Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Curious Crusade against Family Politics

ABDUL MOMEN

THE current emergency government of Bangladesh wants to eliminate ‘family politics' from Bangladesh. In particular, Law Advisor Mainul Hosein wants to prohibit any close relative of political leaders to run for or even hold any public office. So far, much of the intelligentsia seems in agreement.

The reason is clear. Both of the main political parties have benefited from their families, and their families have benefited even more. The excesses of the sons and brother of Khaleda Zia, the leader of BNP, are known widely. In Awami League, the oldest and the largest party, close relatives of Sheikh Hasina have run for elections and controlled access to her.

THE TWO POPULATIONS
Dynastic control has stifled the chances of democracy to take strong roots. In 1977, during a trip to Iran, General Zia, the dictator at that time, asked me about the population size in Bangladesh. I gave him two figures: 81 million, and ten thousand. Surprised, his Finance Advisor, Dr. M. N. Huda, asked me the reason. I told him, the country has 81 million to get foreign aid, and 10,000 for whom most rules and resources provide benefit.

With the advent of democracy in 1991, I would guess that number to have risen to about 100,000. These are the elite who enjoy access to power in a country of 147 million. So one should not oppose any sincere effort to distribute power further toward the masses.

HYPOCRISY ... OR NOT?
But is the current government really in any position to assail the political parties in a blanket way? Assuming that a civilian government is in control, the country is run by ten advisors appointed by the Chief Advisor, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. Whom did he pick? His wife’s brother Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Foreign Advisor, another brother-in-law’s wife, Geeti Ara Safia Chowdhury, is his Industry Advisor, and his batch-mate and old friend, Dr. Mirza Azizul Islam, is his Finance Advisor.

But since they are known to be competent, 'family politics' in this case is not considered bad. The Chief Advisor probably decided that he could trust them. Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda, the Chief Election Commissioner, is the brother-in-law of Education Advisor Ayub Quaderi. Does it mean that neither should be allowed to hold office? No. If they are competent, they can serve the community successfully without necessarily getting into a conflict of interest.

Similarly, Major (retd.) Iskander is the brother of Khaleda Zia. He is married to the sister-in-law of Major General Masududdin Chowdhury, commander of the powerful 9th Division, the current chief of the national commission against crime, and according to the Economist, the main architect of the anti-corruption drive. Does this mean that General Masududdin cannot hold office because his relatives (namely, Iskander, Tarique Rahman, and Arafat Rahman) are being investigated for corruption?

There’s nothing wrong with having confidence in people you know. In stable societies, if the possibility of direct involvement and partisanship arises, the official involved would generally withdraw himself or herself from that particular case. But this would not disqualify him from holding public office in general.

Making blanket slogans against ‘family politics,’ as the Law Advisor Mainul Hosein is fond of doing, can be politically convenient. But it is really hypocrisy. Moreover, it may not serve the nation's long-term interest.

TAKE A BROADER LOOK
Family politics is common not only in Bangladesh and Pakistan, but also in more mature democracies. Think about India: Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi. In Indonesia, President Sukarno's daughter Meghawati Sukarnoputri became President.

In Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga was President between 1994 and 2005. Her father, Solomon Bandaranaike, was a prime minister, and after his assassination, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world's first female prime minister.

In the United States, father and son John and Quincy Adams were the second and the sixth presidents of the country. The Bush presidency has gone awry, but everyone is familiar with the strong leadership provided by the three Kennedy brothers: the late John F., the late Robert, and current Senator Edward Kennedy, who was a vocal supporter of Bangladesh back in 1971.

In Massachusetts, a state that has pioneered many progressive movements in America, William Bulger was the President of the State Senate, even though his older brother, James Whitey Bulger, has been a notorious mobster and a fugitive from law for many decades. His brother’s criminal record did not prohibit William Bulger to hold public office successfully.

The frontrunner for Democrats in the United States now Hillary Rodham Clinton—and she is benefiting from having Bill Clinton as her strong supporter. Bill Clinton, the most popular US president in history, appointed most of his college friends as his secretaries.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT BATTLE
Under Mainul Hossain's formula, both would be committing offences. Hillary Clinton would have been disqualified to run for office. Don’t mind the fact that as a Senator, she is highly popular among her constituents.

Serving in public office is part of one’s basic civil and political rights, irrespective of family ties. It is not a government’s position to restrict this right. It is something that voters should choose. Even the first Islamic Caliphate was run successfully and liberally on the basis of family ties and kinship [1st Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA) was the father-in-law of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and his cousin/ daughter-in-law Hazrat Ali (RA) were the rightly guided caliphs].

The government’s crusade should not be against ‘family politics’ per se, but against incompetent and corrupt people. This will show respect for citizens’ political rights, which is something that advisors of this government have neglected so far. It will also be far less hypocritical. After all, they too have skeletons in their closets. #

Dr. Abdul Momen is a professor of economics and business management at a college near Boston, USA, and a frequent commentator on current affairs in Bangladesh. <sylhet@verizon.net>

Friday, June 22, 2007

Bangla Bhai Story: Trading in death under shadow of authority

JULFIKAR ALI MANIK

TARIQUE Rahman and several ex-BNP ministers directly patronised the outrageous operations of the JMB (Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh) in Rajshahi with the full knowledge of former prime minister Khaleda Zia, revealed an extensive The Daily Star investigation that was corroborated by top government officials in the region.

Then at the helm of home ministry, Lutfozzaman Babar also joined the bandwagon of JMB leader Bangla Bhai, pouring cold water on feeble attempts by a part of the civil and police administration to resist the terrorist activities.

Inspector General of Police (IGP) Nur Mohammad, who had the memories of being a helpless deputy inspector general of Rajshahi then, only could endorse the Daily Star finds gleaned from strenuous research and interviews with a number of officials, numerous socio-political workers and people, who witnessed the rise of dreadful Bangla bhai under cover of outlaw cleansing campaign that left at least 24 persons killed and 300 others repressed or injured between April 2004-January 2005.

"From whatever I could know, former prime minister Khaleda Zia had the consent to the JMB activities. Her son Tarique Rahman had been supporting the vigilante activities of the militants and state minister for home Lutfozzaman Babar never helped me to fight the JMB," said police chief Mohammad flatly. “Some ministers, MPs and ruling party (BNP) leaders were sponsoring the militants.”

In May 2004, The Daily Star ran a series of investigative reports on Bangla Bhai's rise that pointed fingers at some ministers and leaders of the BNP-Jamaat ruling alliance. Three years later, this investigation also found links of the highest level of the BNP-led coalition government with such atrocious crimes.

The BNP's use of government machinery for the JMB also shattered the chain of command in the Rajshahi police forces, creating tension between the local police and administration. Again, many ordinary citizens joined the Bangla bhai's group to save their own lives, sensing the administration inactive and the police supporting the militants.

The then Rajshahi police superintendent Masud Miah took up the unofficial JMB assignment gallantly, playing a pivotal role in the terror of the radical Islamist group. The SP thrived on his Hawa Bhaban clouts so much so that many other police members found it safe to become friendly with the JMB militants despite the fact the DIG was not liking the happenings.

"Despite a lot of efforts, I could not resist the militant activities," he told The Daily Star remorsefully.

OUTLAW CLEANSING WAS A COVER
Bangla Bhai swung into action in certain upazilas of Rajshahi, Naogaon and Natore after outlaws, popularly known as Sarbahara, killed four relatives and close political aide and cadres of former BNP deputy minister for land (elected from the Natore 2 constituency) Ruhul Kuddus Talukder Dulu, ex-MP (Rajshahi-4 constituency) Nadim Mostofa and other parliamentarians in five months from November 2003.

Back in November 2003, operatives of the outlawed PBCP (Marxist and Leninist) killed BNP's Bagmara upazila president Abdul Hamid Moru in the Rajshahi city. Gunmen killed Dulu's nephew Sabbir Ahmed Gamma in Natore's Naldanga upazila in February 2004. An infamous criminal with 18 criminal cases against him, Gama was involved in major criminal activities against the Natore Awami League during the caretaker government regime of 2001.

