Sunday, June 29, 2008

SAARC can act as one on climate change

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

BANGLADESH WILL return to the democratic process as soon as feasible and all political parties, government, and general people will be united forgetting all enmity to take the country forward. India's government and its communist allies will find a suitable solution over a civilian nuclear deal with the United States to continue their coalition in the parliament. To lessen tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan over Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s comment’s that he will send troops to Pakistan to attack militants; both countries will sit to resolve the problems through dialogue.

But climate is not something that we can fix whenever we want. Because most climate models predict gradual future changes to climate, related to the steadily increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and carbon emissions. But ice and sediment core records reveal that, in the past, climate has changed abruptly - possibly in as little as 10 to 20 years. Such rapid change in the future could make prevention and adaptation strategies difficult and expensive to implement.

We are altering the environment far faster than we can possibly predict the consequences. Comparable climate shifts have happened before, but over tens of centuries, not tens of years. The unprecedented rapid change could accelerate the already high rate of species extinction as plants and animals fail to adapt quickly enough. For the first time in history, humans are affecting the ecological balance of not just a region but the entire world, all at once.

The alarmists in the global warming debate have had their say--over and over again, in every newspaper in the country practically every day and in countless news reports and documentary films. They have dominated the media’s coverage of this issue. There in an increasing need for governments, organizations, businesses, and even individuals to understand and help tackle the issue as climate change is one of the biggest challenges we are facing today.

In view of the growing demand to form a regional action plan for adaptation to climate change and mobilizing funds for the purpose, environment ministers of South Asia are going to sit for the first-ever such meeting in Dhaka on July 3, 2008. Before that, according to the 29th session of the SAARC’s (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) council of ministers in New Delhi in December, 2007, an expert-level meeting will be preceded on July 1 and 2, who will make an in-depth assessment of the probable impact of climate change on the region and will suggest measures to tackle the situation through regional cooperation. A fund titled “Fund for Climate Change” has also been proposed to seek funds from donor agencies whose representatives have been invited to the meeting.

Climate change effects on everyday, everywhere. Hundreds of people were reported dead and a passenger ferry MV Princess of Stars having onboard around 700 passengers and 121 crew members were capsized due to typhoon Frank (Fengshen) in Philippine on June 22, 2008. Kansas, Indiana, and Iowa had been heavily affected by floods on June 6-13, 2008. Rising flood waters swamped the central US river city, forcing residents to flee their homes and officials to abandon city hall amid a wider crisis that had left 20 dead. On November 15, 2007, the category 4 cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh uprooted more than 3,153 lives and unknown number of homes.

Humans are changing the Earth's climate so fast and devouring resources so voraciously that the survival of the world's ecosystems and of humanity itself is at stake. According to the German Scientists, the climate will be changing more quickly in this century than it ever has in the recent history of the earth. Besides various organizations of UN body, governments of different countries, non-government organizations, scientists, or individuals, many regional organizations throughout the world are now working together to cope with climate change as most of the times in any natural disaster, neighbouring countries in the region are usually effected.

2008 will be a decisive year in the battle against climate change. Hopefully, it will see us forge an international consensus so an agreement can be reached in Copenhagen in 2009 that will allow us to build on the Kyoto Protocol. Although there are many disputes among them, but one of the main themes and objectives of the 34th G8 summit, which is to take place in Tokyo, Japan on July 7-9, 2008, is environment and climate change. The economic impact of climate change, rising food prices, and a broad range of other trade, growth and development issues were discussed at this year's OECD’s Ministerial Council Meeting at OECD headquarters in Paris on 4-5 June 2008. World leaders will lay the groundwork for a global agreement through the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Puzon, Poland on December 1-12, 2008.

After a two-day summit in Brussels, Belgium on March 14, 2008, EU (European Union) leaders declared an ambitious plan to fight climate change and agreed to implement a 20% cut in greenhouse gases by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. The EU leaders also agreed to consider cutting value-added tax (VAT) on environmentally-friendly domestic products, which aims to increase the use of so-called green goods. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged the 26 member nations to bear climate change in mind as one of the key elements as it will lead to international tensions and conflicts over resources, water, farming lands and will also increase migration.

According to the World Bank climate change expert Richard Damania, the poorest of the poor in South Asia are the most impacted by climate change. The impacts of higher temperatures, more extreme weather events such as floods, cyclone, severe drought, and sea level rise are already felt in South Asia and will continue to intensify. “We are going to see the wet parts of South Asia become wetter causing flooding and affecting more people. We will also see the arid areas getting drier. This will hurt the poor the most,” he said.

Bangladesh is set to disappear under the waves by the end of the century, said US government’s NASA space agency. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that Bangladesh is on course to lose 17 per cent of its land and 30 per cent of its food production by 2050. The country has already begun to feel the effects of the climate change as flood periods have become longer and the cyclones that hit the country cause greater devastation. As sea-levels rise, the IPCC warned that 35m refugees could flee Bangladesh's flooded delta by 2050.

The impact of climate change on India, a hotter and poorer country, is likely to be worse. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, India's agriculture will suffer more than any other country's. Assuming a global temperature increase of 4.4°C over cultivated areas by 2080, India's agricultural output is projected to fall by 30-40%.

The 2004 tsunami is the deadliest in recorded history. In the aftermath of the quake resultant tsunami waves killed over 280,000 people in towns and villages along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. Over 3 million survivors had their livelihoods destroyed. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Somalia were affected. It killed over 40000 people in Sri Lanka. Thousands of those missing were never recovered. Sri Lanka expects that over the next two decades the sea-level will rise by half a meter with dry areas becoming drier and wet areas becoming wetter, leading to floods in some areas and drought in others.

Maldives, which is made up of 1191 islands, is a very low-lying island nation. During the past decade, the sea on average in the Maldives has risen by one millimetre every year; that means one centimetre in ten years. Since 80% of its islands are no more than 1m above sea level, within 100 years the Maldives could become uninhabitable.

Governments of these regional countries are trying to find some way to address the climate change. For the first time, government of Bangladesh allocated BDT 300 crore to create a special fund for enhancing public adaptability to face the challenges of climate change. India has adopted a vaunted policy, the National Action Plan on Climate Change and formed a powerful council of ministers, bureaucrats, scientists, and businessmen to co-operate on the issue.
Recently, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in Sri Lanka launched a Climate Change Secretariat and the Sri Lanka Carbon Fund. Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency is working to improve and protect the environment. But together, they can take a common stance on the climate change issue.

No doubt to say that SAARC is too important and could be more effective for its geopolitical relationship with surrounding countries and emerge as regional strength. But since its inception on December 8, 1985, SAARC has not been able to take up such critical issues. It has shown little concern for the regional political crisis that climate change threatens. #

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Trend of Silent Genocide: Institutional oppressions on Bangladesh religious minorities

MANIK PAUL

THE BASIC tenets of a civilized society are human rights, democracy and religious freedom. These are all potentially in danger in Bangladesh at the hands of the religious extremists, those who have been working in tandem to transform Bangladesh into Taliban model Islamic theocracy.

Human rights is the basic rights and freedoms to which all human being are entitled irrespective of their colors, faiths, languages and races. Atrocities against Bangladesh religious minorities in the form of violence, intimidations, killings, gang rape, forcible conversion and deprivation from ancestral homesteads have been taking place since long but systematically, institutionally and silently.

It is extremely alarming that the instruments of minority repression have been gaining strength and more legitimacy with the support of governmental institutions and a few political parties.

Minorities are always been targeted to brutal persecution in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, as a matter of general practice the society look into the issue as ‘tolerable atrocities’. The international journal “The Economist” described the plight of the minorities as – “Bangladesh’s minorities are safe only in the departure lounge”.

We should acknowledge that these are the heinous crimes against humanity. These are the crimes intent to vanish a vast population of a religious minority group from their motherland. Considering the number of effected victims it is one of the largest silent genocide of the 21st century.

