kuwait, nobody knew him at home until 2016 – two years before the 11th parliamentary election in 2018.
Papul's zero background in politics did not appear as an issue since he won the election as an independent lawmaker. Lakshmipur locals said it was possible mostly because of his dirty money.
Some people at his constituency claimed that Papul rendered his Jatiya Party contestant inactive with bribes, and the Japa candidate even "supported" Papul on several occasions.
After becoming a lawmaker, he deftly played his cards to make her wife Selina Islam also an MP from the reserved seats.
On 22 February 2020, the Kuwaiti Arabic daily Al-Qabas ran a report titled "Bangladeshi MP's Human Trafficking Racket" on the front page. Subsequently, several reports against Papul made the headlines both in Bangladesh and Kuwait.
Papul was in Bangladesh at that time as the pandemic broke out. In May 2020, he flew to Kuwait to settle the issue.
But on 6 June 2020, Kuwait's Criminal Investigation Department arrested him from his residence and charged him with human trafficking, money laundering and bribing Kuwaiti officials.
Papul, his Bangladeshi associates and some Kuwaiti officials were put behind bars as the trafficking scam kept unfolding. The authorities also shuttered Marafie Group in Kuwait.
On 7 July, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Bangladesh filed a human trafficking case against Papul in Dhaka. Two more cases were filed by the CID and the Anti-Corruption Commission against him, his families and accomplices in November and December 2020.
Al-Amin Hossain, assistant superintendent of police at the CID, said Papul's accomplices used to take Tk5-7 lakh from each migration aspirant after luring them with high-paying jobs in the oil-rich Middle Eastern country.
The CID said it found concrete evidence that Papul, his family and accomplices laundered Tk38.22 crore from Bangladesh. The amount laundered between 2016 and 2020 could be as much as Tk355 crore, it said.
CID's Al-Amin Hossain said they are now trying to trace the entire amount.
In another development, a Dhaka court has frozen 570 bank accounts of Papul's family.
Papul completed graduation before HSC!
The independent lawmaker did not mention his date of birth in the affidavit he submitted to the Election Commission.
Our Lakshmipur correspondent said according to the information Papul shared with the local journalists before the national election, the lawmaker was born in 1963.
If this is correct, Papul was 29 years old when he passed his Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examination in 1992. According to the EC affidavit, Kazi Papul has a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree in economics.
But, High Court lawyer Salahuddin Regan said Papul's graduation certificate is fake.
"According to Papul's EC affidavit, he was in the 1987 honour's batch at Milton Margai College of Education and Technology in Sierra Leone. But, the educational institution does not even have that course in economics," said the lawyer.
"Even if the university had economics, his BSS certificate is false since Papul's affidavit says he completed HSC in 1992, years after he completed the honours," Salahuddin Regan added.
Citing the facts, Regan filed a writ petition with the High Court, challenging the parliamentarian.
Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, the outgoing secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), said Papul is not a member of the organisation since he does not have a recruiting agency licence.
"His wife applied to us a couple of months ago for a no objection certificate. We rejected her for this reason," he added.
"Moreover, we do not have any information about his brother who has been found to be running a recruiting agency," he concluded.
Wishing anonymity, another recruiting agency owner who sends people to Kuwait, told TBS, "I have known Papul for a couple of years as a businessman in Kuwait. He does not have any agency, but his younger brother has one. Papul used to recruit Bangladeshis to his company through his brother's agency."
Md Shahadat Hossain, another recruiting agency owner, said, "We did not know him until his arrest in Kuwait."