Wednesday, May 28, 2008

End torture, arbitary detention, custodial deaths!

Amnesty International Report 2008
State of the World's Human Rights


HUMAN RIGHTS were severely restricted under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of widespread political violence. Hundreds of thousands of people were reportedly arrested on suspicion of criminal activity or breaches of emergency rules. Torture continued to be widespread. Law enforcement agencies were implicated in the deaths of more than 100 people in custody, but no one was held to account for the deaths. At least six men were executed.


Background
Following weeks of violent clashes between the supporters of the main political parties, a state of emergency was declared on 11 January. Elections scheduled for 22 January were postponed until 2008. President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed a new caretaker government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed as Chief Adviser and supported by the army, and the army was deployed with the police to maintain law and order.

The new government embarked on an anti-corruption programme, and took steps towards judicial and electoral reform, but the pace of reforms was disappointingly slow. There were also widespread concerns both about the role of the army in the country’s political life and about economic problems, including a sharp rise in the cost of food and other essential goods.

The government announced that it had initiated the creation of a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The authorities were urged by Amnesty International to ensure that the NHRC’s mandate, independence and resources would enable it to be an effective mechanism for strengthening human rights protection.

More than 60,000 slum dwellers were forcibly evicted when the government demolished slums in Dhaka, and also in Chittagong and Khulna. They were given no alternative accommodation or compensation.

Cyclone Sidr which hit south-western areas in mid-November caused severe devastation to over a million people’s homes and livelihoods and killed more than 3,000 people.

State of emergency restrictions
Emergency rules restricted freedom of association and assembly, withdrew some constitutional safeguards against arbitrary arrest and gave far-reaching powers of arrest to law enforcement agencies. The ban on political meetings was partially lifted in September to allow political parties to prepare for dialogue with the Election Commission on electoral reforms. Members of parties supported by the authorities were allowed to meet with no restrictions throughout the year.
Fair trial safeguards were weakened by the use of Special Courts which imposed tight restrictions on defendants’ access to lawyers, and by the denial of bail to defendants charged under emergency regulations.

Police and security forces – torture and deaths in custody
The security forces, including army and paramilitary units deployed under emergency rule with the police, committed human rights violations with impunity, including torture and other ill-treatment and alleged extrajudicial executions. The police force was inadequately trained and equipped and lacked effective accountability and oversight mechanisms. Army personnel accused of human rights violations remained almost entirely outside the purview of civilian judicial accountability mechanisms.

• Rang Lai Mro, a community leader in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, was arrested on 23 February and allegedly tortured by army personnel. He required hospital treatment for his injuries. He was charged with possession of arms and reportedly sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. In October he was reportedly taken back into police custody, beaten again, and once more needed hospital treatment. There was no reported investigation into the torture allegations.
• Sahebullah was reportedly detained on 16 May by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel and tortured in the office of the director of the Rajshahi Medical College Hospital. Both his legs were reportedly broken. He was arrested after demanding that a doctor attend to his wife, who had not been treated for 12 hours. She died the next day.
• Law enforcement agencies were implicated in the deaths of more than 100 people in custody. No action was apparently taken to bring those responsible
• to justice.
• Khabirul Islam Dulal, from Char Fashion Municipality in Bohla district, was arrested by navy personnel on 20 February. He was reportedly beaten, thrown in a pond with his hands tied with rope, and beaten again. He died that evening.
• Garo indigenous leader Cholesh Richil died on 18 May while in the custody of Joint Forces (army and police) personnel. There were strong indications that he died under torture. Three other members of the Garo community – Tohin Hadima, Piren Simsung and Protap Jambila – were arrested at the same time and reportedly tortured. The government set up a judicial inquiry into Cholesh Richil’s death, but there was no news about it by the year’s end.

Arbitrary detention
According to media reports, officials stated that over 440,000 people were arrested on various grounds during the year. Many detainees were detained arbitrarily, initially held under emergency rules, then served with a detention order under the 1974 Special Powers Act (SPA). Some were then charged with politically motivated criminal offences.

Some people held under emergency rules were accused of “extortion” or other criminal activity. Detainees included over 160 politicians from the main political parties, as well as some wealthy business people. A number of detainees held without trial under emergency regulations or the SPA were reportedly tortured or ill-treated.

• Shahidul Islam, a human rights activist, was charged with murder on the basis of a “confession” by another detainee, Badrul, in February. This charge blocked the release of Shahidul Islam when his detention order under the SPA expired in late February. Badrul retracted his original statement in court, saying he had been forced to make it by police. However, the charge against Shahidul Islam was not dropped and he was reportedly tortured in detention before being released on bail in late August. • Following clashes in August between law enforcement agencies and students in Dhaka and Rajshahi demanding an end to the state of emergency, 10 university lecturers from Dhaka and Rajshahi universities were detained. They were prisoners of conscience. Dozens of students were also arrested, accused of involvement in clashes. The six Rajshahi University lecturers were released in December but the four Dhaka University lecturers remained in detention.

Freedom of expression

Although wide-ranging emergency restrictions on the news media were not strictly enforced, their continued existence intensified self-censorship by journalists and editors. Journalists were threatened with arrest if they criticized intelligence agencies or the army.

• Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist, was arrested on 17 September over a cartoon that used the name of the prophet Muhammad, following threats by Islamist groups. He was charged with “hurting religious sentiments” and was a prisoner of conscience. A 30-day detention order was issued against him under the SPA and extended for a further three months.


Human rights defenders

As in previous years, human rights defenders were subjected to arbitrary detention and torture. Lawyers were allegedly threatened with arrest on corruption charges if they took up high-profile cases.

• Prisoner of conscience Tasneem Khalil, a journalist who worked with the Daily Star newspaper, CNN and Human Rights Watch, was detained on
• 11 May and reportedly tortured because he had supplied information on human rights violations. • Prisoner of conscience Jahangir Alam Akash, journalist and local head of two human rights organizations, was arrested on 24 October by RAB agents in the north-western city of Rajshahi. He was reportedly given electric shocks, was beaten on the soles of his feet with a stick, and was hung from the ceiling with his hands tied. He was transferred to the Rajshahi Jail hospital with multiple injuries. His detention followed his television news report in May about the shooting of an unarmed man by RAB agents. He was charged with extortion, a charge widely believed to be false and politically motivated, and held in detention for over a month before being released on bail.

Justice system

The government took steps to implement the Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling requiring separation of the judiciary from the executive, including amendments to relevant laws. On 1 November the new system came into effect. However, reports indicated that executive magistrates would retain some judicial powers.

Past human rights abuses
Demands gathered momentum during the year for the investigation of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed in 1971. However, as in the past, no action was taken by the government to implement the 1973 International Crimes (Tribunals) Act and no official commission was ever established to provide a comprehensive account of the events of 1971, to determine responsibilities and to make recommendations for reparation for the victims.

Violence against women
Violence against women continued to be reported, including beatings, acid attacks and dowry deaths.

• In Kushtia district, in the month of June alone, police and hospital records reportedly revealed that at least 19 women committed suicide and 65 more attempted suicide because of violence by their husbands or family members.


Death penalty

At least 90 men and three women were sentenced to death, and at least six men were executed.

Amnesty International visit/reports
• An Amnesty International delegation visited Dhaka, Jessore and Khulna in March to assess the impact of the state of emergency on the human rights situation.
Bangladesh: Death in custody and reports of torture(ASA 13/005/2007)
Bangladesh: Amnesty International calls for thorough unrestricted inquiry into violations by security forces (ASA 13/011/2007)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nation should hold military Generals responsible for flouting election schedule, breach of constitution

SALEEM SAMAD

IN A a recent twist of political development, the higher court ruled on the holding of parliament election and has received double thumbs-up by pro-democracy activists. The court has categorically blamed the interim government and the election commission for breach of certain clauses of state constitution.