Within a couple of weeks after Gamma's murder, criminals (believed to be outlaws) killed Wahidul Haq Pakhi, an aide to Gamma, in Puthia in Rajshahi. In March, they murdered Rajshahi's Durgapur municipality ward commissioner Anwar Hossain, a political associate to Nadim Mostafa.

The Daily Star investigation reveals that the Dulu-Aminul (ex-post and telecommunications minister Barrister Aminul Haque) alliance wanted to kill two birds with a single Gamma stone. They deployed the JMB to eliminate Sarbaharas for avenging the Gamma murder and filed case accusing 16 Awami League leaders and workers for gaining points from the BNP top brass.

Under cover of the outlaw cleansing, the BNP bigwigs in the North actually intended to stamp their political supremacy over the Rajshahi, Natore and Naogaon region. The effectively used the militants to destroy their political opponents, ensuring BNP's dominance in the long run.

Buoyed by kudos from the Hawa Bhaban (political office of BNP's Senior Joint Secretary General Tarique Rahman), Dulu later influenced the authorities to submit charge sheet against 21 AL men and transfer the case to speedy trial tribunal. Trial court in its verdict handed death to the 21 AL activists in August 2006, with the defence lawyers claiming that a deputy minister influenced the judgement.

Beside the filthy political game, Dulu on February 7, 2004 led an arson attack on the village Ramshakazipur and Amtali Bazar in retaliation to his nephew murder. A case was filed in this regard and police submitted charge sheet on May 3 this year accusing Dulu and 93 others. According to the charge sheet, Dulu's cohorts in his presence set fire to at lest 37 houses and shops at the Ramshakazipur village and Amtali Bazar, looting valuables.

Bangla bhai emerged from an armed procession after JMB's first known murder in Palashi village in Bagmara Upazila on April 1, 2004, a month after the militant outfit was hired. Fed up with the Sarbahara sufferings, the local people at first considered the killing as a blessing in disguise. But it did not take them long to wake up to the rude reality that a Frankenstein was indeed born.

PATRONS of JMB
Dulu and 'district minister' Aminul Haque (Rajshahi 1 constituency) were instrumental in Bangla bhai's illegal vigilante operation. The two talked Rajshahi Mayor Mizanur Rahman Minu (ex-BNP lawmaker from Rajshahi 2 constituency), fellow MPs Nadim Mostafa and Alamgir Kabir (Naogan 6 constituency) into their JMB game.

Alamgir Kabir and his brother-in-law Wahidur Rahman were involved with the Sarbahara politics in the past but became enemies of the underground operatives finding their ways into politics of people they used to call petty bourgeois.

Another ex-BNP MP from the region (Rajshahi-3 constituency) Abu Hena was not directly involved with the militants, but he did not cooperate with the people and took no position on the JMB issue. But his workers and followers directly or indirectly supported the militants.

"At that time, we in the administration came to know that Dulu deployed Bangla bhai with the backing from the Hawa Bhaban. Nadim Mostafa, Alamgir Kabir and Mayor Minu then joined the initiative, led by Aminul Haque," a public servant, preferring not to be named, shared his experience of witnessing the JMB incidents with The Daily Star,

Recalling his phone talks with Dulu and Aminul, he said, “I understood from their conversations that they were the driving force behind Bangla bhai.”

"Dulu asked me how I was and I said fine. He then said 'you are fine because of the JMB, at the cost of my nephew's (Gamma's) blood'," the official said.

Aminul Haque, meanwhile, told him that the situation in Bagmara improved since Bangla Bhai got into action. “Such things (JMB vigilantism) are bound to occur when Sarbaharas go out of control.”

He also recalled that it became mandatory for all to send public and private jeeps, cars, microbus and motorcycles to Bangla bhai's procession. Police cars would stay within 500-1000 yards of the vigilante operation area to back up Bangla bhai. The officers-in-charge of police stations were compelled to be there.

Bangla bhai was no new face to Aminul, Dulu and Tarique Rahman. Bangla bhai even used to visit the Hawa Bhaban long before his Rajshahi operation, confirmed JMB sources and some Bogra people close to Tarique.

Tarique used to take updates on Bangla bhai operations in Rajshahi through telephonic conversation with the BNP leaders concerned. He also frequently directed controversial SP Masud Mia on the matter.

“Tarique Rahman is with us. He is my friend. Quit worrying and just do what I say,” a close of associate of Bangla bhai quoted the militant leader as saying. The fugitive ex-JMB leader told The Daily Star over phone that a top Jamaat leader once requested the JMB leadership not to tell anyone about militants' Jamaat backgrounds.

However, Dr Firoz Mahmood Iqbal, the assignment officer of ex-PM Khaleda Zia and an influential Hawa Bhaban figure, was the other man who maintained regular liaison with Masud Miah and Bangla bhai, a police official said.

Interestingly, both Tarique and Bangla bhai hail from the same Gabtoli upazila of Bogra district. Bangla bhai's home village is Kannipara and Tarique's grandfather's house is 8km away in Bagmara.

This Bogra connection is said to have created a special bond between the two, who kept contact over phone.

IGP SPILLS THE BEANS
Frustration of the police administration over the JMB was personified as the then DIG in Rajshahi.

Briefly speaking for the first time on his account of Bangla bhai, IGP Nur Mohammad says, "The then Rajshahi SP had links with minister Aminul Haque and Hawa Bhaban. This connection made the SP so powerful that he would take directives from Aminul and the Hawa Bhaban, not from me. The SP acted as they wanted him to do."

"The local police administration, the SP and local politicians in particular, helped them (the JMB). I tried my best to resist them. But I could not be successful due to the police administration, specially because of the Rajshahi SP who was suspended later on, and the local politicians."

He also could not get any help from Lutfozzaman Babar. "I did not get any help from the home minister. After I informed the home minister for the first time (about JMB excesses), he suggested me to work as per the diktat of Aminul Haque."

"I talked to the home minister twice or thrice on this matter, he kept on pushing me towards Aminul Haque. When I talked to the district minister Aminul Haque, he said 'do not talk on this matter. You don't need to pursue this matter. This has come from the highest level. From prime minister to Tarique Rahman, everyone knows about it," the IGP added.

"I have said several times (to Aminul) that you are the local minister and I am the DIG. I cannot allow this to go on. He asserted again saying that this matter has the approval of the prime minister and Tarique Rahman.

"You can say this is my weakness…But, I am unfortunate that I had to serve under such bribe-taking state minister (for home)," quips the IGP, drawing attention to the recent deluge of news on Babar's corruption.”

POLICE ADMIN IN TATTERS
The anti-Bangla bhai law enforcers found themselves in a soup as they were advised by the then government top brass not to interfere with JMB operations.

"The state minister for home never asked us to nab Bangla bhai even after several people were killed," said a top police official.

Three police superintendents of Rajshahi, Natore and Naogaon had been openly helping Bangla bhai band at that time. As a result, the Rajshahi DIG failed to bring the situation under the control of law.

"The DIG eventually found out that the police administration was not carrying out his orders," confirmed another source.

Our investigation revealed that SP Masud Miah at one stage told the DIG that Bangla bhai was given a 'mandate' and the JMB was unstoppable.

Naogaon SP Fazlur Rahman was also Aminul Haque's favourite. Natore SP Nazrul Islam was known as an incompetent partisan officer in the police force who also enjoyed Haque's blessing, police sources said.

“Majority of the OCs, sub-inspectors, constables and other officials were given postings in Rajshahi, Natore and Naogaon on political considerations. None of them could be touched and the chain of command eventually collapsed," police sources said.

