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Thursday, February 19, 2004

Bangladesh 'beer' tests alcohol ban 

By Roland Buerk

It looks like beer, it tastes like beer, but in law at least it is a malt beverage.

A company in Bangladesh believes it has found a legal loophole to get around the Islamic country's ban on alcoholic drinks.

But their discovery has created a furore among Islamic parties and the threat of legal action from at least one leading international brewer.

"A friend at the Department of Narcotics Control gave us the idea," said Shameem Islam, the managing director of Crown Beverages.

"We would never have thought of this without them. We make it in a similar way to beer, but it is definitely not beer because it contains less than 5% alcohol."

The company is using the wording of Bangladesh's Drug Control Act 1990 to justify the sale.

The act outlaws beer, but defines it as a malt and hops-based drink produced by a brewing process and containing at least 5% - and not more than 8.5% - alcohol.

The drafting was intended to ensure medicines containing alcohol would be exempt from the law.

One step ahead

The drinks are being marketed as Crown and Hunter and the cans bear a striking resemblance to famous international beer brands.

But again Shameem Islam believes he is one step ahead.

"That was deliberate," he says, "we checked and found Foster's and Carlsberg never registered their brands in Bangladesh, so we took the opportunity to register first."

Carlsberg told BBC News Online they were not impressed.

Spokeswoman Margrethe Skov said Crown and Hunter's new drink was an apparent violation of the company's trade mark and brand.

"We will of course look more closely into the matter and take legal action to protect our rights," she said.
"In general round the world a well-known trademark or brand like Carlsberg is protected even if it is not registered in a particular country," she said.

So far Crown and Hunter have gone on sale only in the capital, Dhaka, but demand is so high the suppliers are struggling to keep up and many shops have run out of stock.

Evidence of that is not hard to find.

Mohammed Iqbal Hussain is drinking a can of Hunter with his lunch at a café.
"It is very tasty," he said, "just like beer."

Ban sought 'immediately'

But religious groups are protesting against the flouting of Islam's strict prohibition on alcohol.

Fazlul Huq Amini MP is chairman of Bangladesh Islami Oikya Jote, an Islamic party which is part of the ruling coalition.

"We always stand against all kinds of alcoholic drinks in Bangladesh," he said, "so we will ask the government to test it.

"If there is any alcohol we strongly advise the government to ban this product immediately. We will be watching their progress."

Mr Hussain is supported by Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, an MP for Jamaat-e-Islam, which is also a member of the governing alliance.

He recently handed in a written motion to parliament's Speaker.

"These two drinks have spread throughout the country," the letter said, "and I urge the government to stop the production and marketing of these drinks immediately and to take legal steps against the company concerned.

"The four party alliance is trying to enhance religious and social values but some evil is trying to attack those values.

"The young and children are becoming crazed to drink it, and are drawn in by the colourful adverts for these alcoholic drinks.

"This causes social problems," he said.

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