Thursday, May 22, 2008

A roadmap to wilderness?

MOZAMMEL H. KHAN

SINCE ITS inception in 1971, more than once, Bangladesh has been on the crossroad. The most recent such critical juncture gave rise to so-called one eleven that resulted in the promulgation of emergency and the consequent suspension of the fundamental rights of its citizens. The provision of emergency was incorporated in the constitution to tackle the situation “threatened by war or external aggression or internal disturbance.” People by and large welcomed the emergency with the hope that the resulting CTG would hold a fair and credible election to return the country to a representative democracy.

However, since its assumption of absolute power, the ‘power’ behind the government extended its jurisdiction into many arenas which the article 58 D of the constitution does not permit the CTG to set its foot onto. To accomplish its self promulgated task, it has included the draconian provision reads as, “any person, convicted of corruption by a trial court, will be disqualified from contesting in any election until adjudication of his or her appeal against the verdict”, in the Emergency Power Rule (EPR) that runs counter to the article 66 (2)D of the constitution, where the ‘conviction’ has to be adjudicated by the Appellate division of the Supreme court before barring any one from taking part in any election. The EPR has given the authority blanket power to arrest any one and put behind bar without bail for any period of time. The potential principal victims of this EPR are the top politicians, which in general belief, are the main targets of the authority in their pursuits ‘to create a level playing field for a free and fair election’. The reconstituted ACC under the able leadership of its chief has taken advantage of the EPR to arrest and prosecute, largely the politicians, in its self-professed drive against corruption, albeit corruption has no direct correlation with the ‘internal disturbance’, the main pretext for the declaration of emergency. So far numerous politicians, including their wives in many cases, have been prosecuted, mostly on broad (in some case vague) charges of ‘accumulating unaccountable wealth’ or ‘concealing wealth in their wealth statement’. There were stories all around about the scale of corruption many of these politicians have been indulged themselves into. However, charges of conviction against them failed to unveil any specific charges against them. Since all the convictions have taken place under EPR, not in the normal law of the land, it is yet to be seen how far their convictions have impacted their constituents in terms of sealing their political fate. If the past history of trials and convictions under any draconian law e.g. martial law is anything to take cognizance into, it failed to create any dent onto the elect ability of the convicts. The longest serving finance minister, leader of the so-called ‘reformist’ faction of BNP until the other day, is a glaring example of that resilience.

I personally would like to concur with the belief that the ACC chief is not in pursuit to implement the agenda of any quarter. In fact, his bureau’s action, quite to the contrary, has seemingly thwarted such an agenda by throwing the detrimental blow to the reformist group of the BNP that was created in a midnight coup. If it is so, it is the high time for the ACC chief to take a short pause and evaluate if trying the corruption cases under the EPR has been doing any boomeranging effect to his otherwise noble pursuit. Corruption is an endemic disease in Bangladesh society and it can never be eliminated by a transient law such as EPR. It must be an ongoing process that should be having an everlasting effect. Knowingly or unknowingly, the ACC should never be a part of any agenda allegedly pursued by the power behind the government.

At the beginning of the tenure of CTG, two of the advisers (one of them is gone since then) were lecturing the nation that it was not their responsibility to rehabilitate the ‘disgraced’ politicians (they meant the two ladies) of the past. However, the subsequent imprudent actions of the incumbent government, in fact, did exactly the same. Sheikh Hasina was not a ‘disgraced’ leader before one eleven in the first place. It was widely believed that her party would win any fair election before the happenings of one eleven. Her internment since last year and the public perception of little merit of her incriminations in multiple legal suits has boosted her image not only among her followers but her foes as well. The BNP and the Jamaat-I- Islami are trying to ride onto her co-tail and demanding her unconditional release. The ultimate crumbling of the reformist faction of the BNP only testified of the resurgence of the political stature of Khaleda Zia and had sent the much-talked about reform in the back burner.

Under the above backdrop, the pre-dialogue of the five very articulate advisers with the politicians and the hope, through their optimistic words such as creation of trust, they aroused among the citizens made the nation optimistic. However, the much-awaited address of the chief adviser (CA) ran not only counter to the optimism the five advisers’ disclosures over the weeks have generated, but also poured freezing water on that optimism. What he has outlined was nothing new and they are more of rhetoric than substance. The main impediment to having a free and fair election at this time is the draconian power of the state of emergency that gave the government the power to arrest any one (ACC chief disclosed that his bureau was not consulted on any arrest) without even any pre-laid charges and try any one for any ‘unaccountable income’ under EPR, not a difficult charge to frame against millions in our society. This tram card could be discriminately used against whoever the authorities want to debar from taking part in the election. The CA in his address only indicated that the “provisions of the emergency rules pertaining to election would be relaxed or suspended at an appropriate time”. In a rare unity, most of the political parties those who matter, except for a few political orphans, have rejected his address outright.

As it looks now, it is very uncertain if the dialogue would at all take place with the two major stakeholders. In the words of one of the highly prudent advisers, “the situation will become serious if the two parties do not join the dialogue. What outcome the dialogue will bring then?" On the other hand, if it does, the ball would be largely in the court of the government. If it wants to hide behind the legal process, as every incumbent government intends to do, pertaining to the release of the two leaders, the least it could do is to withdraw the state of emergency that would enable the two leaders to get bail and face the legal suits against them under the normal law of the land. If the CA fails to convince his ‘assisting power’ to take the route of conciliation rather than confrontation, he will be leading the nation to nowhere as envisaged by the adviser. As the highly revered citizen of the Republic with apparently no personal political agenda of his own, he should be having no problem reading the pulse of the nation. If he fails to do so, the roadmap to election would be transformed into a roadmap to wilderness. #

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convener of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh