Believe it or not, selling business directories could land you in jail!
At least, this is what happened to Md Delwar Hossain, a footpath vendor in Dhaka's Paltan who makes ends meet by selling old books and magazines.
To the police, he is a criminal who supplied phone books to individuals who would turn out to be extortionists impersonating Dhaka underworld gang members.
Delwar has been arrested for abetting the crimes, but his family members and friends claim that he has been falsely implicated.
Delwar's wife says the family is now on the verge of starvation with the arrest of the breadwinner, and that she is unable to prove her husband's innocence through a costly legal battle.
She says her husband used to make a profit of Tk200-300 if daily sales reached Tk1,000 – the only income to feed the five-member family living in a small tin-shed house in Narayanganj.
Delwar's wife and fellow vendors are also in the dark as to why the police arrested him.
"I do not know why my husband was arrested. I have a newborn baby, while my mother-in-law is sick. Her medicines cost Tk1,000 every week," said the wife.
"We are now struggling to manage three meals a day. Last week, my husband's fellow vendors collected some money and gave it to us. I do not know what to do next," she said, breaking into tears.
On 15 January, a team of the Cyber and Special Crime Division of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) arrested Delwar and five others from different areas of the capital. He has been behind bars since then.
Police claim Delwar and the five others used to extort businessmen impersonating the Seven Star group – a Dhaka underworld gang that boasts crime lords like Subrata Bain, Mollah Masud and Murgi Milon.
Police say they used to collect the phone numbers of celebrities and businessmen from different sources and call them, demanding extortion money. The raid in which Delwar was arrested was initiated on the basis of a police case filed by one such businessman.
On 16 January, Md Walid Hossain, additional deputy inspector general of the DMP, at a media briefing said the gang had been extorting in three groups. The first group would collect the phone numbers from Dhaka's old book selling hubs such as Nilkhet. Then the second tier used to call the targets, and the third group would collect the money sent through mobile financial services.
However, the plaintiff in this case, Mohammad Alamgir Hossain, said he does not know Delwar. "I lodged the case against the three callers who demanded the money. Who is Delwar? I do not know him," said Alamgir Hossain.
This correspondent on Wednesday visited the spot where Delwar used to sit to ply his trade. Other vendors there said Delwar has been selling books for more than a decade, and he was an ordinary man who never got involved in any wrongdoing.
Hanif, a book vendor in the area who has been in the business for more than 24 years, said, "We sell old books after collecting them from different places. I have heard Delwar sold a business directory which ended up in the wrong hands."
"We have known him for years. It is impossible for Delwar to belong to any extortionists' gang. The police have implicated him wrongly," he added.
Abdur Rahim, another vendor who has been in the book selling business for more than 16 years, said, "We just bring old books and sell them. We do not know what the phone directories have since most of us are illiterate."
Tajul Islam, Delwar's neighbour in Sonargaon, Narayanganj, said he knows the man from childhood. "He is poor, but an honest man. We have been helping his family after his arrest. But how long will people continue to do it," he asked.
Before the pandemic, Delwar used to stay at a shared house in the Nimtoli area of old Dhaka. He later moved to Narayanganj since the pandemic-led shutdown hurt his business badly. Since reopening the shop, he has been running it, coming all the way to Dhaka from his Narayanganj home every day.
Abul Hashem Kabir, president of the Bangladesh Hawkers Union, said people from the union went to the Detective Branch office after Delwar's arrest, but the police did not allow them to go in.
"The detectives then said they would verify our claim that the man is falsely implicated. But they sent Delwar to jail," he added.
While contacted, the investigating officer of the case, Sub-Inspector Rafiqul Islam, said the police had arrested Delwar Hossain on suspicion.
"The gang members used to collect the directories from him. However, we have not received any information about his direct involvement in extortion so far. The investigation is still ongoing," he added.
Meanwhile, Delwar's lawyer Alauddin Al Azad has said his client is "innocent".
"Police are harassing him for nothing. He has not been accused of any specific charge except suspicions over his links with the extortionists' gang," he noted.