Let me explain, why this issue is labelled as “Silent Genocide”. According to the Article 6 of the International Criminal Court Statute, The crime involves, "any acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. I think the definition is very clear and "intent to destroy" is a requirement for any act to be labelled as genocide.

At this point, I would like to discuss how an infamous legislative instrument is still being used as a tool of oppression to raze out minority population from their homeland.

Enemy Property Act, a criminal law was implemented by the Government of Pakistan against its own Hindu citizens during Indo-Pak war in 1965. That infamous decree allowed the Pakistan government to confiscate property from any Hindu deemed as an enemy of the state.

Unfortunately, even emergence of secular Bangladesh couldn’t do anything better than to rename “Enemy Property” as “Vested property”. Ironically, same infamous decree found its way to become an instrument of persecution of Hindu population in the independent Bangladesh.
Research shows, in its 40 years of existence, Hindu minorities have been dispossessed of more than 2.5 millions acres land through this discriminatory law. Total 62% of Hindu families in Bangladesh have been affected by the Enemy Property Act. In fact, in 70’s my family was also dispossessed from our ancestral homestead.

Now, Bangladesh is an independent country, meaning Bangladesh is neither a part nor a successor of Pakistan since March 26, 1971. Also neither Bangladesh nor India declared any war against each other. Therefore the question is that, how enemy of Pakistan becomes the enemy of Bangladesh and for what purpose other than persecution do these laws remain in force? Logically, properties of Rajakars could have been declared enemy properties as they were the enemies of independent Bangladesh at the time of liberation war.

Let us see, who are the beneficiaries of this legislative decree? Prof.Abul Barkat, an economist of Bangladesh, says - Political elements, locally influential people in collaboration with the land administration, use of force, fake documentation, death or exile of original owners have contributed to the phenomenon. Ironically, beneficiaries of the land grab through the act cut across all political party lines. Prof. Barkat showed, most of the direct beneficiaries of appropriated properties are affiliated by the major political parties.

It is important to focus on major human rights violation issue against minority women and children. Such violation seriously undermines the human dignity and values which is incomparable with the loss of properties or human lives. Since last two decades, rapes of minority women and children have extensively been using as a tool of oppression. Most of the time, perpetrators are backed by the law enforcement and judiciary personals and also aided by the local political elites and fundamentalists.

Through 1991 and 2001 election victory, BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition developed a gang-rape culture where minority women and children were the potential victims. Scores of minority women were raped. In some cases, they were gang raped in front of their relatives. A caretaker government supported by the United Nations and European Union came to the power on January 11, 2007 with the promise to eradicate the Islamic extremisms and political corruptions to revert Bangladesh to a secular and pluralistic democracy. Over a year and a half have passed but no any action has yet been taken to stop minority persecution or reverse the ongoing gang-rape culture.

Only last month alone, seven cases of gang-rapes and abductions were reported. In all incidences, Police were reluctant to register cases. Nevertheless, they insisted the victims to cooperate the perpetrators. These are a few of numerous unreported gang-rape incidences in Bangladesh.

After the assassination of the founding Father Bangabandu Sheikh Majibur Rahman in 1975, the campaign of religious and ethnic minority persecutions resumed with pre-1971 level of intensity. It was officially licensed through the 5th and 8th amendments of the constitution. On June 9, 1988, Islam was declared to be the state religion which was perceived by the Islamic extremists as a license of minority repressions.

In 2006, Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities filed a writ before Bangladesh High Court for the protection of minorities. Despite the favourable ruling from country’s highest court, Bangladesh authority has not implemented the court order.

Statistics shows that minority population in the country was 38% in 1951 where as about 12% were estimated in 2006. If we consider the normal birth rate of the population, statistically missing minority population in Bangladesh since 1951 would be around 25 million till the date.

Definitely migration is not the solution of the problem. Progressive political parties and civil societies of Bangladesh have to work together with other civilised international communities to combat against fundamentalism and minority repressions.