This was indeed yet another major setback for the four-star military Generals who have purportedly installed an interim government, which tantamount to violation of the principles of non-interference in state polity. Well the verdict was an insult to injuries already inflicted by international communities. Will star-studded Generals give any heed to the verdict?

The over-zealous military general’s in a conspiracy game aborted the scheduled elections to the ninth parliament in two weeks time when they grabbed power in mid-January last year. They kicked the caretaker government legitimately formed, banned freedom of assembly, fundamental rights by imposing emergency rules and of course throttled press freedom by blanket censorship, which still exists in another form.

The Generals, the de facto ruler of the state affairs did not hesitate to claim that they sponsor the interim government. The Chief of Army Lt. General Moeen Uddin Ahmed explained that the nation needed to be cleansed of evils of institutional corruption, criminalisation of politics, money laundering and organised crime, until then restoration of democracy would yield futile.

After more than a year effort to zero tolerance of all evils, the international watchdogs specially Belgium based International Crisis Group does not agree with the achievement the military Generals and the interim government claim.

In tragic episode of de facto military governance, those citizens who demanded restoration of democracy and to hold a credible election, the dreaded military security services harassed, intimidated and reprimanded scores and hounded hundreds, which includes among others are members of civil society, university teachers and journalists. Others do not dare to return home in fear of persecution.

Most pro-democracy activists and civil society in Bangladesh and expatriates do not believe that the military generals would be bothered about democratic institutions like the Supreme Court, which upholds the constitution has proven balance of scale of justice.

The High Court on May 22 says the Election Commission has violated the constitution by failing to hold elections in 90 days from the dissolution of parliament in October 2006. This ruling was in response to a public interest litigation filed by barrister Masud Reza Sobhan last January.

In an observation, the court however said the election planned for December in line with the EC roadmap was a "logical decision". It added that the court did not have an alternative to accepting the EC decision on holding polls in December, writes BDNews24.com.

Though chief adviser Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, blue-eyed boy of the military is not authorized to announce an election schedule, it blames the Election Commission, which did not comply with its constitutional obligations, thus "it violated the constitution."

According to the constitution, the HC said, national elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of parliament (in October 2006). In addition the EC does not have the authority to overrule the constitution, as the commission does not have the power to extend the 90-day time limit set by the constitution.

It is the constitutional obligation of the commission to hold polls, which would enable the caretaker government to transfer power to an elected government. But the commission found other excuse to delay the election on the plea of preparing a non-controversial voters list and voters photo ID for all eligible voters. A gargantuan task indeed!

However the court took into cognisance that as chief adviser addressed the nation early May and announced the national polls would be held in third week of December.

On this matter the court asked the Election Commission to provide specific date by April 30th of holding the parliamentary election.

Following the verdict, the litigant Sobhan has rightly called on the chief election commissioner and other commissioners to resign for their failure as described by the court. The court verdict brings in front a national shame of the performance of the Election Commission and their loyalty has been exposed.

The commission performance has proved that it was not truly independent. The EC was supposed to accountable to the eligible voters according to rule of law, but instead paid more attention to the military installed government.

It seems that the Election Commission in a comment to media is not dithered by the verdict and said that it would not affect the commission's roles and responsibilities to hold the election planned in coming December.

Once again it was proven that the pro-democracy activists were consistent and speaking wisdom. Equally the issues raised by international watchdogs were similar tunes of the civil society, media and the international donor community.

Meanwhile to buy time, the military installed government is holding dialogue with political parties leaders. Those leaders walking to the living room of the Chief Adviser’s official residence to hold parleys are demanding similar request made to Election Commission to withdraw emergency rule as a condition to restoration of democracy. #

First published in E-Bangladesh.org, May 23, 2008 Saleem Samad — an Ashoka Fellow, is a journalist best known for his investigative reporting on military persecution in CHT and Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh. Currently living in exile in Canada for his articles in Time, Tehelka.com, and Daily Times. He specializes on intelligence, conflict, security, Islamic militancy in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh. He could be reached saleemsamad@hotmail.com

High Court verdict to protect human rights

RIPAN KUMAN BISWAS

THIS IS a victory of human rights protection and people around the world are convinced heart and mind of Bangladeshi people, are very more wealth than those ones of most societies.

Although it takes long time and Pakistan government has made no move to take them in, but Bangladesh's High Court (HC) has ruled that children of Urdu-speaking refugees, awaiting repatriation to Pakistan, have the right to Bangladeshi citizenship. Through the verdict by a two-member panel of Justice M.A. Rashid and Justice M. Ashfaqul on Sunday, May 18, 2008, some 300,000 refugees now languish in 70 crammed camps across Bangladesh, a country of 150 million people, will have the right to live like general Bangladeshis.

After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, the majority of the Urdu-speakers in the country applied for repatriation to Pakistan through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but Pakistan stopped taking them, saying the nation lacks funds. These people became forced migrants in Bangladesh and first group of stateless, with no access to citizenship rights. Realizing the government of Pakistan was not going to repatriate them, Pakistanis in Bangladesh continued to repatriate themselves and their families by whatever means were available to them.

In addition, in March 1978, Government of Pakistan issued a presidential ordinance stripping all Pakistanis left in Bangladesh after December 1971 of their nationality, unilaterally, retroactively, arbitrarily, and en masse. This ordinance was illegal and the sole purpose of the ordinance was to deprive a group of citizens, the common feature of the group being their language, of their basic right as citizens of Pakistan. There are around one hundred thousand Pakistanis who returned without the blessing of the Government of Pakistan and now living in Pakistan, are not recognized as citizens and are denied all amenities of citizenship. This is the other group of stateless.

Since 1971, people from different parts of the society, organizations of Urdu-speaking people, and numerous non-governmental organizations that have worked with the camp residents for so many years, have been arguing the authority of Bangladesh to give all the camp dwelling Urdu-speaking people Bangladeshi citizenship. But the demand moved strongly while the question was noted to facilitate the exercise of effective citizenship rights by enrolling them as voters and include them in the national Identity Card scheme immediately.

Though the HC verdict was awarded in favor of them who were minors in 1971 or born after the independence of Bangladesh, but according to the inter-ministerial meeting held on September 5, 2007, the older refugees mostly over 40 years old may also get the chance to be citizens if they wish. The refugees are the remnants of about 500,000 Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to then-East Pakistan from India during the breakup of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines at independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts. During the liberation war, Pakistani army threw to the winds all the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Pakistan itself is a signatory. The Declaration very solemnly declares the recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The 90% camps in Saidpur, a sub-district under Nilphamari district in the northern part of Bangladesh, and the rests in Capital and other parts of the urban areas, are all under conditions of severe overcrowding, food insecurity, lack of access to safe drinking water, poor sanitation, and lacking basic facilities of medical services. Due to their camp address and unidentified status, camp-residents often face discrimination in the job market while female face numerous problems including demands for dowry that led to early marriage, lack of privacy, sexual abuse, and abandonment. They are suffering a worse fate in Bangladesh.

Last February, the Nepal government has issued exit permits to Bhutanese refugees who have opted for third country resettlement. The United States has offered to resettle at least 60,000 Bhutanese refugees and Canada has indicated it will accept up to 5,000 while Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also shown their willingness to take in refugees. Over 100,000 Bhutanese have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal after allegedly being driven out by the Druk government in the 1980s when Bhutan began an assimilation drive, overriding the culture, language and dress of ethnic communities, mostly of Nepali origin. The first batch of refugees was set to fly to the United States in March while larger numbers will be leaving Nepal starting in July.

The verdict of the HC of Bangladesh is bringing international attention as the refugees now have a homeland they can call “country” and it resolves the identity crisis of them. It’s shame that Pakistan couldn't bring them all to the homeland. In the line of its great effort towards humanity, world community and people of Bangladesh want more reasonable and immediate steps to solve crisis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Although the mobile network has been launched recently in CHT and according to the Chief Adviser to the present interim government of Bangladesh Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, in conformity with the Accord, some government steps have already been taken and the process is on, but the overall situation in the CHT remained unchanged under the different governments. The CHT Accord of 1997 was signed in full accordance with the country's sovereignty and integrity and for upholding the political, social, cultural, educational and economic rights of the peoples living in the hilly region.

