Friday, July 13, 2007

Bangladesh emergency six months on


THIS week a picture of an 85-year-old man appeared on the front pages of Bangladesh's newspapers.

Monoranjan Roy was shown handcuffed, with a rope tied around his waist, being led away to start a six-month prison sentence. The old man's crime? Failure to repay a loan worth US $132.

So far, so commonplace for poverty-stricken Bangladesh. But Monoranjan's tale has an unusual ending.

He was granted an 11th-hour reprieve from the indignity of jail - not by the mercy of the courts, nor as a result of the generosity of his creditors, but by the Chief of the Army Staff, General Moeen U Ahmed.

Reportedly moved by Monoranjan's plight, the army chief stumped up the cash to cover the debt from his own pocket.

"May God bless him," was the old man's tearful response.

Six months after widespread rioting forced the cancellation of January's general election, Bangladesh remains under a state of emergency.

And six months on there are many people who may feel less kindly disposed towards the philanthropic general.

A series of military raids have seen dozens of senior politicians, many of them former cabinet ministers and household names, arrested and jailed.

Gen Ahmed argues that that is exactly where they should be.

Questions to answer
For a glimpse of what this military-backed emergency government is all about you could do worse than wander along to Dhanmondi police station in central Dhaka.

A peek over the wall reveals that the forecourt has begun to resemble a luxury car showroom, packed with impounded cars belonging to the arrested political elite.

Their owners, many of whom have accrued enormous wealth during their few short years in power in one of the world's poorest countries, are now awaiting trial.

Led by former banker Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, with the military marching in step, the government has vowed to make the crackdown on corruption its priority.

Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, a former army chief, has been appointed head of the reformed Anti-Corruption Commission.

"It is indeed a very big task," he says. "But someone has to start the action."

He says the arrests have so far been focused, by necessity, mainly on politicians.

"There is a saying in this part of the world that the fish rots from the head. So the political leaders must answer first I believe."

But with more than 60 national level politicians arrested so far, Lt Gen Chowdhury insists the net will be cast more widely.

"The only criterion we shall go by is did an individual become rich through unfair means", he says.

Special courts have been set up to hear the cases, and the first convictions have begun rolling in.

But although the emergency government is still enjoying popular support for its anti-corruption drive, some are raising concerns.

'People with guns'
Under the emergency many basic rights remain suspended, and all political activity is banned.

The political parties themselves have accused the emergency government of forcing them to undertake internal reforms.

"With the army what happens is that the top party leadership is probably aware that they cannot do a lot of things," says Sultana Kamal, a lawyer and human rights activist.

"But at the bottom, people with guns and power do not always pay respect to that."

She says she is concerned about the rights of the arrested politicians, but says most people are generally happy at their detention.

"It is the elected politicians who are basically responsible for the condition we are thrown into now."

There can be little doubt that the boundary between the emergency administration and its military backers is very blurred.

This week the army chief found time out from saving old men from prison to give a speech about his view of the future.

Two years, he said, is not enough to "heal the rot of the past 35 years". He called for a review of the constitution after next year's elections to ensure the drive against corruption would continue.

Six months on, Bangladesh's emergency government faces real challenges, not least its ability to demonstrate a desire and ability to hand power back to an elected government.

But for many years the plight of poor men like Monoranjan Roy has been made worse by the graft and greed of some of those in authority.

"The first job is to drive the fear of Allah into the minds of those who have been involved in corruption, or of those who are potentially corrupt," the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission says.

Bangladesh has long been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It remains to be seen whether this emergency government really can begin to turn the tide. #

John Sudworth is BBC News correspondent and is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh