Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Pinning down both Begums could backfire against the Bangladesh authorities

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH pro-democracy leader Shiekh Hasina has been arrested by the quasi-military government on Monday (July 16) and observers believe that the axe fell on her for lambasting the dreaded military intelligence agency’s for meddling with politics.

While speaking to journalists last week, the former prime minister raised the bet in this cat-and-mouse game. She did not hesitate to open the pandora box - the hidden ambition of the military intelligence presently running a shadow “interim” government, what has long been regarded as a “taboo” and publicly accused the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence - the DGFI for interfering in state of affairs.

Twice leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina accused the military-run DGFI of ''arresting and torturing politicians'' and engaging in efforts to make or break mainstream political parties with a deliberate attempt to the tune of the band of military music.

''It is not the DGFI's business to get involved in politics, to make or break political parties. What kind of intelligence activity is it, when the agency tortures people, and administers electric shocks?'' she asked.

Following her demand to stop DGFI operating beyond its constitutional mandate, a member of hand-picked civilian advisers to run the military-backed government retired military General M.A. Matin frowned at her for grumbling against state security services.

Matin, the former chief of the DGFI on behalf of the government argued that "the government doesn't know the basis of her complaints."

The independent newspaper Daily Star editorial demands that it is an “imperative need of intelligence agencies required to be fully depoliticized and reform to address contemporary challenges.”

District administration with advice from DGFI is once again engaged in the notorious task to set up a “kings party” with “political urchins” laundered as “Mr. Clean” in small towns, as Mahfuz Anam admitted that he disbelieved earlier reports from correspondent’s. Many observers suspect that after the institution building of the “kings party”, only then the election schedule would be announced.

Former Bangladesh guerrilla (Mukti bahini) officers, Anam strongly suggest that this “is no way to strengthen democracy. Just as 'command economy' failed so will 'command politics'. The core of democracy is people's right to choose their leaders and those who will represent them in the government.”

The government has promised to hold elections before the end of 2008. But Sheikh Hasina believes that is too long in power for an unelected administration without any accountability.

Three days later, she was arrested on charges of extortion and graft laid against her over a month ago, which current TIME magazine interprets as netting another “big fish” for extortion.

Earlier, she was charged in a murder case allegedly involving her Awami League party members in the death of four Islamist activists during demonstrations last October. The government is also reviving a number of corruption cases filed against her several years ago during Khaleda Zia’s regime.

Nevertheless the detention of a former Bangladesh prime minister sparked harsh media criticism, including warnings that the move could backfire against the authorities.

Reacting to Hasina’s arrest independent newspaper Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam comments that it “is totally misconceived and smacks of arrogant use of power without due process of law.”

In an angry editorial, Daily Star blasted the government for arresting Sheikh Hasina and said it was “a wrong and unacceptable decision” and also writes: The law is certainly to be applied to everyone equally, but in Sheikh Hasina's case, the action of the government smacks of an arbitrary use of power.

To many observers in the capital Dhaka, it was only a matter of time before she was arrested. Her supporters believe there is more politics than law behind her arrest, writes Sabir Mustafa on BBC online.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister for the five years through 2001 and accused of corruption during her rule, was taken from her home in Dhaka and sent to a special jail, near the magnificent parliament as her supporters and political activists protested.

Awami League’s chief Shiekh Hasina and Bangladesh Nationalists Party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia alternatively took turn in governing the country since 1991, after the nine-year old military dictator General H.M. Ershad collapsed in violent pro-democracy protest orchestrated by the two major political parties.

However social scientists, civil society and media intermittently blamed both the regimes of for poor governance, nationwide corruption, poor economic growth, impunity to predators of human rights and press freedom, spiralling price of groceries, and of course failing to contain muscle flexing of Islamist. None of the issues were paid attention which blatantly contradicted electoral pledges, instead intimidated critics, specially the independent journalists.

Star editor speaking his mind said, we accept that our leaders, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, betrayed our trust in many cases and over many years. We also agree that we got tired and fed up with confrontational and destructive politics and that we all yearned for a change. But “we never agreed to bargain our democracy for 'knights in shining armour' to save us from dire straits.”

The nation has been in political turmoil since January, when an army-backed government took power after violent protests and strikes by rival supporters of the two women led to elections being cancelled scheduled in last January.

The army-backed interim administration sacked the caretaker government, and imposed state of emergency in mid January. The authority’s banned political and trade union activities, imposed blanket censorship and launched a crackdown on politicians.

Consolidating quasi-military rule, the army chief Lt. General Moeen U Ahmed vowed to clean up the country's notoriously graft-ridden politics before holding new elections in December 2008.

Weeks after the “politico-military” take-over, Bangladesh's army chief lambaste the country's politicians, saying democracy in Bangladesh had so far led to criminalisation of politics threatening the state's survival. He says the country should not go back to being run by an "elective democracy".

The new administration in it’s first attempt netted 170 high-profile politicians businessmen and influential bureaucrats and slammed for graft, abuse of power, extortion, tax evasion, money laundering, and also leading extravagance lifestyle in the 150 million poverty-stricken nation.

Among high-profile politicians including Tareque Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia, have been detained for graft and abuse of power. Khaleda also faces charges of extortion and abuse of power.

The TIME magazine does not hesitate to write: “Many ordinary Bangladeshis applauded the anti-corruption drive when it began and love the fact that the former leaders of a country widely perceived as amongst the most corrupt in the world are finally facing justice.”

None were arrested who were blessed with impunity for being predator of defenders of human rights, independent journalists and violence against religious minorities.

Till now, a handful have been convicted by special fast-track courts and sentenced to between three and 13 years.

In another scenario once again Khaleda Zia has been unofficially placed under house arrest. Except for close relatives, the party leaders have been barred to visit the leader since July 15.

The BNP chairperson now spends time with family members at her home hemmed in by security personnel. The main gate of her home at capital’s military garrison remains locked and can only be unlocked after green light from the intelligence agencies.

House staff member Yunus told journalists that "Madam reads newspapers, says her prayers and recites from the holy Quran."

In April, the government tried to exile Sheikh Hasina by barring her from returning to Bangladesh from the United States, where she had been visiting her only daughter and son and was stranded at London airport ignoring specific international laws that govern international travel.

But the government backed down over the ban and she made a triumphant return welcomed by thousands of supporters.

At the same time, Zia also appeared to be on the brink of being exiled to Saudi Arabia, but those moves also fell through.

Likewise, when she tried to travel to America in late June to see her expectant daughter, the police deployed additional forces and prevented her from going to the airport.

Hasina also made harshest observance that democracy will not be established if the military backed government works with a plan to bring someone specific or some specific forces to power.

All the while, Sheikh Hasina has been campaigning for early elections, suggesting that the military-backed caretaker government did not have a mandate to govern for a long time.

The state has once again plunged into uncertainty and is likely to backfire the reforms the authorities promised to the people. #

Saleem Samad is editor of DurDesh.net, a news portal for South Asian diaspora in North America. He is presently living in exile in Canada and could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com