Saturday, June 09, 2007

Bangladesh military using murder as law enforcement

PETER LLOYD

The United Nations has accused the armed forces in Bangladesh of using murder as a means of law enforcement. Despite this, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer prepares next week to unveil a 33 per cent increase in foreign aid to the country.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Bangladesh is one of the youngest countries on earth and also one of the poorest, a poverty exacerbated by more than three decades of political instability.

That instability took a more sinister turn at the beginning of the year when the military took control, aborting elections and imposing emergency rule.

Now the United Nations has accused the country's armed forces of using murder as a means of law enforcement.

And human rights activists have painted a picture of people disappearing by the tens of thousands, and of soldiers engaged in mass arrests, illegal detention, torture and murder.

The horrific revelations come as the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer prepares next week to unveil a one-third increase in foreign aid to Bangladesh.

The ABC's South Asia Correspondent Peter Lloyd filed this report from the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka. And a warning that some of the following images are disturbing.

PETER LLOYD: Since January, soldiers have been calling the shots in Bangladesh. Troops took to the streets after democracy was suspended and the military imposed draconian emergency ruled.

Now, media restrictions are tight, openly filming soldiers is bad. The army said it took control to clean up a culture of corruption in politics. Dozens of prominent people have been rounded up.

But the ABC has discovered evidence of something far more sinister behind the scenes.

Human rights groups here contend that as many as 200,000 people have been rounded up by the military since the crackdown began. The size of a small city. Now there's no way to fully account for their whereabouts but the belief is that most of them are still in military custody.

Some have emerged with shocking accounts of abuse, torture and murder.

PROTAP JAMBIL, VICTIM (translated): They tied my two hands and feet and eight or nine of them caned me.

PETER LLOYD: Soldiers picked up Protap Jambil on the way home from a wedding. These pictures he says, are evidence of a beating that lasted more than four hours.

PROTAP JAMBIL: I was in tremendous pain, I couldn't move, I couldn't walk, I need four people to carry me.

PETER LLOYD: He showed me how he was forced to lie while up to eight soldiers took turns beating him with bamboo rods.

PROTAP JAMBIL: I really did not have any thoughts in my head. I kept praying to God and his son Jesus, I thought that I would die, that's what I thought.

PETER LLOYD: Mr Jambil wasn't alone. His brother-in-law was also arrested and tortured but Cholesh Ritchel (phonetic) did not survive.

PROTAP JAMBIL: At first they tied both of Cholesh's hands and feet then they tortured soles of feet and all over his body. They unzipped his pants and attached pliers to his penis and to all of his fingers and toes. They put candle wax on the wounds and then they put hot water mixed with dried chillies and salt and poured it all over his body and through his nose and ears.

PETER LLOYD: Attempts by human rights groups to document abuse cases have been met with threats and intimidation. But some refuse to be silenced.

FARHAD MAZHAR, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: People have been picked up without any kind of evidence and then they've been tortured.

PETER LLOYD: Farhad Mazhar is from a human rights group called Odhikar. The organisation says the security forces have killed at least 100 people since January at a rate of almost one per day. Those who do emerge from military custody tell a disturbingly similar story.

FARHAD MAZHAR: People complain that their nails have been taken out. They've been tortured very badly.

PETER LLOYD: Military run interrogation centres operate all over the country. Some are brazenly open. This is Fatullah stadium on the outskirts of Dhaka.

A year ago Australia played a Test match against Bangladesh here. Today it's military occupied. We filmed early in the morning and for only a few minutes to avoid being detected.

One witness who was too fearful to appear on camera has described to me how he heard torture victims screaming in agony during a local cricket match. Later in the same day a senior army officer boasted openly that suspects were far more talkative after they had been electrocuted, beaten and subjected to water torture.

General Moeen Ahmed is the head of the Bangladesh armed forces. The man behind emergency rule. The general refused to grant an interview to the ABC, so we turned up unannounced.

Will you take action on the allegation of human rights abuses by the soldiers?

GENERAL MOEEN AHMED, ARMY CHIEF: Already it has been undertaken and all measures will be, nobody is above the law in this country. So if anybody makes a mistake he will be taken to task.

PETER LLOYD: Have you ordered them to stop torturing and murdering suspects?

GENERAL MOEEN AHMED: It is already not there. It's not there. There are no such things that are going on now. Not at all.

PETER LLOYD: There are at least 100 cases according to human rights groups of murders since you took power?

GENERAL MOEEN AHMED: No, no, no, this is not correct. You have to find out the figures. Anybody can say anything, but go and look in the ground and see what is the truth.