On the other hand, the Rohingya refugee problem in Bangladesh is a decades-long pending issue. There are over 400,000 Rohingyas who are living in Bangladesh as undocumented refugees without any status and there are about 300,000 Rohingyas who are living in different countries of the world with Bangladeshi passport. Over 250,000 Rohingya Muslims from western Burma were forced into Bangladesh by the Burmese military in 1992 in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Arakan State. Since then thousands of people have been detained in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and tens of thousands have been repatriated to Burma to face further repression. On humanitarian ground, it needs immediate bi-lateral solution.

People appreciate the HC verdict, which will help the Urdu-speaking people to join with the mainstream society and expect more reasonable solution on other issues as no one as human being be truly happy until everyone can get a fair chance to participate in society. #

First published on May 22, 2008, New York

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. He could be reached at Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com

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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Polling Bangladesh

BANGLADESH IS an impoverished majority-Muslim country with a recent history of moderate secular politics. Fortunately there's a chance it will stay that way, now that the caretaker government that seized power last year appears ready to move ahead with December elections.

In announcing the vote this week, the government was confirming a promise it made in July. The caretaker regime's self-stated raison d'etre is to clean up the corruption of the previous elected governments and put the country on a firmer democratic footing. And it has made some important progress.

Topping its list of accomplishments, the regime has finished purging the electoral rolls of phantom voters that may have numbered in the millions. Compiling an accurate list of voters in a country of 153.5 million people was no small feat, and an important step toward fair elections.

The regime also partially lifted its nationwide ban on indoor political meetings with fewer than 200 attendees; this follows an earlier move to lift the ban in the capital, Dhaka. The step allows parties to re-open their local offices and start plotting strategies for the election.

But it's still a long way from a free country. Bangladesh remains under emergency rule, and many forms of electioneering, such as outdoor political rallies, are still banned. The government may be reluctant to lift such measures for fear that it would allow parties to incite violence among their supporters or let corruption rear its head again.

Which highlights the caretaker government's major shortcoming all along: its failure to realize that lasting change can come only from within the political parties themselves. By locking up the leaders of the two major secular parties -- the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party -- the government angered the parties' bases and may actually have enhanced the leaders' power within their organizations. The ban on party meetings effectively shut down forums where reformers could have argued for less corruption.

As Bangladesh gets closer to its December polls, the caretaker government must decide what to do with the "two ladies," Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the BNP. The two women, both former prime ministers, are awaiting trial on fraud charges. Moving ahead with the trials would demonstrate that the government is committed to the rule of law and affording equal treatment to all.

It would also help reduce the risk that the major parties might boycott the December election if their leaders aren't released. It's in Bangladesh's best interest that they don't, especially since the alternative lies with fundamentalist Islamist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami.

Such parties are still an electorally insignificant force. But before the caretaker government took power, it had been learning how to punch above its weight by forming coalitions with the major parties to pick up cabinet appointments. If for no other reason, the caretaker government must take steps over the coming months to allow the major secular parties to organize themselves effectively.

Bangladesh was hardly a model of functional democracy before the caretaker government came to power, and it may be only marginally better come December. But only a popularly elected government can wield the moral authority to enact lasting change. With this week's announcement, Bangladesh is one welcome step closer. #

First published in The WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA, May 16, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Solving the food crisis

MUHAMMAD YUNUS

A comprehensive global plan is needed to tackle the high cost of food that threatens the lives of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people

THE GLOBAL food crisis is a dire reality for millions of the world's poor and a major test for the international community. Sustained, generous, wise leadership and broad-based cooperation is required to overcome the crisis and save lives.

Rising food prices have created tremendous pressure in the lives of poor people, for whom basic food can consume as much as two-thirds of their income.

There are many causes of these increasing pressures - oil that costs $120 a barrel; droughts in important producing regions; the increased use of corn for ethanol and soy oil for biodiesel; speculation in commodities markets; and ironically, increased prosperity in large countries such as China, India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, which make up nearly half the world's population. Continually rising food prices are making it more difficult to feed the poorest of the poor worldwide and will reduce the prospect of achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals, unless immediate action is taken.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon deserves credit for convening the leaders of 27 UN agencies and programs to organize a coordinated response. They have agreed to establish a high-level task force under Ban's leadership, with sound immediate objectives.

A comprehensive global plan should include the following six elements:

First, the international community must rapidly mobilize at least $755m, identified by the World Food Programme and UN leaders as necessary for emergency food relief. The Secretary-General might want to mobilize two or three global leaders as special envoys to help the UN find these funds.

Second, we must ensure that farmers are equipped to produce the next harvest. Farmers in many areas cannot afford seeds to plant or natural gas-based fertilizer, whose price has risen along with the price of oil. The International Fund for Agricultural Development is delivering $200m to poor farmers in the most affected countries to boost food production. The Food and Agriculture Organization needs an additional $1.7bn to help provide seed and fertilizer. The World Bank is doubling its lending for agriculture in Africa over the next year to $800m and is considering a new rapid financing facility for grant support to especially fragile, poor countries and quicker, more flexible financing for others.

Relative to the size and gravity of the crisis, these sums are very modest and affordable for the international community. In the US alone, high prices have been a boon to farmers and have saved the government billions in crop support payments. The world should respond promptly and generously to help those struggling to survive what the UN calls a "silent tsunami."

Third, beyond these immediate actions, new policies are needed to address the underlying causes of the crisis. Crop subsidies and export controls in many important countries are distorting markets and raising prices; they should be eliminated. In particular, subsidies for ethanol that made sense when oil cost $20 a barrel cannot be justified at $120 a barrel - nor can subsidies for oil. They should be phased out together when the price of oil is above a certain level.

Fourth, the current crisis should not deter the world's search for long-term global solutions to poverty and environmental protection. For example, we should continue efforts to move to second-generation fuels made from waste materials and non-food crops without displacing land used food production. Even the limited amount of biofuels on the market today have been credited with reducing the price of oil, and next-generation fuels can be economically advantageous for poor countries with much less effect on food production. As bad as the impact of high food prices has been, the impact of high oil prices has been worse - devastating poor countries that have no indigenous source of supply, erasing all the benefits of international debt relief and more.

Fifth, the world must develop a new system of long-term investments in agriculture.
A new "green revolution" is required to meet the global demands, even as climate change is increasing the stresses on agriculture. More productive crops are needed, but also ones that are drought-resistant and salt-tolerant. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research must be strengthened to help lead these efforts.

Sixth, to help fund these important initiatives, I propose that each oil-exporting country create a "poverty and agriculture fund", contributing a fixed amount - perhaps 10% - of the price of every barrel of oil exported. This would be a small fraction of the windfall they have been gaining from higher prices. The funds would be managed by the founding nations and devoted to overcoming poverty, improving agricultural yields, supporting research for new technology, and creating social businesses to help solve the problems of the poor, such as health care, education and women's empowerment.

Just as the US should return a portion of its windfall from grain exports through increased support of food aid, so too should oil-exporting countries contribute a portion of the greatest wealth transfer the world has ever known to help feed the poor.

Thankfully, the Secretary-General and other international leaders are focusing attention on today's crisis, and the world should respond quickly to these calls. But the pressures of a growing and more prosperous population will not go away - demand for food and energy will grow, and the poor will suffer most. The need for long-term investment in agriculture and food aid will grow as well. #

First published in The Guardian, London UK, May 16, 2008

Prof Muhammad Yunus, a Noble laureate in 2006 is founder of Grameen Bank, which has empowered nearly three million former poverty-stricken rural women in Bangladesh. Presently Grameen’s model has been replicated in fifty countries and region

Friday, May 16, 2008

His address, their agony, and country’s expectations

Pics: Military installed Chief Adviser Dr Fakruddin Ahmed reads his bosses mind

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

“THERE MAY be disputes, rivalry, and competition between government and political parties, but in eventual judgment, while we all are trying to launch a healthy and stable democratic process in the country and 150 million people’s expectation to stand before the comity of the world with national identity, flourished with the spirit of self-confidence, these are not our main features,” Chief Adviser of the present military-backed interim government of Bangladesh Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed hoped in an address to the nation over state-owned radio and television on May 12, 2008 regarding the planned dialogue beginning May 22 between government and political parties. Everybody should have to overcome all narrowness, vengeance, and mistrust in proceeding towards the end, he further added.