A secular pluralistic democracy is necessary in Bangladesh to reverse the tides of the Islamic militancy and migration of minority population. Otherwise, Bangladesh will be turned into another Afghanistan in a short span of time.

I urge the European Parliament to exert influence on Bangladesh caretaker government to take necessary measures to save the soul of the 25 million minorities, before vanishing from their ancestral homeland. Your effective intervention in this continuing silent genocide is indispensable. #

The article is based in a speech delivered before the EU Parliament at the forum titled “SOS Bangladesh- Informal Hearing on the Alarming Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh” held on Thursday, June 12, 2008

Manik Paul is Executive Director, HRCBM-EU Directorate, Brussels, Belgium
email: hrcbm@skynet.be

For more information on HRCBM browse: http://www.hrcbm.org/

Local Government polls a challenge for EC

NIRMAL L. GOMES

RECENTLY THE Election Commission (EC) announced that local government polls to four city corporations and nine municipalities will be held on August 4. The caretaker government will relax controversial emergency powers rules (EPR) in respective areas allowing campaign processions and rallies.

In the mean time the nation’s largest political party Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP) have rejected the schedule for local-body elections, while Awami League (AL) termed it a 'conspiratorial and farcical move.” However, the other parties like Jatiya Party (Ershad) welcomed the decision to hold local government polls before the parliamentary elections, and also urged the government to declare the schedule for upazila elections too. It looks like that upcoming local government election has been predicted to be controversial by the political parties and civil society.

However, the caretaker government’s Chief Adviser (CA) and EC both are determined to hold local government polls, prior to general election as the CA announced a time-frame in his speech. Well there is a question to the national political parties - what do they want? What is in their mind? It is not wise for the political leaders to invite political chaos with an issue that nation will return prior to 1/11. It could be ascertained that the parties and concerned citizens do not want to go back to the 1/11. All parties and individuals strongly urge and commit to sustainability of democracy. It does not mean that the caretaker government and EC will hold elections that have been practiced for thirty six years. The CA and EC vow to hold the elections fair, neutral, and accepted to all. The political leaders often demand to hold the general election at the soonest and urge the government to handover power to the elected representatives. Of course, it must be in a democratic process, What kind of election the political parties and general citizens desire, that has to be spelled out.

Everyone has seen that the EC along with CA has been working towards to holding the polls as planned. It is a shame that till today the political parties have failed gather at a common platform to make a common decision for the sake of the nation’s future socio-economic and political issues. It looks like that the government gets very slow cooperation and positive response from the political parties and individuals that the caretaker government expected. Ultimately the result slows down the process of government activities. Negative attitudes of the political parities and individuals seems to be very unpleasant. However, the good and positive thing is that the government determines to hand over power to the elected representatives sooner or later.

Despite the political parties are against the holding of upazila election before parliamentary polls. But the upazila election is likely to be held before the national elections. Mixed opinions published in the various newspapers about the ensuing local government election. "The people want local-body elections before the parliamentary elections. But the political parties are saying it will hamper the roadmap on the parliamentary elections," indeed, “the Adviser said political parties in public are against the holding of local elections, but "whether there is any secret in their mind I don't know." Again the EC stressed that the "local government polls before the national elections would not hamper the roadmap.”

It seems that the EC could face challenges to hold the local government polls, but the great thing would be an experiment for the EC as the government and EC want to hold fair, neutral, accepted polls without any muscle power and black money. Experience of polling the local government election can be used in the general election. No doubt that the EC prepared and announced a high standard election gazette for local government elections. Now nation must wait and see--how strictly the rules are implemented and act before and after election as it has designed and announced.