The tension of pro and anti JMB officers came to fore when on May 23, 2004, Dulu and Aminul arranged several patrol trucks for the JMB to bring out an armed procession. The procession submitted a memorandum to the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and SP, kicking up a row between Rajshahi DC Aziz Hasan and SP Masud Miah.

A civil servant recalled that the DC had asked the local administration to receive the JMB memo without allowing the procession to enter the Rajshahi town. He felt that if Bangla bhai entered the town, it would have created national news and it would hurt the image of the government. SP Masud Miah on the other hand wanted the procession to enter the town so that it could demonstrate its show of strength.

The JMB men gathered at a Bhabaniganj ground in Bagmara that morning for submitting the memo to the DC and the SP. The administration then tried to discourage the processionists. The then Rajshahi ADC General Abdul Matin, Bagmara upazila UNO Subol Bose, Bagmara OC Ruhul Amin Siddique, Additional SP Arzu Miah and Puthia Circle ASP told the Bangla bhai followers not to enter the town.

Some of these officials included Masud Miah's representatives, who officially spoke against the procession but secretly encouraged the militants to go to the town.

The Bangla bhai men eventually went to the town and handed over the memo for the state minister for home. The DC then asked them not to take the law in their hands and warned that the administration would not help them if they do so.

On the other hand, the SP literally embraced the Bangla bhai goons. Receiving the memo, he told them, "You go ahead. The police is with you."

Bangla bhai also submitted a memo to the Bagmara UNO.

In the memo, the militant kingpin asked the state minister for home to take action against the press. "We are eliminating the Sarbahara under the leadership of Bangla bhai, but the media is writing false information and spreading confusion. Take action against the media," it stated.

The militants and their patrons landed in an awkward situation when the media brought the gruesome operation into public domain. This is why both JMB and BNP-led government lashed out at the media in the same language, terming the reports on Bangla bhai fiction.

The government even denied the very existence of Bangla bhai, saying it a media-made character. Ironically, the same government, amidst intense pressure from home and abroad, was compelled to arrest in 2006 the 'non-existing' JMB terror, who was hanged to death along with five others during the caretaker government regime for killing two judges in Jhalakathi.
A police official said the police and other high officials at supervisory level in the Rajshahi region were not allowed to supervise the law and order situation, prompting the DIG to hold meetings with three SPs.

At one stage of the meeting, the DIG warned the SPs if Bangla bhai was allowed to continue with his terror they would be held responsible. But the threat did not work as the SPs were obeying orders from some ministers and the Hawa Bhaban.

After few days, Bangla bhai invited people over loudspeaker to attend open killing of two persons, one of them was killed by hanging upside down from a tree. His death screams were relayed over microphone for the villagers who did not attend the execution. The whole country was stunned in disbelief when the gruesome photo appeared in all the national dailies next morning.

Sensing mass resentment, the government officially asked the police to arrest Bangla bhai for the first time. But nothing happened as the devils went into hiding, with their patron ministers ensuring their safety.

Interestingly, when the JMB carried out a countrywide bomb attack on August 17, 2005, the government did not blame the militant group. Instead, many government top shots tried to point out that only a large organised political party like the Awami League could orchestrate such an attack.

At that time, Dulu and Aminul were busy defending the JMB with Khaleda arguing that the militants are BNP's "vote bank," said a top official at the PMO (Prime Minister's Office). Though the country was reeling from an unusual terror fright, Khaleda took one long week to ask her home minister to arrest the JMB culprits.

A DEFIANT OC
ABM Golam Kibria replaced Bangla bhai-loyal Bagmara thana OC Ruhul Amin Siddique in late July 2004. He found no Bangla bhai there then but his followers were plentiful.

Now OC at the New Market thana in Dhaka, Kibria told The Daily Star, "After I took charge of Bagmara, I arrested 70 Bangla bhai men in one drive. Then the BNP and Jamaat leaders from the Rajshahi district and Bagmara begged with me and then created pressure on me to release them.

“But I sent them to jail as per the law," said a beaming Kibria, who soon became an enemy of SP Masud Mia.

Police sources said that Kibria once warned SP Masud that he would file a general diary against him if he kept on pushing him for unlawful assignments and would inform the IG about it through the DIG. Enraged, Masud Mia then ordered to close Kibria although only the DIG had such authority. This order was withdrawn only after the change of government.

LOCAL ADMIN MADE SCPECTATOR
The Daily Star investigation reveals that the Rajshahi civil administration did not have any power to act tough on Bangla bhai. They played the role of silent spectators, just like the general public.

When this correspondent visited the region to investigate Bangla bhai's activities in May 2004, he found that the fear factor was so intense that the local administration refused even to talk about outlaws. "I don't want to say anything about it," was the reply of the then Rajshahi Deputy Commissioner Aziz Hasan.

Many officers kept their fingers crossed for an early transfer amid such a suffocating situation.

"We were even afraid to ask others what was going on," said an officer. "Once I asked the Bagmara thana OC about what's going on. He said, 'I can't tell you sir'."

This environment also seriously hampered the administrative and local government activities at the field level. Generally, people meet the UNO or UP chairman to resolve social issues and small crimes. The UNO would forward matters to UP chairmen to take action. But during the Bangla bhai's phase, the local people stopped going to the UNO or UP chairmen.

"We noticed that the rural people have stopped going to UNO to resolve small crimes. When we asked union parishad chairmen how they were handling trials and punishment, they said 'all the people were going to Bangla bhai'," said an official.

A Hindu man, who joined Bangla bhai to save his life, told this correspondent, "One day, I heard that someone lodged a complaint against me to Bangla bhai. I was so afraid that I went to the police for help. The police asked me to see Bangla bhai.

“Neither the police nor the administration was offering us any security. So, I chose to go to Bangla bhai."

In an attempt to distance itself from the JMB, the Rajshahi civil administration tried to make an impression that the local police was at the helm.

"When journalists asked us for any news, we would tell them that we don't have any information as this was a matter of law and order. The police is working freely, so talk to them," said an official.

The then Rajshahi divisional commissioner Moslehuddin and DC Aziz Hasan unofficially ordered all officials that the administration cadre must not involve with any illegal activities.

After each of formal meetings with the UNOs of nine Upazilas of Rajshahi, DC Aziz Hasan would tell them, "Be careful not to involve anyone of the administration cadre with this illegal activity."

LOCAL BNP-JAMAAT MEN HELPED JMB
The local government representatives were also helpless. The Bagmara upazila, which has two municipalities (Pourashava) and 16 unions, became the headquarters of Bangla bhai. Almost all the field level political leaders, all union chairmen, except for a female representative from Taherpur Pourashava, had to extend their support to Bangla bhai.

Among the collaborators, a large section of BNP-Jamaat activists supported militants spontaneously. Some chairmen and leaders who were harmed by the Sarbaharas took this opportunity to exact revenge.

Chairmen and activists of other political parties including the Awami League were also forced to help Bangla bhai. Those who refused became targets of repression. Even some Hindu locals had to join Bangla bhai's operation and establish rule of Sharia laws and Islamic society there.
The victims of Bangla bhai's atrocities did not get justice.

For instance, Bangla bhai gang shot Sripur Union chairman and Awami League leader Mokbul Mridha in 2005. He could survive through a long treatment but that terrible incident made him so afraid that he does not come out of his home till today.

Mokbul became a target because he won union parishad (council) election by beating his rival BNP Sripur union president Akhram, who had the blessings of Aminul Haque. Akhram allegedly got Bangla bhai cadres to kill Mokbul, who was very popular.

Villagers rushed out to catch three attackers red handed as soon as the gunshots fired on Mokbul. The three, who introduced themselves as Bangla bhai men, were beaten to death.

Mokbul's brother then filed an attempt-to-murder case with the Bagmara thana. But thanks to Aminul's clouts, the police pressed charge sheet in 2006, dropping the names of culprits including main accused Akhram.

Mokbul’s brother lodged objection and the Detective Branch is now reinvestigating this case.