PETER LLOYD: To provide cover from allegations that he carried out a coup, General Moeen Ahmed hand-picked a civilian caretaker government to run Bangladesh.

Who runs the Government? Is it the civilians or the soldiers?

GENERAL MOEEN AHMED: No, no, it's absolutely a civilian government, supported by as I said, the middle classes, the soldiers, the police.

PETER LLOYD: Iftikhar Chowdhury is the army approved Foreign Minister.

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY, FOREIGN MINISTER: The army plays a role given it by the Government, absolutely. There is no…

PETER LLOYD: So they're doing your dirty work for you?

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: No, it's not a dirty work. Army is taking certain actions in terms of the anti corruption drive which has full support of the community.

PETER LLOYD: There are by all accounts as many as 200,000 people who've been arrested. How could that credibly be occurring under due process?

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: The arrests are made under some allegations of breach of law. Due process begins with the effecting of the arrest when people are, those arrested are brought before magistrates, as is always the case here.

PETER LLOYD: The United Nations sees it differently. It recently accused the Bangladesh armed forces of using murder as a means of law enforcement.

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: Bangladesh has done better than most countries of the world in these respects. So I can tell you this and we're proud of our record.

PETER LLOYD: You're proud of your human rights record?

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: In human rights Bangladesh is better than many, many, many, countries.

PETER LLOYD: Name one. Zimbabwe?

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: No, I'm not going to name any. It is not for me to name foreign countries or finger point.

PETER LLOYD: In January, Bangladesh was on a knife edge as political rivalries were being played out in violent street clashes, western diplomats were shuttling around the capital trying to mediate.

Just before the army hit the streets the British and American ambassadors each held private meetings with the military chief. Some suspect General Moeen was given a green light to take over.

NURUL KABIR, NEWSPAPER EDITOR: That's an interference with the, an ambassador, official speaking isn't supposed to do all these things. I don't believe that my ambassador in Washington can even think of entering into the headquarters to discuss politics.

PETER LLOYD: Nurul Kabir is an influential newspaper editor. He says a clique of western diplomats known as the Tuesday Club interfered in his country's internal affairs.

The Tuesday Club is an informal caucus of the big donor nations that meets every week. Its core members are ambassadors from the United States, Britain, Japan, Canada, the EU and Australia. Kabir says the Tuesday club not only courted military intervention but campaigned for civilian politicians to accept it back in January.

Now none of the diplomats will agree to talk about it.

NURUL KABIR: We feel we as a citizen, I feel embarrassed and I'm sure that people of the country that they have sent here would have been embarrassed, too, to see how their High Commissioners and ambassadors in Dhaka is meddling themselves in politics.

PETER LLOYD: You say meddling?

NURUL KABIR: Yes, meddling.

PETER LLOYD: Australia's High Commissioner, Douglas Foskett refused to be interviewed for this story, but he remains an open backer of the Government despite the military’s behaviour.

(reading a press release from Douglas Foskett): We are happy that all is looking positive for the future, he said.

Such is Australia's apparent faith in the current state of affairs in Bangladesh, the Federal Government is preparing to increase foreign aid from $43 million to around $57 million, a 33 per cent increase.

Iftikhar Chowdhury will visit Canberra next week to collect the cheque. It's unclear what, if any conditions are attached.

Has the Australian High Commissioner, Doug Foskett, has he specifically raised with you any human rights concerns?

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: Douglas Foskett has been a tremendous ambassador. He's a very good High Commissioner. We have always talked about common interests.

PETER LLOYD: Does it include human rights?

IFTIKHAR CHOWDHURY: Ambassadors are not, know that there is sometimes a fine line between interest and interference. They don't, they understand this very well. This country is as you like, we would like to be as we say we are, in charge of our own destiny, in the driver's seat of our programs, plans. Australians understand and appreciate that very much.

PETER LLOYD: General Moeen insists democracy will return to Bangladesh with fresh elections by the end of next year. But he recently raised eyebrows by promoting himself to Full General. Many wonder how long civilians will remain in the picture.

Generals in Bangladesh have a notorious history of thirsting for absolute power.

KERRY O'BRIEN: In a statement tonight, the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Greg Hunt, said Australia's aid to Bangladesh had been increased in line with its status as one of the poorest countries in the world. Mr Hunt pointed out that Australian aid does not go directly to the Bangladeshi regime, but to reputable organisations like UNICEF and the World Food Program. #

Kerry O’Brien is host Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)7:30 Report
The news documentary was broadcast on June 7, 2007 with reports of Peter Lloyd, South Asia Correspondent from Dhaka
For watching the video, check out
http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/