Bangladesh has the dysfunctional democratic system for last thirty six years. The hundreds of rules of the previous governments and very few rules where properly implemented and acted by the government, law and enforcement, and citizens. The rules have been misused many a times and that’s result of the 1/11. General citizens believe that EC along with the caretaker government will be able to poll a model local government election that this experience can reinforce EC to held a better general election in December 2008 as it has announced the Chief Adviser. #

Nirmal L. Gomes is a freelance journalist, international scholar and a graduate (MA) student in Education specialising in Administration, Curriculum, Foundation, & Policy Studies in the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.
Email: Nirmalgomes@aol.com , Gomes@cua.edu

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bangladeshi rose from Child Labourer to Union Heavyweight

On the factory floor, an activist is born

EMILY WAX

WITH A rush of rain cooling the steamy night air, Nazma Akhter, 33, hurried through the muddy, narrow alleyways of one of Dhaka's many slums. Without knocking, Akhter, a trade union activist, strutted straight into the cramped home of a sewing machine operator.

The worker, a young mother of three who went by the name Nazma, had just returned from a long day at the factory, her lunch pail empty and swinging from her arm. She collapsed onto a sagging mattress, telling Akhter about the poor sanitary conditions at her garment factory, one of thousands in Bangladesh's biggest industry, and the need for an increase in wages.

Nearby, Nazma's husband, a gaunt rickshaw driver wearing a flowing sarong like lungi and chewed-up flip-flops, paced in front of the women, waiting for his wife to start cooking his supper. But he quickly got reprimanded.

"Cook dinner for your wife," commanded Akhter, president of Bangladesh's United Garment Workers Federation. "Your wife is working for the family from sunrise to sunset. It's time to thank her."

Looking defeated and slightly nervous, he quietly boiled water for rice and tea as the women continued their informal meeting.

With stern black eyes, a puff of mocha-coloured curly hair and a self-described "low tolerance for fools," Akhter is not afraid of confrontation. And these days, there is plenty of confrontation in Bangladesh.

With prices for food and other basic goods skyrocketing here and around the world, Akhter's role as a champion of labour is more important than ever. On behalf of workers, she campaigns for wage increases to make sure that staples such as rice and oil are affordable. In meetings with manufacturers, she presses for rice subsidies so that workers and their families don't go hungry. Her efforts have paid off, with several factory owners agreeing to demands.

While Bangladesh has reduced poverty in recent years, the rise in global food prices is threatening to set the country back again. Inflation has caused the purchasing power of the working poor to decrease by 36.7 percent since January 2007, pushing another 8.5 percent of the population below the poverty line, according to the Center for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka, the nation's capital. About half of Bangladesh's 150 million people are below the poverty line, according to government data.

"It's not humane the way things are going, and someone has to say it," Akhter said recently, as she sat cross-legged and spoke to a group of female factory workers.

Over the last five years, an estimated 2 million women have found employment in Bangladesh's thriving garment industry, altering family power dynamics and giving women a new sense of economic freedom.

Akhter started working in a clothing factory as a child when her father, a vegetable vendor, fell ill. The family of seven needed the income, she said, so she dropped out of the fourth grade. Her mother was already working at a nearby factory as a button maker.

At age 11, Akhter frequently drifted off to sleep during the 12-hour workdays, spent in front of a sewing machine. She was always thirsty, she said, because workers were allowed water breaks only twice a day.

"I still remember that cotton feeling in my mouth and just being so tired," she said, recalling how she once looked out the factory window and noticed wealthy children her age dressed in school uniforms and on their way to classes. "After that, it was something in me that snapped. I grew very angry."

After Akhter held a successful protest demanding clean drinking water at a factory, union organizers took notice. She was only 15, but they liked her feisty personality and knew she was popular with other female workers. She told the union organizers she would help them -- but only if they paid for her to go to school part time.

"It was my dream to be a teacher," she said, adding that she has always loved talking, especially in front of an audience. "But I never thought I would end up leading a union."

Over the years, she has fought for maternity leave, medical benefits, and drinking and bathroom breaks for workers. She also led the charge to stop child labour in the factories, often naming and shaming those companies that hired those younger than 18.