In November 2004, terrorists slit the throat of Bangladesh Shamajtantrik Dal (BSD) leader Ali Akbar near Taherpur Pourashava playing ground in front of his wife and daughter. Initially, it was claimed that the Sarbaharas killed him.

An official told this correspondent that upon investigation, it came out that Bangla bhai's men had killed him. Unfortunately, no action could be taken against it then.

JMB KINGPINS HANGED, PATRONS ONLY SUED
Days after the execution of six JMB linchpins on March 29, the caretaker government hinted that it is now the turn of the patrons and masterminds of the militants to face trial. Law Adviser Mainul Hosein said that the patrons will face the same punishment if they are found guilty.

IGP Nur Mohammad told press after country's first execution for militancy, "We have already tentatively identified the patrons of the organisation [JMB]."

"We have got names of persons who were involved with the JMB and made area-wise lists, interrogating arrested miltants," he said.

Some victims of Bangla Bhai filed several cases since March this year, accusing Aminul, Dulu, Nadim and many others JMB goons. Police pressed charges in two cases so far accusing the three of patronising militants.

On April 8, a sedition complaint was filed against Mayor Minu for patronising militants and the police authorities are still waiting for the home ministry's approval to get it accepted as a case.
No case is yet filed against Alamgir Kabir although witnesses told his involvement in the JMB operations. #

Julfikar Ali Manik is a senior reporter with Daily Star, a premier English language newspaper in Bangladesh

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bangladeshi War Crimes Fugitive Deported From US

BILL WEST

A former Bangladeshi army Lt. Colonel who was convicted of murdering the “founding father” of Bangladesh in a 1975 coup and who has been a wanted fugitive for that crime since his conviction in 1998, was finally deported from the United States from Los Angeles, having arrived on June 18 in Dhaka. The deportation was reported in the Bangladesh newspaper New Nation. The fugitive war criminal, Mohiuddin Ahmed, came to the United States in 1996 on a visitor’s visa from another Middle East country where he had been serving a prior Bangladesh government as a diplomat. It was the Awami League government that followed that pursued the prosecution of Ahmed and others involved in the coup and murders. Twelve former army officers were so convicted and sentenced to death.

From a US immigration perspective, Ahmed was initially identified by what was then the embryonic INS Investigations Division human rights persecutor apprehension effort run by what was the INS Headquarters National Security Unit. Those initial investigative and prosecution efforts, however, met with some internal lethargy, particularly since they happened around 9-11 and the ensuing enhanced INS counter-terrorism focus. INS was then merged into DHS and its Investigations Division became ICE. The human rights persecutor program evolved into something called Operation No Safe Haven, and eventually No Safe Haven became a small but viable national investigative effort focusing on aliens within the US who were human rights violators and “modern day” war criminals in their home countries. The Mohiuddin Ahmed case came back into play.

Ahmed had been put under removal proceedings but was not previously detained. After he lost a final appeal before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2007, ICE took him into custody under what was then a “final” order of removal. Ahmed continued with last-ditch legal efforts to stop his deportation, but those “finally” failed and, as reported in the Bangladeshi media, he now is in custody in that country facing further justice there.

This case demonstrates that ICE’s Operation No Safe Haven is a viable and successful program and all those involved in bringing this case to successful conclusion should be applauded. The targeting of such foreign nationals within the United States is a noble pursuit. If anything, additional investigative resources should be assigned to such endeavors.

What is dismaying about this case is it demonstrates the extremes that “due process” in deportation proceedings can and often do occur. Ahmed entered the US in 1996. His deportation proceedings, including numerous appeal efforts, took years. He was under investigation and prosecution by the US Government attempting to deport him for many years and great expense...worthy efforts, of course, but here was a convicted war crimes fugitive who played the US legal system for everything it was worth.

It should be noted that removal (deportation) proceedings are not criminal proceedings. They are civil/administrative proceedings. Procedures and rules of evidence may somewhat parallel criminal case procedures but they are also different. Unfortunately, the removal process has evolved over many years into a complex and lengthy system that, quite literally, provides alien respondents (“defendants”) with even more appeal rights than criminal defendants in Federal criminal cases.

There is an old saying among immigration law enforcement professionals that, “It ain’t over till the alien wins.” The immigration defense bar has done its best to insure that is true. Unfortunately for America’s security interest, the concept of fairness in due process in these proceedings has become solidly warped in favor of the alien respondent. Such proceedings can surely remain “fair” and still be streamlined and shortened considerably. The Mohiuddin Ahmed case, while a national security success for the USG, is also another example of what is very wrong with the removal system itself. If Congress is interested in genuine immigration “reform” it can include radically downsizing the concept and nature of “due process” in immigration removal proceedings. #

This article first appeared in Counter Terrorism blog on June 19, 2007 6:40 PM
http://counterterrorismblog.org/2007/06/bangladeshi_war_crimes_fugitiv.php

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bangladesh Reminiscence: Amar Sonar Bangla

WILLIAM B MILAM

What was East Pakistan and became Bangladesh has always been important to Pakistan’s political development, mostly as a counterfoil, a check on what might have been. How different would Pakistan have been if Yahya, the army and ZA Bhutto had chosen a political solution to the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71 instead of a military solution?

A visit to South Asia usually generates several articles for the Daily Times. I wrote two weeks ago about my first stop in Bangladesh. This week I was going to write about what I learned on my second stop in Pakistan, especially about the complicated issues that roil current politics. But that intention was subverted by a proud Bangladeshi father who gave me, as I was leaving Dhaka, a copy of the first novel of his talented daughter. When I opened the book, it captivated and captured me.

I know what it is to be a proud father of a talented daughter. I wrote about that feeling in a column about a year ago when my daughter Erika defended her PhD dissertation, and received her doctorate. So I have great empathy, as will many other fathers of talented daughters, with the father of Tahmima Anam who has just published to great acclaim in London her novel called “A Golden Age”. It is, of course, about Bangladesh, and specifically about the struggles and hardships of one family during the 1971 war of separation.

I am not a book reviewer, just a book reader. In my very amateur opinion, however, Ms Anam has written a beautiful, gripping, and touching narrative of the struggle of one strong woman, Rehana, to protect her family and keep it together through the chaos and danger of that terrible time. Rehana has to deal with the natural strong desire of the children to join their friends in the fight against aggression. And beyond her natural protective emotions, she has to deal with the ambiguity of having family and friends on both sides — her children and their friends on one side, sisters, brothers, brothers-in-law, etc who live in Pakistan, on the other.

It may be a difficult book for Pakistanis to read. In the background, throughout almost the entire book, is the terribly destructive, vicious, and bloody war. For a few pages, at almost the very end, the war comes to the foreground and directly threatens the family as the Pakistani army comes looking for her son. It is like many of the novels set during the American Civil War; often they are not about the war itself, but its savagery and destructiveness are always hovering in the background and influencing events in the foreground.

Throughout much of this book, Rehana and her friends and neighbours are mainly interested in just surviving and protecting their offspring; they do not evince much passion for the struggle itself. The war is something that disrupts their daily lives, makes their existence much more difficult, and puts their children in danger.

By the end, however, they have been drawn in to the side of the resistance, in part by their children, in part by the violence visited upon their society and the loss of friends and loved ones. Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) becomes Rehana’s favourite anthem.

In a larger sense, Ms Anam’s book is about the indomitable strength and resilience of the human spirit — the more it is pushed, the more it pushes back; the more it is violated, the stronger its resistance becomes. The more governments try to suppress the desire for self expression, for a say in the affairs of state, for equal treatment of various regions and classes, the stronger and more aggressive is the response.

Who knows for sure when the fate of United Pakistan was sealed? Was it as early as 1948 when Mohammed Ali Jinnah insisted that Urdu would be the language of all Pakistanis in spite of the deep feeling Bengalis have that their language is part of their being, their identity? Was it in 1970 when the Awami League won a significant majority in the elections only to be denied the fruits of political victory, taking office? Rehana and most of her friends and neighbours would probably say that it was in March 1971when Yahya Khan, the Pakistani army, and some political leaders gave up on politics (if they ever believed in them) and evidently decided that force was the only way to deal with the political problem presented by East Pakistan’s desire for real democracy.