His government that took over the responsibility of the government on January 12, 2007 with ongoing state of emergency in the backdrop of inevitable changes, declared the date for political transition, possibly any day in the third week of December next, and planned to hold a dialogue between the government and political parties to bring qualitative improvement in political structure.

Total 19 political parties, including Awami League, Jatiya Party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Liberal Democratic Party, Unity for Political Reforms, Bangladesh Nationalist Party [mainstream], Islami Shasantantra Andolan, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal, Khelafat Andolan, Khelafat Majlish and the splinter group of BNP (Bangladesh National Party), had been invited, according to the chief adviser’s spokesman, Syed Fahim Munaim. But various political parties and groups appear to be unhappy with the contents of address by the Chief Adviser (CA), saying they had found no reflection of people’s expectations in it.

In their criticism, several things were common, like lack of specific commitment on withdrawal of the state of emergency, allowing war criminals to participate in the elections, and government incompetence for the present food price hikes. Referring their five-point demand including immediate and unconditional release of party president and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina enabling her to take part in the national dialogue, AL formally rejected his address, saying the CA failed to create trust among the people about the national dialogue in his speech while according to the BNP secretary general, Khandaker Delwar Hossain, CA completely ignored the party’s 18-point demand which includes release of party’s supremo and former Premier – Khaleda Zia.

Several others expressed their deep frustrations on ban on indoor politics across the country terming it more complicated as the political parties would have to inform the administration 48 hours before holding a meeting and require permission for a gathering of more than 200 people. CA’s proposed ‘national charter,’ a guideline to make strong relations among political parties, institutions, and communities across the country on the basis of consensus on relevant matters prior to the polls so qualitative changes are censured in government and political systems after the election, was not welcomed and brought confusion as according to the political parties, only the people’s elected parliament has the authority to formulate such things. In his comments, Communist Party general secretary Mujahidul Islam Selim opposed any such charter as the 1972 constitution is the only national charter in Bangladesh and he wanted to restore secular constitution.

CA described the much-talked-dialogue, which is scheduled to be placed at his office, is a trust-based initiative. While he assured that the government had no pre-fixed agenda and didn’t have any hostility against anyone, different political parties observed the address intensified the people’s confusion over elections and dialogues instead of dispelling such confusion. Government once again assured everyone including political parties to provide all-out support and cooperation based on the needs and demands from the Election Commission (EC). But political parties claimed that the state of emergency wouldn’t be lifted before the polls and there would be both direct and indirect influences on the polls by relaxing the state of emergency.

EC’s ongoing efforts to hold elections at local levels would not create any obstacle to attain the prime target — to hold national elections, CA promised. He explained that the polls at the local levels would able to create a positive flow towards greater national elections. If the government, which has no political ambitions, intends to hold local government polls before the national elections, it prompts people to raise questions about and doubt the attitude of the government, Jamaat-e-Islami Amir, Matiur Rahman Nizami opposed government’s intention. AL echoed the same, including BNP while it was announcing mass hunger strike in every district, upazila, and union on May 20 to press for releasing Hasina.

His address, political parties agony of doubt, and country’s sufferings are all for a sustainable democracy in the country. “Our all endeavours would turn into despair unless a healthy and stable democracy is introduced,” CA opined. Speakers at a roundtable meeting titled 'Exercise of democracy inside political parties' at the CIRDAP auditorium on May 14, 2008 also again discussed like many other times about what factors were the reasons behind 1/11 scenario either bureaucrats, professional bodies, businessmen, or political parties. Whoever, there was no mutual respects among political parties for each other as well as cordial and effective relationship among them.

For democracy is not only the right of every one to be equal, but also the equal right of every one to be different. Although, no major political parties exercise democracy, but democracy cannot be established through pressure or with mighty hands. Democracy recognizes not only the dictum of the majority, but also the need to respect the minority. The parliament does not hide its decisions, just as it is not ashamed to build bridges and suggest compromises, with the aim of defending the unity of the many and the dignity of the few.

The present world is very competitive and fast moving. The country is facing rising fuel prices and food shortages. A struggling economy and continued acrimonious and tense relations between the government and the businessmen have increased citizen's cynicism about any such reforms or proposals or even drive against corruptions. Therefore all political and administrative activities should be complementary to economic development to keep pace with the world economy as every day and every hour is very important to keep economic wheels moving on. The proponents of democracy generally regard economic freedom as a key element in any democratic society.

The entire election process should be free from black money, muscle power, administrative biases, nomination trade, and excessive expenses for poll campaigns to get a sustainable democratic society, therefore, to make inroads for honest, worthy, and dynamic leadership. To return to a stable democracy, both the government and political parties should reach consensus on all important issues so that everybody can participate in the elections.

There may be dispute between government and political parties, but as long as it’s a concern to strengthen democracy, ensure a corruption-free society, and guarantee an economically secure Bangladesh, the upcoming dialogue shouldn’t to be derailed with any other considerations. #

First published in New York, May 16, 2008

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How Bangladesh is Preparing for Climate Change

Nomads of the Tides

GERALD TRAUFETTER

Dutch engineers are helping people in Bangladesh build dikes, polders and water-retaining structures to protect them against recurring floods. Despite climate change, the country could even grow. Ultimately, though, the greatest threat in Bangladesh comes not from water but from political chaos.

FORTUNATO CARVAJAL Monar is in the land-making business. And this Saturday morning is shaping up to be the beginning of a good workday.

The sun strikes the dirty water of the Ganges River, causing it to sparkle in golden colors. Carvajal Monar jumps energetically from a speedboat onto the sand. He walks a few steps before reaching an odd-looking ledge, which had already attracted his attention when he saw it through binoculars.

The ledge is half a meter (about a foot and a half) tall. Light-colored lines of sand are sandwiched between layers of dark clay. Carvajal Monar sticks his ballpoint pen into the soil to test the consistency of the material. 'Less than a year old,' the 59-year-old hydraulic engineer succinctly concludes.

He tugs on the coarse tufts of dune grass that have become established in the soft soil. 'This island developed very recently,' he says. Vast amounts of sediment were washed up during the last flood, and based on his experience, says Carvajal Monar, 'the island will continue to grow.'

A native of Colombia, Carvajal Monar has often stepped onto new land in this nation, which everyone says is doomed. He works for the Dutch consulting company Royal Haskoning in Bangladesh, a country that is considered to be one of the biggest victims of climate change.

Carvajal Monar sometimes finds the doomsday scenarios surprising. They simply do not coincide with his experiences in Bangladesh. 'This country has tremendous opportunities to grow,' says Carvajal Monar, as he spreads out an older map and points to the Bay of Bengal. 'Down here, for example, not much on this map is correct anymore.'

The country is as ephemeral as human life. 'Land is disappearing everywhere, but new land is taking shape elsewhere,' says Carvajal Monar. 'The problem is that the politicians here lack a long-term strategy of gaining, developing and protecting new land.' His fingers slide farther south along the map, far out into the Bay of Bengal, where the light color indicating water turns to a dark blue. This represents the beginning of the continental slope, where the ocean floor plunges hundreds of meters and, along with it, 2.4 billion tons of unused sediment that the great rivers in Bangladesh, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna, flush through their kilometer-wide riverbeds. Carvajal Monar has calculated that a year's worth of this sediment is enough to create 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of new land.