"What's amazing is that Nazma Akhter made it work. There's far less child labour now," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Women's Council, a civil society group. "Nazma's message is that women don't have to have an appeasement policy toward men or their bosses. They can fight."

Akhter has had her critics. She recalled being fired from various sewing jobs for being "difficult to work with, cranky and belligerent about poor conditions." But she was always rehired after staging public protests. Today, she is a full-time union organizer. She has traveled to the United States and Europe to meet with clothing companies to highlight work conditions.

"She's a force in Bangladesh. She's respected and also deeply feared, but in an important way," said SK Monowar Hossain, director of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association. The group represents 1,500 outlets, which contract with U.S. companies such as Gap, Target and Wal-Mart. "We have good contacts with her because she's honest and tells you exactly what she thinks."

At almost 10 p.m. in the neighbourhood Akhter visited on a recent night, women continued to travel home from factories on rickety bicycle rickshaws. They were seamstresses, textile cutters and sewing machine operators.

Akhter, with her list of unionized garment workers, scrambled after them, following the women home, sometimes yelling at husbands to clean or cook and always asking about their problems at the factory. #

First published in The Washington Post, USA, June 21, 2008; page-A08

Friday, June 20, 2008

Moeen's vision for order is contested by Bangladesh's political parties

Photograph for TIME by Helen Kudrich
General Command

ISHAAN THAROOR

TO REACH the office of General Moeen Uddin Ahmed in Dhaka's military cantonment, a foreign journalist must pass three security checkpoints and endure the searches of numerous stern soldiers. Broad-shouldered aides then lead you, with hushed solemnity and even a hint of fear, toward the chambers of their commander in chief. One would expect a grim, towering leader behind the headquarters' oak doors, but General Moeen is conspicuously diminutive and unassuming, hardly looking the part of the South Asian strongman he very well may be. Yet Moeen pulls few punches when speaking of his country's politics and its democracy's many failings. "No systems of government are bad in their own right," says Bangladesh's top-ranking military officer with a thin smile. "It's the human beings who make it so."

Little is known about the 55-year-old Moeen other than that he, more than anybody else in this nation of 150 million, is the man who holds the keys to its future. Over a year and a half ago, Moeen's army waded into a turbulent political crisis, postponed parliamentary elections and helped install a caretaker government of state-appointed bureaucrats known as "advisers," headed by a former World Bank executive, Fakhruddin Ahmed. Since then, Bangladesh has remained under emergency rule: civil liberties have taken a hit and thousands of suspected troublemakers picked up in midnight sweeps. Behind all this, it's commonly understood that Moeen and the military really run the show. The Harvard-trained general was made army chief just under three years ago and is coy about the extent of his power. In his first major interview with foreign media, he told TIME of the urgent need to clean up Bangladesh's cynical, venal and corrupt politics. Moeen looks back to what preceded Jan. 11, 2007, when the army intervened, and recalls chaos: "The situation was deteriorating very rapidly. The world saw people dying in Dhaka's streets. Was this the way forward?"

But the way forward looks as murky now as it did 18 months ago. Despite Moeen's insistence that elections will go ahead as planned by the end of this year, the optimism that first greeted his arrival on "1/11," as the epochal event is known there, is gone. Ever since achieving independence from Pakistan in 1971, impoverished, unfortunate Bangladesh has slumped down its path toward democracy. When not under the rule of autocratic generals — as it was twice in the past — it has been the province of two mammoth, bickering political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Their legacy of craven politicking and brazen plundering buoyed the current army-backed regime into power. But few believe Moeen is truly democracy's savior when the military has so consistently impeded its growth in the past. "As Bangladeshis, it's like we're riding a tiger," says Gowher Rizvi, director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance at Harvard University. "How do we get off?"