That decision not only split the two halves of what was supposed to be the Muslim homeland of South Asia, it proved that the tie of religion which supposedly justified bringing together the two different wings into one country was not as binding as had been thought by its founders. Ethnicity, culture and language proved stronger than religion as a binding force. It showed once again that these deep-seated social ties are not really amenable to force in the long run; though they can be repressed in the short run, repression must ultimately turn to genocide to maintain the status quo.

The War of Separation, as terrible as it was in all those respects, gave Pakistan a new chance to succeed as a democracy. When defeat came and the new truncated Pakistan began its existence, the army’s image as the protector of Pakistan’s security had been seriously damaged. There was an opportunity for a new government to establish civilian supremacy, not only in law but in mindset. That this did not happen was the fault of that civilian government. It used the army for its political purposes in Balochistan (as we can see, old habits die hard), which helped refurbish its reputation. More importantly, it maintained the India-centricity of its national security outlook and, automatically, restored the image of the army as the guarantor of Pakistani security.

The Bangladesh army inherited that concept from United Pakistan but tried to walk away from it in 1990 by refusing to become involved in the struggle between ex-General (President) Ershad and the major political parties. The army had adjusted its mindset to the late 20th century, but the political parties couldn’t adjust theirs and continued to practise the zero-sum-game, vindictive, win-at-all-costs politics of the 1980s. They pushed these beyond tolerable limits in late 2006, creating a serious threat of bloody civil strife. The army chose to intervene on January 11 with a light hand (though those now in jail for corruption may not think it so light) rather than wait until violence forced it into martial law.

So what was East Pakistan and became Bangladesh has always been important to Pakistan’s political development, mostly as a counterfoil, a check on what might have been. How different would Pakistan have been if Yahya, the army and ZA Bhutto had chosen a political solution to the East Pakistan crisis of 1970-71 instead of a military solution? Had the results of a free and fair democratic election been allowed to be implemented, that might have been the start of a viable democracy. Had East Pakistan remained a part of the larger Muslim homeland of South Asia, it might have been a more tolerant country (adopting in part Bengali mores), one in which extremism and sectarian strife would have had less of a foothold. I could go on and on.

Now Bangladesh can be important to Pakistan’s political development in another way. It can be the model for the Pakistan army to reduce its involvement in the politics of the country. The Bangladeshi leaders have promised publicly to hold elections by the end of 2008 and declared that they (both the military and the current civilian leaders) have no interest in entering politics. If they manage to accomplish this, it will be a historical feat in South Asia and almost unique in the rest of the third world. Except for Turkey, there have been almost no military interventions that ended quickly or well. What a boost it would be for the Islamic world if the two Muslim homelands of South Asia led that world into sustainable democracy. #

This article was first published in The Daily Times, Pakistan on June 13, 2007
http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007\06\13\story_13-6-2007_pg3_2

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. In the month of June 2007 he visited Bangladesh and made cautious remarks of the military controlled puppet government

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sleeping Frankenstein: Bangladesh Army

Dr AYESHA SIDDIQA

Allowing the military to interfere in politics and play the role of a socio-political arbiter by bringing it in to control the streets is a risky approach


RECENTLY, the Bangladeshi military was called out into the streets to control the pre-election political mayhem. The country’s political elite see this as a benign use of the armed forces in support of civilian authorities, which might not necessarily whet the military’s appetite for greater power and authority. The Bangladeshis proudly flaunt their national experience of pushing the ‘men on horseback’ back into the barracks. However, the recent deployment of the troops to control violence prior to the elections in January is part of a flawed strategy which will surely strengthen the armed forces versus the civilian players and the civil society at large.

The present-day Bangladeshi political analysts tend to take the military’s formal withdrawal from politics as a fixed variable in the country’s politics. The ‘argumentative’ Bengalis, it is believed, are far too strong to encourage the army to take over politics. A similar belief exists in relation to the influence of the religious right in the country. Bangladeshi society is far too liberal to allow the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties to take over the society.

The military had originally taken over power in 1975 after the assassination of Shiekh Mujibur Rahman. The army leadership, which was unhappy with Mujib’s policies and fearful that he might actually be trying to replace the standing army with a people’s army, was happy to get rid of him. The concept of a national army was discussed at the Formation Commander’s Conference held at the Bangladesh Forces Headquarters on January 02, 1972, in which the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces discussed the Prime Minister’s directions to the Army GHQ to form a national militia. The idea was to have a people’s army as a 2nd line of defence to support a small standing military. The plans, however, were never implemented, mainly because, as claimed by Maj. General (retd) Shafiullah, Mujib tended to leave defence issues to the military. Moreover, the founding father was too busy consolidating his power, which he took for granted, to take the military too seriously.

The military, which took over power in 1975, was ridden with internal divisions, mainly between the freedom fighters and the repatriated personnel. Out of the 55,000 personnel, 28,000 were repatriated from Pakistan (including 1100 officers). These personnel had not gone through the experience of the liberation war and had a different mindset from the freedom fighters who were part of the Mukti Bahni.

General Ziaur Rahman, who took over in 1975, had nothing in common with the leftist party Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), which was more popular amongst the freedom fighters and one of the key players behind the political turbulence surrounding Mujib’s violent death. However, JSD was not necessarily behind the founding father’s assassination. Mujib’s death allowed the officer cadre, most of which was trained in West Pakistan, to consolidate power. The prominent Bangladeshi political analyst Talukder Maniruzzaman was of the view that the repatriated officers in particular were looking for an officer such as Ziaur Rehman who could take over the army and the country and thwart the efforts of the JSD — a party which was unhappy with Sheikh Mujib’s rule and his controversial policies such as using military force against the Naxalite.

The military takeover transformed the armed forces into a serious political player and further changed the course of the country’s politics. Ziaur Rahman used fascist tactics such as flirting with the religious right to gain greater popularity. This was the period during which the Jamaat-e-Islami was brought back into Bangladeshi politics.

Ziaur Rahman was assassinated in 1981 and replaced by General Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh until 1990. Ershad is responsible for giving a corporate character to the military through encouraging its political and financial autonomy. Measures such as the building of the military’s welfare foundation, the Sena Kalyan Sangstha, and encouraging its profit-making ventures were meant to bolster the armed forces financial autonomy. The foundation was a legacy of the Fauji Foundation from the days of united Pakistan.

The ‘argumentative’ Bengalis, however, pushed the military back in 1990. Ershad was forced to resign after a popular political uprising. Since then, the Bangladeshi military appears to be firmly under the control of the civilian governments. The three branches of the armed forces, army, navy and air force, and the intelligence agencies are controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which is currently the central controlling nerve of the armed forces, and comprises of a Principal Staff Officer (of the rank of a Major General) and the Armed Forces Division (AFD) representing the three services of the military. Besides the PSO and the AFD, the PMO also controls the National Security Intelligence (NSI), which is the primary intelligence organisation of the state. The other intelligence establishment, the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) is controlled by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Since the prime minister is also the defence minister, the office-bearer by default comes under the PMO.

After 1996, successive prime ministers have also strengthened their control over the military through keeping the MoD weak and boosting the power of the PMO instead. The MoD is confined to mundane routine affairs such vas pay and pension, retirement, and other budgetary issues. Moreover, it is responsible for related departments such as the Survey of Bangladesh, Military Electricity Supply (MES) and the Meteorological Department.

This administrative arrangement gives Bangladeshi analysts their confidence regarding the military’s impotence to take over the reigns of the government again. However, the fact is that the political class entered into an informal and unwritten arrangement with the armed forces whereby the military agreed to push back into the barracks in return for the protection of its fundamental corporate interests. Therefore, over the years, successive political governments have not reduced the defence budget, have upheld the primacy of the threat from India, periodically acquired major weapon systems to ‘keep the boys happy’, and allowed the armed forces to pursue their money-making and profit-making activities.