'Nowadays,' he says, 'most of the sediment simply disappears into the deep sea.' This, according to Carvajal Monar, is practically a mortal sin in a country that should have started a program long ago to use the fertile silt, mica and clay to protect its coastline, thereby protecting future generations from drowning.

It's no accident that he works for a Dutch engineering firm. The Netherlands and Bangladesh share a similar fate. Both countries are flat and much of their territory is below sea level, which constantly forces them to protect themselves against flooding. 'In the Netherlands, this has long been seen as an opportunity, not a threat,' says Carvajal Monar.

In fact, hydrologically speaking the Netherlands is a country that shouldn't even exist. But skillful engineering has guaranteed the Dutch a successful existence. Polders, dikes and water-retaining structures protect its territory against the sea. According to Carvajal Monar, 'this is precisely what we could do in Bangladesh, but unfortunately we're moving forward far too slowly.'

Aside from the morphological parallels, the Netherlands and Bangladesh have little in common. The Muslim country in the eastern corner of the Indian subcontinent, which liberated itself from Pakistan in a bloody war in the early 1970s, has been eaten up by a corrupt kleptocracy that was ousted in a military coup in January. An interim government controlled by generals rules the country today. The chaos in politics extends deep into ministries and the government bureaucracy, postponing decisions -- a great impediment to the construction of new structures to protect against flooding.

The Netherlands is already paying for a series of projects designed to protect the country's vulnerable flanks along the coast and riverbanks. A diagram outlining one of these projects is on a pinboard in Carvajal Monar's office in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. It is a plan that could expand the country's landmass by several square kilometers. In the Meghna delta region, through which up to 160,000 cubic meters (5.6 million cubic feet) of water flow every second, Carvajal Monar wants to connect newly formed islands with dams. The structure would force the river to deposit large amounts of sediment along its edges. 'But the project has stalled,' Carvajal Monar complains. 'And that in a country of 150 million people where agricultural land is shrinking by one percent a year.'

Things are moving forward at a faster pace in Hatia. Once they were two small islands in the Meghna delta, but then Dutch engineers came along and helped the Bangladeshis connect the northernmost of the two islands with the mainland. Now bulldozers are digging trenches to form the characteristic rectangular polder structure familiar to every tourist who has been to the Netherlands -- the difference being that in Bangladesh banana trees are planted on the dikes instead of poplars.

Zulfiquer Azeez is one of the engineers who, under the supervision of Carvajal Monar, is responsible for the construction work. He is familiar with the Netherlands' green rectangularity from a visit to the country a few years ago. 'But here we would never dream of building golf courses on the newly reclaimed land,' says Azeez, a 41-year-old Bangladeshi. 'Almost every bit of it is used for fields.'

A bulldozer is pushing the gray, sticky soil together. Only a few meters away, women from the village kneel in front of a piece of corrugated metal and turn red chili peppers to dry in the sun. The dike will soon protect the people here from spring floods and the giant waves that are regularly whipped up by cyclones. A protective bunker on stilts is as much a part of the basic equipment of the polder as its drainage ditches. 'Without them,' Azeez explains, 'the land would become salinized.'

But even the unprotected land in front of the dike is put to use as soon as it protrudes only about a foot above the water level. One of the daring is Shamsun Nahar, whose bamboo hut stands on a small earthen hill like a Third World version of the small islands in the North Friesian mud flats known as Halligen. She farms the fertile alluvial soil with her four children, and calls it 'a gift from Allah.' Nahar arrived here only a few months ago. Her husband works in the country's southeast, either on the docks or as a rickshaw driver. In fact, Nahar isn't exactly sure what he is currently doing, because, without a mobile phone, she has no way of staying in touch with her husband. She also lacks a radio that could warn her against cyclones.

She sends out her son to bring in the nets. Without catching fish, the family could not survive. The tide has reached the apex of the dike and water is swashing in front of her hut.

Nahar knows all too well how dangerous the vast amounts of water can be, and yet she takes the risk of living on the water's edge, hoping to become the owner of the reclaimed land. Under the unwritten laws of the nomads of the tides, the government will eventually turn over ownership of reclaimed land to the first to successfully take possession of it.

A gust of wind envelopes Nahar in a cloud of fine dust. The wind has changed direction and is now blowing from the south. The dry season, which typically lasts from November to April, is coming to an end.

Taming Monster Rivers
A southerly wind is a sign of the coming summer monsoon, a time when Gerard Pichel's efforts will be put to a test. The Dutch engineer is trying to tame the rivers that swell into wild monsters during the monsoon.

Pichel is on his way to the Jamuna, as the Brahmaputra is called on the Bangladeshi side of the border. A hydrologist with DHV, an engineering firm from the central Dutch city of Amersfoort, Pichel, in a joint project with the Ministry of Water Resources in Dhaka, has secured the riverbank with dikes and two jetties protruding into the river at right angles. The last monsoon flood ripped off parts of the bulwark. 'A similar disaster cannot be allowed to happen this time,' says Pichel.

The Bangladeshis built the jetties at a right angle and not an oblique angle. As a result, the side facing the current is exposed to the full force of the water. 'We made the same mistake in Holland in the past,' says Pichel, shaking his head. 'But one shouldn't have to make the same mistake twice.'

He has already discovered annoying hydraulic engineering mistakes along the entire drive cross-country from Dhaka to the Jamuna: bridge openings that are too small, improperly dimensioned water-retaining structures. Besides, a lot of money is being spent on the wrong investments. The state-owned airline has just announced plans to spend more than $1 billion (€650 million) on new aircraft. For the same amount of money, millions of people could be saved from flooding. In fact, many things would be possible. Skillful engineers have developed ways to harness nature, with a well-placed dam, for example, forcing the river to deposit sediments along its edges. According to Pichel, the technology is 'faster than any dredger and costs nothing.'

But, as it happens, the dam has to be built manually. The scenarios unfolding before Pichel's eyes are reminiscent of the construction of the Pyramids. Using a wooden stretcher, sweat-drenched men drag blocks of stone from a junk, stumble across a bamboo plank from the ship to the dike, and drop the stone into the water.

For Pichel, climate change merely presents another engineering challenge. Besides, Indians, not global warming, are largely responsible for Bangladesh's acute flooding problems.

The country's much larger neighbor has built giant dams to harness its mega-rivers. As a result, the Indians are intervening in an equilibrium that is critical for Bangladesh. 'The less water that flows from the north toward the sea, the farther the sea water penetrates up the rivers,' says Pichel. The fatal outcome is salinization of fields in the south and lower crop yields.

Precisely the opposite happens during the monsoon period. To protect themselves against river flooding, the Indians open their locks, which causes flooding downstream in Bangladesh.

Climate change could cause additional melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, leading to even higher water levels in the rivers. 'But that would be practically marginal compared with Bangladesh's current flooding problems,' says Pichel.

Knowledge about the dangers of climate change hasn't yet reached the flat new strip of land in the Bay of Bengal. 'I did hear the men in the city talking about something like that once,' says Shamsun Nahar, the farmer on her little piece of reclaimed land in Hatia.

Nahar isn't sure which is worse: the whims of nature or those of human beings. Some time ago, some men from Dhaka showed up with false documents and a group of thugs, and drove her neighbors from their strip of land. 'Who protects us?' she asks rhetorically. 'No one!'

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

First published in Der Speigel, May 12, 2008

Telenor, Peace Prize winner caught in labour scandal

Telenor officials, with chief executive Jon Fredrik Baksaas at center, admit they have failed to adequately monitor working conditions at GrameenPhone's suppliers.
PHOTO: SVEIN ERIK FURULUND


NINA BERGLUND

A DANISH TV documentary has revealed miserable working conditions and environmental violations at companies in Bangladesh that act as suppliers to GrameenPhone, which is co-owned by Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor and firms founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

It's an embarrassing labour scandal for Telenor, which itself is majority-owned by the government of Norway, a country that prides itself on championing fair labour conditions and human rights.

