Justice ASM Abdul Mobin and Justice Md Atoar Rahman heard the appeal on Tuesday, prompting ACC counsel Khurshid Alam Khan to seek more time from the judges.
The legal tangles cropped up after bdnews24.com announced a Tk 500 million investment by an asset management company in the news publisher in October 2019. The ACC then weighed in, examining the deal and subsequently starting a case against Khalidi 8.5 months later.
The ACC contended that a Tk 420 million fund that Khalidi deposited into bank accounts came from an “unknown source”.
Then 22 months went by, but the ACC was yet to complete the investigation.
The written text shifted in every step taken by the ACC – from investigations to summons to the first information report, a practice that a lawyer for Khalidi compared to the “tactic of moving the goal posts” by the prosecutor.
In 2020, the ACC went to the Supreme Court, challenging the bail Khalidi secured from the High Court, but the Appellate Division dismissed the ACC’s petition and rebuked it for wasting time.
Khalidi, who consistently denied any wrongdoing, filed the petition seeking to cancel the case in the second week of April, describing it as “vain and oppressive”.
Although bdnews24.com had publicised the investment in detail, the ACC accused Khalidi of gaining wealth beyond known income. The ACC itself mentioned in the case the reports published by bdnews24.com on the asset manager’s investment.
A group of lawyers, headed by former law minister Barrister Shafique Ahmed, stood for Khalidi during the hearing on Tuesday. The legal team also included Barrister Mahbub Shafique and Barrister Sifat Mahmud.
Barrister Mahbub Shafique pointed out a “contradiction” in the allegations brought by the ACC during the hearing.
The case accused Khalidi of acquiring wealth from unknown sources. At the same time, it stated that he raised funds by selling shares and parked the money in banks. “It’s self-contradictory,” said Mahbub Shafique.
The petition was placed for a hearing three times on Tuesday. In the final round, the court adjourned the hearing until Jun 14, following the ACC’s plea.
After the hearing opened, Mahbub Shafique said Khalidi revolutionised digital journalism in Bangladesh through bdnews24.com, the nation’s first online newspaper.
Stating the charges brought by the ACC, the lawyer said bdnews24.com, a private limited company, sold some of its shares to another company after mutually setting the price.
Using a pen as an example, the lawyer said, “Suppose, a customer has agreed to buy this pen at Tk 20. Now the ACC says you can’t sell it at Tk 20 because its actual price is Tk 10.”
A judge then pointed out, “The price can be as much as Tk 100 if the customer agrees.”
The court asked whether a notice was issued before bringing the charges of acquiring wealth beyond known sources of income. The lawyer said no such notice was issued.
Mahbub Shafique said the question of gaining wealth beyond known income does not arise because one company invested in another company by fixing the price properly. The invested money is in banks.
The lawyers for Khalidi also informed the court that the charge-sheet was not submitted yet. Mahbub Shafique referred to a verdict as a precedent, in which the court had quashed a case before the charge-sheet was submitted.
During the hearing, Deputy Attorney General Sujit Chatterjee portrayed Khalidi as a “media tycoon” and incorrectly said the editor-in-chief was “arrested”.
The lawyer for Khalidi refuted Sujit’s claim, saying Khalidi was not arrested, but he secured anticipatory bail from the High Court. The court then adjourned the hearing until 2 pm and asked to bring in the ACC lawyer.
Khurshid, the ACC lawyer, joined the hearing at 2:30 pm, saying he was not notified when the petition was filed.
“What’s wrong with that? We’ll hear your statement now. Please carry on,” a judge said.
When a judge pointed out that the lawyers for Khalidi mentioned a verdict in which the court dismissed a case, Khurshid said it was a split judgment and the court disposed of the rule later. He also mentioned another verdict given by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
WHAT’S IN THE PETITION
Citing the Anti-Corruption Commission Act, the petition argues that the case can be cancelled because the first information report lacks prima facie evidence to establish a case.
It describes the case as “vain, confusing and oppressive”. The continuation of the case amounts to the abuse of the legal procedure. Therefore, the case should be cancelled for the sake of justice, the petitioner argues.
It also argues that the allegations laid down in the FIR do not fall under the Anti-Corruption Commission Act.
About the question raised over the source of the fund in the FIR, the petition says the funds were raised by transferring shares. Therefore, the customer should be questioned if there is any confusion about the source of the funds.
Besides, bdnews24.com does not have the responsibility to inform the Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission as the company is not listed in the stock market.
WHAT KHALIDI SAYS
After the ACC began examining the so-called allegation of corruption, Khalidi in an article detailed the circumstances under which bdnews24.com entered the deal, where the money was, why he himself sold some of his shares and what happened after the deal.
“The matter has been probed by more than one state agency—publicly as well as, may I dare say now, behind the scenes—because the allegations or rumours/gossips (spread through social media and other means in the lead-up to the ACC move) were of serious nature,” he wrote.
“The cruellest part was, those who orchestrated it all knew all too well that money only changed hands between two companies incorporated in Bangladesh and operated under Bangladesh laws. Yet the vengeful and powerful people were given free rein when they acted from behind the stage. And those who helped them spread the propaganda knew it too. And, again, those who prepared “reports” meant for people at the very top were fully aware of it too.”
“Whose purpose are they trying to serve by trying to harm arguably the lone independent news publisher in Bangladesh which has been credited with many firsts, globally and nationally?
“Why was there an attempt to tarnish the image of both bdnews24.com and the individual who runs it?” he asked.
After receiving a letter from the anti-graft agency, Khalidi appeared in the ACC twice in November 2019.
The letter received by Khalidi on Nov 5 said his statement was required in connection with the allegations of “transferring a huge amount of money” by “hiding location by himself and bdnews24.com”, and “earning wealth inconsistent with his known income through illegal activities”.
The authorities moved swiftly after bdnews24.com announced the investment by LR Global in a report on Oct 13, 2019, saying it will spend the money on the expansion of news automation and creativity.
The disclosure first prompted a decision from the Securities and Exchange Commission to “halt” the deal. For its part, the ACC soon afterwards weighed in, leaving certain bank accounts of Khalidi and bdnews24.com frozen.