Although both the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party governments have kept the defence budget sustained at higher level, the main source of the Bangladeshi military’s income is UN peace-keeping missions. According to one estimate, about 40,000 troops have served on the UN peace-keeping mission duties and there are about 11,000 troops serving on such missions at a given time. Furthermore, the armed forces’ welfare foundation is now in the hotel business, with stakes in the Raddison Hotel in Dhaka. Besides, the Sena Kalyan Sangstha runs a flour mill, an ice cream factory, a hosiery mill, a fabric manufacturing factory, a textile factory, a CNG project, bread and confectionary factory, an electricity products manufacturing unit, a television manufacturing plant, and has stakes in real estate.

The military’s presence in business is increasing gradually and seems to have undergone growth as a result of the flow of capital due to the UN peace-keeping missions. Part of the earnings from the UN peace-keeping missions are diverted towards the projects of the welfare foundation.

Some observers believe that as long as the military gets its extra funds from the UN peace-keeping missions, the institution will not be tempted to look inside the country for additional resources. No one in Bangladesh seems to consider the impact of allowing the military to penetrate the corporate sector. Not much thought is given to what will happen if the earnings from the UN dry up.

The financial autonomy goes hand in hand with the growing social significance of the armed forces. Even the seemingly ideologically more progressive parties such as the AL have allowed the military both direct and indirect penetration in politics and the economy. The direct infiltration pertains to giving the military control of certain institutions such as the Khulna Shipyard the Machine Tool Factory in the name of greater discipline and efficiency. The indirect penetration takes the form of greater number of retired military personnel joining political parties and running for parliamentary elections and being absorbed into the private sector. Such measures bolster the military’s overall influence. According to a Bangladeshi security and political analyst, Abdul Rob Khan, both political parties try to placate the armed forces through giving it and its retired members a greater role institutionally.

Against this backdrop, allowing the military to interfere in politics and play the role of a socio-political arbiter by bringing it in to control the streets is a risky approach. While the military might not opt to take over power again, it would certainly gain greater strength in negotiating a better power arrangement vis-à-vis the civilian players. Giving a military the policing role, in any case, is always risky. A combination of increased policing and economic role becomes a lethal combination. #

The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not reflect those of DesPardes.com

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/

Friday, June 08, 2007

Beyond reforms ... towards a functional political process

SABER H. CHOWDHURY

FOR those who view being engaged in politics as a means to an end that being a better future for the country and its people these are indeed challenging times.

For such people, across the spectrum, who are committed to the vision of a progressive, prosperous and democratic Bangladesh, this is also the appropriate moment to wrest the initiative and, in so doing, be a part of a possible solution in taking the country forward.

The unacceptable alternative to this is to continue to be a part of the problem and wait on the sidelines with folded arms, waiting for some miracle to take place.

Despite all the negatives being bandied about, Bangladesh is a country of huge potential and possibility. We have already made significant strides in a number of social and economic areas, and when we think of how much more we could and should have achieved and attained, the cost of missed opportunities becomes depressingly evident.

For Bangladesh, double-digit growth is, thus, neither a luxury nor a pipe dream -- it is now both an imperative as well as a threshold that can and has to be reached. The current focus on reforms in the electoral process as well as political parties is welcome, necessary and legitimate.

Almost all of these reforms that the caretaker government and Election Commission are now advocating were, in fact, put forward by the Awami League-led 14 party alliance as far back as July 2005 and, thereafter, also tabled in Parliament in February 2006.

An election, free of violence and the influence of black money, so that the people are really able to choose representatives of their choice, is what we all seek. The Awami League has also, in the interim, raised the issue of state funding of political parties, an idea that we should all support and help realize.

The necessity for reform was acknowledged and felt by civil society, too, and had these legitimate reforms been accepted by the BNP-Jamaat government, and elections conducted accordingly, we would perhaps not have been in the position we are in today.

Elections sooner rather than later, after completion of the basic reforms necessary to ensure as level a playing field as possible, is clearly the order of the day, and this in turn warrants due resumption of the political process involving engagement of all parties and stakeholders in debating, defining and shaping the period leading up to the polls itself.

Even with most of these in place prior to the elections, and the polls thereafter are technically proper and acceptable (I acknowledge that this in itself is a big ask), the question still remains will we be able to develop a functional political process thereafter?

There is, and has been for a while now, an overwhelming and unexceptional focus on the electoral process itself, but there has hardly been any discourse on what should happen in the period between the elections; I consider this to be equally, if not more, important.

Just as having a constitution which allows full and unhindered practice of democracy within a political party does not ensure that democracy is thriving internally within that party, a transparent, fair and inclusive electoral process does not in itself guarantee that democracy will flourish thereafter at the national level.

In our system of "winner take all," the victor marginalizing and weakening the opposition after elections has been the general trend, and this practice had its most violent, ruthless, deadly and troubling manifestation after the 2001 elections.

Inevitably, this in turn led to a paralysed and dysfunctional polity and political process where the national imperatives of sustained growth and development and welfare of the common citizen were simply not a priority, and did not, for that matter, find a place even at the periphery of the agenda. Parliament too, in this context, understandably wilted and failed to deliver.

The boundary lines of state, government and political party simply vanished, resulting in there being no barriers, divisions or differentiation between them.

Criticism of the government was thus construed as being anti-state and seditious, and the opposition was persecuted accordingly. Side by side, ruling party activists considered government assets as their personal wealth, as evidenced by the large scale, grass-root level plundering and looting of relief materials ranging from tins to clothing and food.

Even if a policy of encouraging democracy within the principal political party actors through voluntary reform initiatives from within and strict enforcement of provisions as may be articulated in Political Party Registration-related legislation were successful, they will not by themselves avoid repetition of a paralysis in the political process as witnessed in the events leading to "one eleven" about five months back.

How to make politics work, and have in place a functional process in between elections in a consistent way to facilitate pursuing of a strong development agenda in taking the country forward, is the challenge that we need to rise to.

The way forward involves creating a facilitating environment for a functional political process, and in this regard the following three areas merit specific consideration.

Too much energy is spent on battling with what each party would like to think happened in the past. History has never been, and cannot be, a matter of wish, imagination or fancy, neither should it be used as a political football for narrow, partisan and selfish motives.

South Africa, a country torn by bitter conflicts and divisions, set up in 1995 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal wounds and move forward. Similarly, Germany came to terms with its past through Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- a composite German word that describes the process of dealing with the past (Vergangenheit = past; Bewältigung = management, coming to terms with), which is perhaps best rendered in English as "struggle to come to terms with the past."

Our glorious freedom struggle, culminating in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, should be a matter of pride, inspiration, convergence and unity, and not a source of, or origin point for, divergence, disagreement and disunity.

We need to come together as a nation, agree and honour the past and move forward, and for this a reconciliation has to take place. Bangabandhu, as Father of the Nation, and all our national leaders, irrespective of party affiliation, should be duly recognised.

It is a matter of shame and deep concern that 36 years on from liberation we have not even been able to agree on a list of freedom fighters, and the issue of who were war criminals, let alone bringing them to justice, has also not been without controversy.

A truth and reconciliation initiative in Bangladesh's case should, therefore, be seriously considered to enable us have a closure on such issues once for all.

Having done so, we can look to the future, but a forward looking development and growth agenda will only be realised if and when our dream of the future is mightier than our bitter memories of the past, and this is the second point for consideration.

As with India and China in recent times, in Bangladesh too, economics has to take the driver's seat and politics needs to move back and occupy the rear passenger seats.

Now is the hour to focus on, and take full advantage of, our political independence, and use it as a stepping-stone for our economic advancement.