It also reflects poorly on Grameen Telecom and Grameen Bank, which own 38 percent of GrameenPhone (Telenor has 62 percent) and which were founded by Peace Prize-winner Yunus not least to help lift people in Bangladesh out of abject poverty through the micro-credit system.

The documentary, made by Danish journalist Tom Heinemann and to be aired on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday evening, reveals shocking working conditions at the firms supplying GrameenPhone. Employees were shown working with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals virtually without protection. Workers were as young as 13 years, a clear violation of child labour laws. The firms were caught allowing polluted wastewater to spill into nearby rice fields.
And in one case, a worker was killed when he fell into an unsecured pool of acid.

Telenor, clearly believing that the best defense is a good offense, opted to reveal some of the findings of the documentary even before it was aired. Telenor officials claim they were shaken by the documentary's findings, and admit they failed to adequately monitor the operations of GrameenPhone's suppliers.

"We are deeply moved by the case, and the human side of it," Telenor chief executive Jon Fredrik Baksaas told reporters. He called the labour violations "completely unacceptable," claiming Telenor had trained the firms in health and safety issues. "But we've clearly been bad about following up afterwards," Baksaas admitted.

He neglected to mention the worker fatality, but confirmed it when questioned by a reporter from Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

Telenor and the Norwegian state have generated huge profits on GrameenPhone, which has as many as 20 million customers, but Baksaas said he didn't feel badly that the operation earns a lot on the work of poor employees. "We haven't taken out substantial dividends on what we've earned in Bangladesh," Baksaas said. "The money has gone into investments that are building up the country."

Norway's government minister in charge of business and industry, Dag Terje Andersen, wrote in an e-mail to Aftenposten that the working conditions shown in the documental "assuming they are accurate, clearly are unacceptable."

Andersen claimed, however, that Telenor has worked actively for years to make its own ethical regulations part of all operations, also those at suppliers. "It looks like the follow-up on the part of Telenor was inadequate," he wrote. Telenor has since conducted inspections at five suppliers of mobile telephone masts, and has fired one of them.

Telenor and Yunus have been involved in a long-simmering conflict over ownership of GrameenPhone. Yunus has wanted Telenor to reduce its stake. #

Photos Telenor: (Above) The documentary shows miserable working conditions at several firms supplying Telenor-owned GrameenPhone. Hard-hats were donned when Telenor came to inspect. (Below) Telenor's Baksaas with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Together, they own GrameenPhone, although Yunus has wanted Telenor to reduce its stake.

First published in Aftenposten (News from Norway), May 14, 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Too little, too late for democratic roadmap for Bangladesh

SALEEM SAMAD

ON THE eve of the military installed interim government’s chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed’s crucial address to the nation was interpreted in a first-page commentary by Nayeemul Islam Khan in a Bangladesh newspaper Amader Shomoy, that it would be a “landmark speech” and hopes it would be a “magna carta” for the Bangalee nation.

Millions at home and thousands Bangladeshi immigrants abroad glued themselves on TV screens for live broadcast of the chief adviser which was expected to give clear direction regarding transition to democratic road map.

In fact the over-zealous military bulldozed the constitutional means of transition to democracy in January 2007, fired the caretaker government, declared state of emergency and of course installed an interim government with hand-picked advisers they hire and fire.

Well the much ado Monday speech to the nation was too little and too late for restoration of democracy. Though the election has been planned days after the Victory Day celebration in December, the chief adviser deliberately avoided any commitment about the deadline to withdraw the dreaded emergency.

It seems that the chief adviser was cruel about the aspiration of the people at large and instead advised the political parties should not to question the results of the general elections. When the “Election Commission, which has already made itself controversial through various actions and inactions and whose credibility remains eminently questionable,” remarks an editorial in New Age.

Despite passionate request to withdraw emergency rule by political parties, the adviser have made it clear that the emergency has come to stay. But was benevolent to relax or suspend certain provisions of the Emergency Powers Rules as and when his government deemed it fit.

Aptly said by a university teacher that the withdrawal of emergency is a prerequisite for dialogue, which has disappointed the nation. The political concessions laid out to the nation is a political farce.

1. The long-running ban on indoor politics all across the country will ease from May 13.
2. The government will start dialogue with political parties, starting on May 22. The Chief Adviser's Office will send out invitation letters to political parties from Tuesday.
3. The government will either relax or suspend certain provisions in the emergency powers rules to facilitate electioneering and create a proper context for the polls.
4. Ahead of elections, the government will form a national charter with the opinions of all related parties, which is meant to bring a qualitative change to government and politics.


In a bid to create a “congenial atmosphere” for elections, the indoor politics would continue to be “indoors”. With conditions attached there are half a dozen do’s and don’ts which flouts the constitutional provision of freedom of assembly and fundamental rights. The political parties cannot assemble more than 50 people during indoor activities. The meeting agenda will discuss organisational issues only. They cannot use public address system. Media cannot broadcast live of the political events. The venue of meetings is limited to designated places. Lastly the party have to inform the nearest police station at least 48 hours before the event. Possibly to ensure transparency of indoor politics! Well Ahmed could have said it.

He did not mention the names nor indirectly referred the two women leaders Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina languishing in prisons. Well he also did not hint whether the interim government has dropped the “minus-two” formula. He failed to mention their status of standing trial for corruptions and extortions. Even he did not indicate whether they could be invited for the political dialogue. Also it is not clear whether they can participate in the planned election in end of this year. A total blackout!

Fakhruddin said, "The precondition of a meaningful, free, fair and acceptable election was checking black money and muscle power, establishing the rule of law, conducting an anti-corruption drive, improving law and order and, above all, making state institutions effective and dynamic."

Whereas the Brussels based International Crisis Group recent report in April 2008 states: The caretaker government, along with the international community, must take credible steps to restore democracy to Bangladesh ahead of the December 2008 general elections.

His dramatic words “golden opportunity” and “golden future” for the nation has been marred in the wake of series of failure to break the culture of criminalisation of politics, institutionalisation of corruption, organised crime, money laundering, and accumulation of black money, and punish profiteering traders.

Ahmed for obvious reasons avoided whether the dialogue would have open-ended agenda to ensure guaranteed transition to democracy.

It is understood from insiders that “National Charter” to reach a consensus would be the guideline for dialogue with mainstream political parties and allies. Failure to comply with the charter, the political parties and party leaders would be punished, banished and barred. It is game of snake and ladder!

Instead of the so-called National Charter, the authority could have developed a Commission for Integrity of the Democratically Elected Public Representatives, which could have been a bible for politicians and elected leaders in public offices. Thus refrain from exercising threats and coercion from the top on reforms of political parties.

From Ahmed’s words it is understood that the authorities ceased “implementation of an internal reform of the political parties voluntarily.” He further said that the nation expects implementation of the expected reform for providing the nation with democratic behaviour, honest, efficient and dynamic leadership.

When the international watchdogs and donor consortiums are demanding for a credible election, the caretaker government's main aim, according to the chief adviser, was to hold a "free, fair, neutral and acceptable election and start a post-election healthy democratic system".

The piece de resistance of his speech came when he claimed that his government was committed to establishing the rule of law. With the people’s fundamental rights suspended under a state of emergency, complaints galore of the judiciary not being allowed to function freely, mass media forced to work in a suffocating environment created by illegal interference almost on a routine basis by a security intelligence agency, such talks surely come as empty rhetoric, writes an editorial in New Age, an English language daily published from capital Dhaka.

Meanwhile the editors and journalist’s professional bodies on the eve of the address to the state by Chief Adviser underlined a red area in exercising their profession and remarked "invisible, unwritten pressure and control over the media". The journalists expressed their indignation over the looming crisis the media is going through during the state of emergency.