The Caged Begums
Two fixtures of the country's checkered politics remain at the center of things in Dhaka. Bangladesh's Parliament complex, designed by the noted American architect Louis Kahn, looms out of a verdant expanse in the heart of the capital, encircled by palm fronds and crisscrossed by waterways. What was meant to be the cradle of Bangladeshi democracy — described by Kahn as "a many-faceted precious stone, constructed in concrete and marble" — has over the past year been the prison ground for the government's most prominent political detainees: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The two women, daughter and widow, respectively, of the founders of the AL and the BNP and still the parties' leaders, have dominated Bangladesh's political landscape for over a decade, swapping spells as Prime Minister. But they ended up behind bars, casualties of an anticorruption drive launched by the caretaker government post-1/11. "Before, it was a free-for-all," says Muzaffer Ahmed, a respected academic and the head of Bangladesh's chapter of Transparency International, which once ranked the country the most corrupt in the world. "Public funds were being extorted, embezzled, misused in all sorts of ways." Prominent figures in both parties have been charged for crimes ranging from tax fraud to murder; dozens of cases prosecuting politicians on graft are ongoing.

It's this history of political dysfunction and avarice that Moeen claims he wants to expunge. The caretaker government has prided itself on its efforts to rebuild Bangladesh's democratic institutions — from cleaning up a voter roll that had some 12 million fake names listed on it to laying the groundwork for more effective regulatory commissions. With such steps and the examples set by the government's anticorruption campaign, Moeen believes Bangladeshis can be weaned off their fraudulent politicians. "The people in the villages are very docile, they are kind-hearted," says the general. "You can be a criminal, but you just need to go and cry, and they will accept you."

The military takeover following 1/11 was widely accepted and applauded at first. In the run-up to parliamentary elections, Zia's incumbent government attempted to manipulate the democratic process. Mass protests from the AL plunged the country into chaos and nationwide hartals, or strikes, paralyzed the country. Such was the exasperation of members of civil society and the international community at the time that, according to an April report of the International Crisis Group, diplomats from a number of Western countries, including the U.S., secretly urged Moeen to intervene. Though Moeen insists he and his top brass are operating purely "in aid of civil power" until elections are finally held, few in Dhaka doubt that anybody but the generals are calling the shots behind the scenes in this interim government.

Camp Rules
In political terms, the military's biggest failure in the many months it has held sway over the country has been its inability to smash the power of the AL and BNP. Efforts to force Hasina and Zia into the type of exile imposed upon Pakistan's late former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, proved abortive. (Hasina, however, was released to much acclaim on parole on June 11 to seek medical treatment in the U.S.) Also unsuccessful have been attempts to lure away party stalwarts. Given the aura of their pedigreed leaders, the two parties still command a vast following among Bangladesh's population — a combined 80% by most estimates — and the length of the two begums' detention has drawn the ire of millions. As elsewhere in impoverished South Asia, populist dynasties hold strong. "Hasina had her shortcomings, but she is a legendary figure," says Abdur Razzaq, a prominent member of the Awami League. "Charisma is very important; it really means something."

As the caretaker government seeks to cleanse the country's politics, many in Dhaka worry about the ensuing assault on democratic rights. By some accounts, a total of 440,000 people have been rounded up under the emergency, with less than a quarter still detained. Journalists formally complained a month ago of a clampdown on press freedoms: some TV talk shows have been suspended, while more than a few editors are practicing self-censorship after receiving communiqués from military intelligence. "Everywhere you look there are watchmen outside your door," says Adilur Rahman Khan, member of Odhikar, an outspoken human-rights group. "Just open your mouth and you're liable to be jailed," says Khondkar Delwar Hussain, secretary general of the BNP. In recent raids across the country over the past few weeks, the government has arrested around 25,000 people, including many local party activists, on vague grounds of curbing criminal activity. An Amnesty International report released last month condemned the "severely restricted" state of human rights in Bangladesh, citing, among other cases, the torture of journalists by state security forces.