To do so and attain double-digit growth rates, we need to reach across the political divide and build consensus across the political spectrum on a national agenda -- strengthening and capacity building of institutions, upholding rule of law, human rights, dignity and religious freedom for all, and ensuring a significant improvement in governance.

As pointed out by CPD, it is possible to have a two percent increase in growth rates even at existing levels of investment by getting our act together on the governance aspect alone, and if we can manage to win the battle against corruption, a few more percentage points can be added to this.

Within the framework of a bipartisan approach, certain sectors ought to be identified and ring-fenced so that, regardless of a change in government, there is a focus and continuity in policies relating to sectors such as national security, local government, health, education, investment, regional connectivity and optimal use of our natural resources. There must be a consensus that the country urgently needs to move from A to D in terms of growth imperatives, but how we get to that point in terms of strategies and routes can then be alternatives and options that political parties can present to the people to decide.

Rather than trying to marginalize the opposition, and even forcing it towards extinction, the government of the day must take it into confidence and, yes, empower it. It has to be given the space and protection to operate and contribute in Parliament and beyond.

For instance, making some free airtime available to the opposition parties on Bangladesh Television and Bangladesh Betar would be an effective way to ensure their ownership, participation and stake in the system and, consequently, encourage these parties to engage in the process constructively, rather than disengage from it.

The agreement signed in 1998 between the Awami League in government and BNP in opposition, and witnessed by the UNDP, on making Parliament effective, functional and focal point of all activity and initiatives could have been a huge step forward had it been implemented during the tenure of the previous government -- yet another missed opportunity.

Hopefully, the next Parliament will see a full and complete implementation of this agreement in letter and spirit, and we will at last have a worthy Parliament.

I recall when Narashima Rao was prime minister of India, he had invited the then leader of the opposition, Mr. Vajpayee, to lead the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly. Why should such a practice be so remote and distant for us?

On the other hand, in Bangladesh we have the instance of the August 21 grenade attacks on the leader of the opposition as well as a number of MPs which was, despite filing of numerous notices, not even allowed to be discussed in our Parliament.

When the Geneva based Inter Parliamentary Union tried to take up the issue, the speaker of our Parliament tried his best to dissuade them from doing so! The right to dissent and have a different view point from that of the government is fundamental to democracy, and this should be upheld at all times.

In this regard, I have always believed that peaceful, mass-mobilisation oriented programs rather than disrupting hartals should be the order of the day, and besides drawing mass support and appreciation such initiatives also serve as powerful signals.

It is interesting to note that the recent changes in three critical national institutions -- Public Service Commission, Election Commission and Anti-Corruption Commission -- have not generated any protests from the political parties, and the individuals appointed thereof have been on the whole acceptable to all.

Will this, however, be the case when in future an elected government appoints replacements to these positions upon expiry of their terms? I fear not.

However, if an arrangement could be institutionalised wherein a National Committee comprising of the president, prime minister and the leader of the opposition, amongst others, discusses and reviews such potential appointments, then there is some hope.

With neither of the major political forces currently in government, this is the most opportune moment to review, discuss and have resolution of some of these pressing issues. Once the framework for a dialogue is in place, other items such as a possible code of conduct for the political parties can be introduced in the agenda and agreed upon. Much, thus, needs and remains to be done. The current election focused reforms agenda by itself will not ensure that a repeat of the political paralysis leading to the current crisis can indeed be avoided in the future.

Its success, however, will importantly provide a platform and a basis to take the democratic process forward by forging consensus on national imperatives and restoring some of the lost faith and confidence of the citizens on the political system. Speaking from our respective platforms with one voice on all of these pressing priorities of the national agenda will, I hope, pave the way for a culture of democratic dialogue. Unity of thought will then, hopefully translate into unity of action and, through a participatory and functional political process, ensure Bangladesh's march forward towards a prosperous future. Elections will then be an integral part of a dynamic and functional political process and will, in essence, be merely a means to a broader objective, that of growth and development, rather than being an isolated technical process and an end in itself.

Let this be the legacy we leave behind for our next generation. #

Saber H. Chowdhury, former Member of Parliament, is Political Secretary to the former Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina, president of the Awami League

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

BULLETS AND BALLOTS: Army Takeover in Bangladesh

Stalls Key Muslim Democracy: US, UN Backed Move To Prevent Flawed Vote; Mass Jailings in Dhaka

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV

WHEN the Bangladesh army intervened to abort a flawed election in this Muslim nation of 150 million in January, the U.S. and United Nations both offered tacit support for the coup.

But now the army-installed caretaker government is back-pedaling on its pledge to organize a quick, clean vote and then relinquish authority. And the once-bloodless coup is turning into something more sinister. Since January, an estimated 200,000 people, including hundreds of leading politicians and businessmen, have been jailed under emergency rules that suspend civil rights and outlaw all political activity. According to human-rights groups, scores of others, seized by the troops in the middle of the night, have been tortured to death or summarily executed.

Bangladesh’s new rulers insist the crackdown is needed to reform what international watchdogs such as Transparency International have frequently ranked as the most corrupt nation on Earth. “We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption is all-pervasive…and where political criminalization threatens the very survival and integrity of the state,” the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed, explained in a rare speech in April.

But critics say the outcome amounts to this: With the support of the U.S. and the international community, what used to be the world’s second-largest Muslim democracy, after Indonesia, has turned into the world’s second-largest military regime, after Pakistan.

Bangladesh’s new government “is very quickly squandering the goodwill that it had at the beginning,” says Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “At this point, it’s quite clear: The army is running the country. And they’re making it pretty clear they don’t intend to leave anytime soon.”

For the U.S., this unexpected turn of events presents a dilemma. Bangladesh has long been a U.S. ally at the strategic crossroads of India and China. But its version of democracy had been hijacked by two powerful political dynasties that resorted to violence and graft in their contest for power, and that struck alliances with radical Islam.

By contrast, the new military-backed government in Dhaka is positioning itself as an eager participant in the U.S.-led global battle against Islamic extremists.

Yet a protracted military dictatorship in Bangladesh could end up backfiring and catalyze the so-far limited support for these extremists — echoing what happened in Pakistan following Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999. There, the Islamists have become the main political alternative to the regime, as increasingly strict religious observance spreads throughout the country amid violence by fundamentalist groups.

To disrupt this dynamic in other places, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the administration of President Bush has been pushing to democratize the Muslim world. This strategy has been dented by electoral victories that Islamists often win when given a chance, from Lebanon to Egypt to Palestinian territories.

But Islamists have always fared badly at the polls in Bangladesh, a former province of Pakistan that became independent in a bloody war in 1971. Islamists backed the losing side. Since 1991, Bangladesh also had a democratic system that, however imperfect, allowed the opposition to oust incumbent governments in generally free and fair elections, something that almost never happens in the Arab world.

So far, the Bush administration has abstained from open criticism of the new Bangladeshi government’s behavior — though, at a briefing last month, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged Bangladesh to “move as quickly and as effectively as it can to elections.”

Harsher words are coming from Congress. In a May 14 letter to the Bangladeshi government, 15 senators expressed “strong concern over the ongoing state of emergency” and “custodial deaths” in the country.

They also urged a prompt restoration of “full civil and political rights to all citizens of Bangladesh.” Signers include Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and Christopher Dodd, as well as a handful of Republicans, including Richard Lugar.

Officials in Dhaka respond to such criticism by saying foreigners just don’t appreciate the magnitude of the new government’s task.

“After the collapse of the civilian government, after a civil-war situation, don’t you think it takes time for any government to bring the law and order situation under control?” says Mainul Hussein, the caretaker minister of law, justice and information, in an interview.

Mr. Hussein adds that he’s particularly “fed up” with Westerners bringing up human-rights abuses in his country. “Bangladesh is going through a huge crisis,” he says. “Is this the time to discuss individual cases? Individuals are not important!”

The civil strife that the army-backed regime stepped in to quell sprang out of a bitter, personal conflict between the two individuals who had taken turns in governing Bangladesh over the past 15 years.