Notwithstanding Ahmed hoped that after his address all questions, suspicious and speculations centering election will come to an end. But political observers understand that the real motive and intention of the military backed authorities will further deepen. The political parties are pushed into a corner, like a whisker-cat trapping a mouse, when the delimitation have been drawn in the political bout. The road to democracy has in fact has come to a difficult cross road of military rule, emergency and economic stagnation. The speculation and suspicions will obviously gather moss, which will turn into a political crisis. #

First published in E-Bangladesh.org, May 13, 2008

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow - a journalist best known for his investigative reporting on military oppression in CHT and Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh. Currently living in exile in Canada for his articles in Time, Tehelka.com, Daily Times. He specializes on intelligence, security, conflict, Islamic militancy in South Asia. He is currently
editor of DurDesh.net

Monday, May 05, 2008

Is Bangladesh becoming Islam hater?

Photo: Radical mullahs engaged in violent protest against equal rights to women in Bangladesh development policy document

SUNITA PAUL

IT SHOULD be like a fresh breeze for the anti-religion, secular, Communists and non believers in the world to note that, for past several weeks, Bangladesh government is continuing to push an issue related to women´s rights, which according to religious clergies and believers are against the commandments of Koran. But, it must frighten a larger section of the global family to think that such tendencies only would open new avenues for Islamist militancy to grow as well as militancy in the name of religion.

For last several days, Bangladeshi press is rather filled with news, commentaries, statements and counter statements on the issue of National Women Development Policy.

According to latest news from Dhaka, the Ulema Committee formed to review the National Women Development Policy has strongly opposed equal rights to women, recommending deletion of six sections of the policy and amending 15 others as they said these sections "clash" with the provisions of the Koran and Sunnah.

There are several sections in the policy which are "very objectionable", said Mufti Mohammad Nuruddin, acting khatib (Grand Clergie) of Baitul Mukarram National Mosque who headed the review committee.

"A woman cannot enjoy rights equal to a man's because a woman is not equal to a man by birth. Can there be two prime ministers--one male and one female--in a country at the same time?" Nuruddin told press after submitting the seven-page report to Law and Religious Affairs Adviser AF Hassan Ariff on Thursday.

The 20-member committee asked the government to clarify the phrase "women's equal rights to earned movable and immovable properties" and follow Islamic provisions on inheritance if the earned properties include inherited properties.

Suggesting inclusion of guidelines "in the light of the KOran and Sunnah" while taking any decision regarding women's rights, the ulema recommended abolishing the section that suggests steps to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Asking the government to withdraw Bangladesh from the convention, they said many sections in it go against the belief, spirits and culture of the Muslim ummah.

The ulema committee also opposed and asked the government to eliminate the provision for keeping reserved seats for women in parliament and local government bodies and direct elections to those.

"This policy has strongly hurt the pious Muslims of the country since many sections of it clash with the Koran and Sunnah...It does not go with Bangladesh's constitution, religious traditions and culture," the report concludes.

Adviser Hassan Ariff expressed hopes that the recommendations will remove the "language or interpretation gap" created surrounding the Women Development Policy.

The committee members did not support the attempts by a section of opportunists to create chaos by taking advantage of the situation, he told reporters.

The Recommendation:
The committee said 15 sections of the National Women Development Policy are against Islam and should be revised or corrected while six sections should be eliminated.

The Islamic scholars said not only is it impossible to establish equal rights for men and women in the country, but in some cases, giving women equality would deprive them of their rights in many sectors.

They proposed replacing the phrase "equality, equal rights and affirmative action" with "just rights".

The committee also said the ambition of eradicating "existing disparities between women and men" is unclear and should be replaced by the phrase "existing disparities between women and men in light of the Koran and the Sunnah".

On the section that asks for giving women equal human and fundamental rights such as political, economic, social and cultural, they said "just rights" should be ensured for men and women in light of the Koran and Sunnah.

They said the government must ensure participation of ulema and muftis alongside women's law experts while drawing up or eliminating or amending any "existing discriminatory" law.

They proposed inclusion of religion experts in a committee to resolve any inconsistency regarding women's interest arising from misinterpretations of provisions of those religions.

They also opposed the provision of a child's being identified by both the mother and father, saying it "encourages sexual abuse" and pre-marital cohabitation. They recommended identifying a child by "legally married" parents.

The committee observed that the policy's proposed penalty for child marriages is not in line with Islamic policy as the legal marriage age of 18 should not apply here because Islam states that a girl can be married as soon as she has "come of age".

It recommended replacing the phrase "child marriage" of the section concerned with "discourage underage marriage".

The committee opposed inclusion of women in peacekeeping missions, saying it would make women insecure and it could tarnish Bangladesh's image. The ulema proposed canceling the provision.

They also opposed the provision that women "must be given equal opportunities and participation in wealth, employment, market and business", saying it clashes with the Koran's teachings. They proposed giving women equal opportunities and participation in these sectors in light of religious dictums.

The committee specifically said one's inheritance rights should be determined by their own religions.

The ulema asked the government to cancel the initiative to reserve one-third parliamentary seats for women to increase women's participation in parliament and its application in local elections.

A few Islamist parties started staging demonstrations immediately after the chief adviser announced the National Women Development Policy 2008 on March 8.

On March 11, the law adviser told the ulema that the caretaker government had not passed any law regarding inheritance and there is nothing that contradicts the Quran and Sunnah.

The next day, Women and Children Affairs Adviser Rasheda K Choudhury asked people to refrain from unnecessary criticism of a progressive document like the policy without going through it.

On March 27, the government formed the 20-member committee to identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and suggest steps.

Commenting on reactions from the devotee in Bangladesh on government´s initiatives in amending the law to provide ´enhanced´ rights to women, Dhaka´s leading English language newspaper The Daily Star wrote "It was a pathetic sight. It was a despicable display of use of a religious and venerated place by the so-called protagonists of Islam, to vent their anger at the government.

What we witnessed last Friday, inexplicable acts of violence and vandalism, by people believing that whatever they were doing was to safeguard the interest of Islam. Their protest was against what they believed to be certain provisions of the recently declared women's policy being inconsistent with the provisions of Islam related to the issue.

What they failed to realize was that their violent behavior was itself inconsistent with the teachings of the religion whose interest they were claiming to protect. Little did they realize that their vandalism had done little to enhance the image of Islam, if anything, their actions, beamed worldwide on the electronic media, have helped reinforce the misperception of those that are disposed to see Islam as an intemperate religion where violence happens to be the only expression of dissent and no room is ever given to those perceived as opposed to their views. Mosques become bastions of protests -- a result of malicious thoughts demonstrated through depraved actions.

Their actions have served Islam very badly and must have made those that are prone to paint Bangladesh as a country going down the road to radicalism very happy indeed. Ignorance and wrong political motivation have much to do with all that transpired on the Friday afternoon, which witnessed pitched confrontation against the law enforcing agency directed by alleged supporters of some Islamic parties, although I am loathe to believe that those we saw on the street wielding bamboo staffs and throwing brickbats at the police, are actually what they claim to be, and I am even less convinced that the party that they claim to belong to really believes in the tenets of Islam and the teachings of the Holy Prophet.

One is at a loss to reason what their protest was about. If it was against the said policy, which its opponents believe proposed equal share in the inheritance rights of both men and women, then there is enough ground to believe that it is either ignorance or some other ulterior motives that have motivated these people to resort to violence.

On both counts there are reasons to be concerned. There is nothing worse than actions, particularly destructive ones, initiated on the basis of wrong premise or ignorance of facts. The situation is more compounded when the issue is one that has to do with the deep-seated belief and practice of the majority people of the country.

If there are other compulsions stemming from ulterior motives that led to them resorting to the hostile acts, merely legal actions against the perpetrators of the violence is not enough. What is it that they want to achieve and what is the benefit that they would want to derive from an already unstable situation caused by a degree of political uncertainty and spiraling prices in the country?

But if these radical elements are responsible for the violence that we saw, the government must also shoulder its share of responsibility for allowing the situation to develop in the way it has in the first place, and then to see it pass last Friday.

