Church backs Bangladesh family's battle to reclaim property

Timely intervention turns the fortunes of Catholics mired in a legal battle with politically connected developers
Church backs Bangladesh family's battle to reclaim property

Rita Kuntala Gomes (right) with her younger sister (center) and mother at their home in the Kafrul area of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Jan. 4. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/ucanews)

The Church has extended a helping hand to a Catholic family in Bangladesh in their long-running battle to reclaim property allegedly grabbed by a real estate company.

The family of Rita Kuntala Gomes, a lawyer from St. Lawrence Church, a quasi-parish in the Kafrul area of Dhaka Archdiocese, has been in a land dispute with Imam Developers and Builders since 2016.

The dispute started after the family signed a two-year contract with the company in 2014 to build a nine-floor apartment building on about 3,500 square feet of ancestral land.

“My father passed away in 2010 and I have been living with my mother and sister. As per the contract, we are entitled to 45 percent of the property and 11 of the 24 proposed flats. But the company, using its financial and political clout, produced a fake land document, claimed the property as its own and refused to hand over our share. Instead, the owner of the company and his family continued to intimidate and harass us,” Gomes told ucanews.

The family was barred from entering the building and, except for one, 10 flats supposed to be given to the family were left incomplete. In addition, thugs hired by the company beat up her mother, Elizabeth Gomes, and threatened kill all three of them, she alleged.

In an attempt to reclaim the property, the family has filed four cases since 2017 but failed to get any justice.

Gomes said that building company boss Ishak Mia is a member of the local branch of the ruling Awami League and has exploited his connections to influence the local administration and police in favor of his claim on the property.

“I am a lawyer but still we have faced so much trouble to save our property. One can only imagine what happens when land grabbers target people from poor, marginalized and minority communities,” Gomes added.

However, the situation began to change for the family when the Church decided to intervene last year.

The police and local administration helped the family to get hold of one apartment last year. They also arrested two sons of Ishak Mia on a charge of criminal forgery.

“This family has no man to support them, so the company tried to exploit this weakness by flexing its political muscle, which is a common problem for minority communities in many places. The Church has been offering them legal and moral support so that they can get justice,” Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, told ucanews.

The priest said the commission and minority rights groups have been appealing to the government to formulate laws and state mechanisms to protect land rights and other rights of minority communities.

“The time has come to rethink the land problems of minority communities. There must be a state apparatus to safeguard the rights of marginalized and minority communities in this country,” Father Gomes added.

Ashrafuddin Swapon, the brother-in-law of Ishak Mia, denied any wrongdoing.

“It is true my brother-in-law is a politically influential person, but there was nothing illegal and unjust about the case. The land document problem has been solved in court and the family has not taken over the flats despite those being ready,” Swapon told ucanews.

He said Ishak Mia is a good person. “We have the power to drive the family out of the area forever, but we have been good to them despite their having made the issue complicated,” he said.

Land disputes are common in the Muslim-majority South Asian country of more than 160 million crammed in to just 147,570 square kilometers.

In Bangladesh, the low-lying river delta plain, shifting river courses, an antiquated paper-based land record system, forgery and corruption are the sources of many land disputes. The legal justice system is too expensive and the legal process too lengthy, meaning poor and marginalized communities are denied justice.

There are about three million court cases pending and about 75 percent are directly or indirectly related to land disputes, according to the Association for Land Rights and Development, a Dhaka-based land advocacy group.

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