The first, Khaleda Zia, prime minister in 1991-96 and 2001-06, is the widow of the general who led Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war against Pakistan and who was later assassinated by army officers in a coup attempt.

The second, Sheikh Hasina, was prime minister in 1996-2001. She is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding prime minister. Along with most of her immediate relatives, he had been slaughtered by soldiers in an earlier coup.

The two women, who still command the loyalty of millions of supporters, cooperated in organizing mass pro-democracy protests that ousted a previous military regime in late 1990. Since then, however, Bangladesh’s political life was defined by their increasingly acrimonious feud.

Though Ms. Hasina is seen as slightly more secularist and liberal than Ms. Khaleda, both women built their political parties through patronage networks and dynastic allegiances rather than well-defined ideologies. The two parties sold parliament seats to deep-pocketed businessmen, used criminal gangs to silence critics, and funded election campaigns through extortion, independent observers and Western diplomats say. During Ms. Khaleda’s second term, in particular, “Mafia-like structures captured the state,” says Kamal Hossein, a prominent lawyer and the drafter of Bangladesh’s constitution.

Though this pervasive corruption deterred many foreign investors, Bangladesh’s economy — dominated by agriculture and textiles, and dependent on remittances by overseas workers — benefited from the recent economic boom in its neighbors India and China. While Bangladesh’s per-capita income still remains below $500 a year, among the world’s lowest, the country’s economy last year expanded by a healthy 6.7%.

This growth, however, received a hit at the end of 2006, as the long-running hostility between Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina flared up ahead of elections scheduled for Jan. 22. Ms. Hasina was believed to be the front-runner, especially after she put together a broad alliance that — despite her party’s secular roots — also included a radical Islamist group that admired Afghanistan’s notorious former rulers, the Taliban.

Ms. Khaleda, whose governing coalition already included Islamic fundamentalists, was widely seen as attempting to fix the upcoming vote. A study by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, which was observing the campaign, found that the updated voter rolls inexplicably contained some 13 million more names than would be possible given the country’s population. The supposedly independent electoral commission, stacked with Ms. Khaleda’s supporters, did little to purge these phantom voters, and to address other concerns raised by the opposition.

In response, Ms. Hasina and her allies angrily withdrew from the election they viewed as irreparably fraudulent, and vowed to disrupt it by force. Strikes, road blockades and clashes of armed gangs supporting the two rivals spread all over the country, derailing economic activity and causing dozens of deaths.

Amid the bloodshed, U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis and other Western envoys shuttled between the two warring women in a futile attempt to find a compromise. Ms. Butenis warned Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina that the Bangladeshi army could intervene if the situation deteriorated any further, people familiar with these meetings say. Bangladeshi generals, at the same time, were informed in separate meetings that most Western ambassadors would pull out of Dhaka if the controversial election took place, according to a senior member of the Bangladeshi military.

Ms. Khaleda discounted this talk of a putsch, confident of the army’s support; Ms. Hasina says she believed an army intervention would be in her favor.

Indeed, until the very last moment, Bangladeshi generals seemed reluctant to strike. Trying to be seen as a benign, enlightened force after democracy was restored, the army has focused on helping the U.N. maintain peace and organize free elections in the world’s trouble spots. Nearly 10,000 Bangladeshi soldiers are deployed today under U.N. command in Lebanon, Congo, Ivory Coast and elsewhere, an arrangement that lets them earn more during a year on U.N. payroll than in a lifetime at home.

Following extensive consultations with the U.S. and other Western nations, which by then had denounced the upcoming election as unfair and pulled out observers, the U.N. on Jan. 11 took action. In a formal statement released in Dhaka, the most senior U.N. official in Bangladesh, Renata Lok Dessallien, cautioned that the scheduled election “would not be considered credible or legitimate.” Because of this, her statement warned, there may be “implications” for the Bangladesh army’s future participation in U.N. peacekeeping should the election be allowed to take place.

Before the day was over, a delegation of Bangladeshi generals led by the chief of staff, Gen. Moeen, walked into the office of the country’s president, a supporter of Ms. Khaleda, with the U.N. statement in hand, according to senior officers. They demanded that the Jan. 22 election be canceled and that power be transferred to a new caretaker administration hand-picked by the army. The army by then had disconnected the land line and cellular phones of Ms. Khaleda and her top aides. The president complied.

In a statement released shortly thereafter, the U.S. government noted that it had been urging Ms. Khaleda’s and Ms. Hasina’s parties “to engage in dialogue to resolve their differences, and to refrain from violence” — and added that the Bangladeshi authorities “felt compelled to declare a state of emergency.” A U.S. official says that, while the U.S. government did not “actively” seek a coup, it felt “relief” that a catastrophe had been averted. Ms. Dessallien of the U.N. has declined to comment on the record about her role in these events.

The new government installed by Bangladesh’s army is headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a respected former World Bank economist and central-bank governor. Dr. Ahmed insists that he, and not the army, is ultimately in charge. Some foreign diplomats who deal with the regime and many Bangladeshis dispute that. In his first speech, in January, Dr. Ahmed declared he is “pledge-bound to hold new elections within the shortest possible time.” Other government officials said at the time that an elected successor would take over within three to six months.

But in his second speech three months later, Dr. Ahmed announced that the election won’t be held before the end of 2008, and that the country must first undergo profound reforms transforming it into a “luminous star of good governance in South Asia.”

Before any vote, Bangladeshi officials say now, new voter rolls must be prepared, complete with computerized photo IDs — a formidable task in a country with barely functioning infrastructure and a population that is more than 50% illiterate.

“I’m in doubt as to whether they really want to hold an election,” Ms. Hasina says in an interview at her tightly guarded residence, minutes after consoling crying wives of her detained supporters.

The army, meanwhile, has attempted to push Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina into exile. Informed by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence while visiting the U.S. in April that she could not return home, Ms. Hasina kept trying to board Bangladesh-bound planes in London. International indignation forced Bangladesh to reverse the ban. A separate attempt to exile Ms. Khaleda to Saudi Arabia failed because the Saudi embassy wouldn’t issue her a visa.

So, while Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina remain relatively free, the new government concentrates on destroying their political parties, locking up former ministers, parliament members, mayors and senior apparatchiks. Those in jail include the secretary-general of Ms. Hasina’s party, as well as Ms. Khaleda’s son Tarique Rahman, who had amassed great fortune and power as her likely successor. Some independent human-rights campaigners who criticize the army have also been thrown behind bars.

Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, a retired lieutenant-general who was appointed in February to head the country’s powerful new Anti-Corruption Commission, calculates that “at least 99%” of Bangladeshi politicians are corrupt. A return to democracy without eliminating the existing political establishment would be pointless, he explains in an interview: “Half of these corrupt ones will come back as members of parliament again, so you will not have achieved anything by having an election.”

One method followed by Mr. Chowdhury, Gen. Moeen’s immediate predecessor as army chief of staff, in his purges is to demand from his targets a complete statement of assets, which must be prepared within a few days. Those whose statements show even a minor discrepancy with actual assets are detained pending a trial by special fast-track courts. Bail is usually not allowed.

This crackdown, along with daily detentions carried out directly by the army, has caused a panic in Bangladesh’s business community, frightened by the seeming randomness of many arrests. As a result, inflation has spiked, and economic growth is expected to slow down this year. “In this country, corruption was systemic — but there are a lot of people who are much more corrupt than the ones they’ve arrested,” complained Abdul Awal Mintoo, former president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry and chief executive of the Multimode Group, a Dhaka-based conglomerate. “All of us are corrupt here,” he added over coffee on a recent afternoon. “Can you take everybody to jail in this country?”

A few days later, Bangladesh’s military took him into custody, in its latest round of arrests under emergency rules. #

This article was first published in WALL STREET JOURNAL http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118092525391923445.html?mod=hpp_us_pageone