Since the policy was declared -- a policy that is not this government's brainchild, but an inheritance from the past regimes, expressions of dissent were heard from the religious parties in the country. And to my mind these were based on misperception of the provisions that they believed were in contravention of certain Islamic decrees. And in this regard I have no reason not to take the advisor for religious affairs at her words when she said in unequivocal terms that the proposed policy does not have anything that is anti-Shariah. And it is only a policy and not a proposed ordinance. However, one must admit that reports, appearing in certain newspapers the day after the announcement regarding the proposed policy was made, did convey the impression that there were indeed certain provisions that were inconsistent with the existing Islamic law. But that was clarified subsequently by the relevant advisor.


And that is what begs the question. Why did the government fail to convince those that were apprehensive about the proposed policy? And why is it that it did not take adequate measures to dissuade or prevent these parties from taking precipitate action that they were threatening they would take, following the announcement of the proposed policy?

The handling of two matters has raised questions about the government capability to address serious issues.

The undue haste with which the government constituted a committee formed of religious scholars gave one the impression that it was not sure about the substance of the policy. That it did not anticipate the reactions that it might generate suggests that adequate time was not given to study the issue. One wonders whether it was for this government to announce a policy that required to be studied in details before it was finally formulated. And if inputs of the Alems are being sought now why were they not sought during its formulation and before it was announced?

Its handling of the religious parties has raised the question whether the government is not too soft on them. While holding of public demonstration under the EPR is prohibited, these parties seem to do it without any hindrance. Not only in the recent instance, on a few previous occasions too, demonstrations organized by some religious parties were allowed to traverse many kilometers of the road despite police presence. One would like to ask why these elements were allowed to stage demonstrations last Friday outside Bait-ul-Mukarram in the first place. And it is from these demonstrators that the attack on the police was launched initially, before the mayhem started, lasting almost 3 hours.

There may be genuine reservations about the policy. And many that have doubts about it are not all radicals. If there are suspicions about the provisions than there is a more Islamic way, a more civilized way of addressing it -- and that is through dialogue. And the government must initiate a discussion on the issue without delay or make public the proposed policy in its entirety.

But for the government it is important, too, to remove the public perception about its being tough on some political parties while softening its attitude towards others."

A number of socio-cultural organizations, political parties and non-government organizations (NGO) have demanded cancellation of the committee formed to review the Women Development Policy 2008 and immediate implementation of the policy.

Samajik Protirodh Committee at a protest meeting yesterday urged the chief adviser to implement the Women Development Policy after canceling the review committee, ban political activities in religious institutions, and clarify the stance of the government on the matter. Dr Hamida Hossain presided over the meeting held at the Central Shaheed Minar. It may be mentioned here that, Dr. Hamida Hossain is the wife of Dhaka´s eminent lawyer Dr. Kamal Hossain.

Karmojibi Nari has also demanded cancellation of the review committee and implementation of the policy. It also urged the government to initiate trial of war criminals after forming a special tribunal.

Organization President Shirin Akhter (member of a left win political party too) and General Secretary Sharmin Kabir (active member of Bangladesh Socialist Party) in a joint statement said, "The Women Development Policy is a significant step by the current government for establishing equal rights and respect for women. But the fundamentalists and war criminals in the country are opposing the policy terming it an anti-Islam policy."

Workers' Party of Bangladesh (believing in Socialism and Communism) has condemned the review committee's recommendations for omitting six sections and amending 15 others of the Women Development Policy. It also called upon the government to implement the policy for establishing the rights of women.

"When the entire nation is vocal about trial of war criminals, a certain quarter is trying to create anarchy in the country in the name of religion," the party politburo said in a statement. The Workers' Party urged the government to take actions against those responsible for instigating violence near the Baitul Mukarram Mosque.

Samajtantrik Mohila Forum (another leftist organization) has condemned the move for amending 15 sections and bringing changes in the Women Development Policy.

Those who oppose the idea of establishing equal rights for men and women are against the democratic rights, it said in a statement.

A faction of the Bangladesh Islami Oikkyo Jote (IOJ) yesterday demanded that the government ban all kinds of meeting and procession in front of the Baitul Mukarrum Mosque and its adjoining areas.

"The so-called Islamic scholars backed by war criminals dishonored the national mosque while staging protest against the Women Development Policy," IOJ chairman Misbahur Rahman Chowdhury told reporters at the party office in the city's Motijheel.

The IOJ chairman demanded removal of the home adviser for failing to ensure security of the people who went to the mosque to offer prayer. He said Director General of Islamic Foundation Fazlur Rahman must be removed for allowing political activities in the national mosque.

Now, my readers have seen with interest that most of the organization voicing in favor of the proposed law on rights of women are basically leftists and Communists. But, why an Islamist like Misbahur Rahman Chowdhury also joined that queue? This man was a front ranking figure opposing the war of independence of Bangladesh. After the liberation of the country in 1971, Misbahur reportedly took part in numerous social and otherwise crimes, including grabbing of properties of religious minority groups. His party is the most minimal segment of mainstream politics in Bangladesh, having the ability of hardly getting a single seat in any of the future elections. But, now, he wants to become either a scape goat or lapdog of leftists, seculars and Communists to salvage his own entity from a possible disaster if Bangladesh begins trying the war criminals.

An extremely complicated situation is gradually getting ripe in Bangladesh. Already some elements are continuing to conspire to push the entire nation towards confrontation-turned Civil War by raising the issue of trying War Criminals. I have already discussed this matter in previous write up. Now another section in the same society is trying to push the believers and non-believers towards bloody confrontation.

Does Bangladeshi government really understand or at least assume the ultimate result of such situation? I think they don´t. That is why, a very well orchestrated effort is continuing in the country to ultimately prove Bangladesh to be a country in civil war.

There is anyway no argument on the fact that terrorism (be it religious or otherwise) is a crime against humanity, and its aim is to spread fear in society by killing innocent people. Unfortunately, we live in a time when violence, hostility, vandalism, sabotage and greed have become common phenomena. Innocent people's lives have become valueless in most cases. Terrorism has threatened peace and security in societies as well countries around the globe.

Different ideologies have resorted to terrorism in the past. In 1794, Robespierre first used terrorism by sending thousands of people to the guillotines. From 1870, the racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the United States ruthlessly used violence, oppressing African Americans and other religious, social or ethnic groups. Racial terrorism came to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Nazis implemented a bloody policy of terror against those whom they thought were opposed to their ideology, beginning with Jews.

The term terrorism came into wide usage only a few decades ago. One of the unfortunate results of this new terminology is that it limits the definition of terrorism to small groups or individuals. Terrorism, in fact, spans the entire world, and manifests itself in various forms. Its perpetrators don't fit any stereotype. An individual, irrespective of his or her religious belief, who blows himself or herself up on a civilian bus or in any other place, has committed an act of terrorism.

I know, the believers in general are against terrorism and they even confront religious extremism and religious hatred. But, in Bangladesh, if you look into the statements of those anti-believer political elements or news media, you may start believing that, in fact Islam is the problem and all Muslims are rogue people. No, this is not any campaign carried by any American or even Israeli media. This is how Bangladeshi media is continuing a massive media war on believers. Although Dhaka always feel inclined in continuing to maintain its anti-Semitic sentiment for years, it is really according avenue for some Communists, leftists, seculars and non-believers in spreading poison against Islam, Muslim and faiths through political statements or newspaper commentaries. And you know what? Bangladesh Awami League has also joined the voice of non-believers by expressing open solidarity to anti-faith actions continuing in Dhaka. #

First published in American Chronicle, April 18, 2008 Sunita Paul was born in 1952 in an affluent family in Kochin, India. She obtained her twice Masters in Political Science and journalism. Later she worked with a number of research institutions and started writing for nuemrous newspapers and periodicals in India and overseas. In recent times, her works have appeared in Sunday Ledger, African Times, Global Politician, Jerusalem Post, Women's World, Insight Magazine, Europe Post, The Asian Tribune, Countercurrents, American Thinker, Intelligence Reporteur etc. She could be reached penofsunita@gmail.com