Growing frustrations with the military come as Bangladesh is reeling from a colossal crisis in food security. The price of rice has soared 60-80%, a rise that spells hunger for millions. "This is not even a question of choice for the poor," says the AL's Razzaq. It's a global problem, but Moeen knows all too well that in this case, as he says, "bread is as important as freedom." The caretaker government has frantically tried to address the crisis, draining waterlogged lands for cultivation and growing alternate crops like potatoes in between harvests. But little can be done to avert the fact that, over the past three years, rising inflation has led to an additional 8.5% of the country's households falling below the poverty line (nearly half are already there). Uncertainty over the caretaker government's future has also led to a dip in foreign investment compared to previous years, according to a recent study published by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank.

A Sense of Unease
The political parties have seized upon the government's diminishing credibility. "We're in grave economic peril," says Hussain of the BNP. "It's time for democratic unity." His party and the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that has existed for decades in direct antagonism to the secular-left Awami League, took the unprecedented step of calling for even Hasina's release from prison. They bridle at the caretaker government's undemocratic attempts to reform democracy from the top down. "Just see the U.S.," says Jamaat's Ali Ahsan Mojaheed. "It took hundreds of years to establish fair democratic norms there. We also need time."

The sense of solidarity that these parties now share flies in the face of their past: since the restoration of electoral politics in the 1990s, Zia's BNP and Hasina's AL alternated divisive spells in power, terms that were marked by bitter partisanship, rampant corruption and little to no sense of national consensus. "We need to reduce the cost of electoral defeat. [Elections] used to be winner-take-all with the loser in the streets," says Foreign Adviser Iftekhar Chowdhury. To that end, the government has attempted to engage political parties in an ongoing series of dialogues focused on constitutional reform, pivotal in the advisers' estimation to strengthening democratic governance. But the main parties, including the BNP and Jamaat, have so far refused to join in the discussion — though with Hasina's recent release, the AL has warmed to government overtures.

Many Bangladeshis suspect that Moeen and the advisers are happy to press ahead with both local and national elections, crafting a government of "national unity" with handpicked candidates and without the backing of any of the major parties. If Hasina and Zia are convicted of crimes before December, they'll be disqualified from competing in the polls. This, reckons one Western diplomat, may finally break the parties and lead to a series of significant defections.

But another scenario is also possible: that the growing outrage among the political parties and their cadres may spill onto the streets in the form of mass people-power protests. "If they want to make trouble," says Moeen, "let them" — but that belies very real concerns on the part of the government of the threat of widespread dissent. Across the walls of Dhaka University's sprawling campus are murals of activists and revolutionaries breaking their chains and fighting the state. Military rule may be encoded in Bangladesh's DNA, but so too is resistance to it.

The government has made no promises about when it will lift the emergency. Shying away from democratic commitments, Moeen is far more eager to talk about building effective leadership in Bangladesh and educating its vast, illiterate masses — as he himself puts it — "so that they don't keep on cutting off their own feet." Such a tone is fitting for a man who styles himself the redeemer of his country. "You can judge the people of a nation by the type of leaders they select," he concludes. Most Bangladeshis are wondering when they'll really get that chance. #

With reporting by Haroon Habib, Dhaka

First published in TIME MAGAZINE, June 19, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bangladesh ex-PM trip points to political shift

ANIS AHMED

IN A move that could ultimately help Bangladesh's army-backed government achieve credible elections, former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina left Dhaka on Thursday for foreign medical treatment.

Hasina's Awami League, one of the country's top political parties, has been at loggerheads with the self-defined "interim authorities" over her detention on graft charges, and reluctant to commit to participating in a parliamentary election set for December.

But that has changed now that Hasina has been allowed to fly to the United States for medical treatment on an 8-week parole.

Before leaving, she briefly met senior leaders of the Awami League at the airport.

"We assured her of the party's unity," Syed Ashraful Islam, general secretary of Awami League, told reporters. He said Hasina also asked them to prepare for the December election.

Political analysts said Hasina's freedom, temporary though it may be, had moved the Awami League and government towards a "win-win situation" that would push the political process forward.

"People would now hope the government might offer a similar olive branch to Hasina's rival Begum Khaleda Zia and release her from detention," said Professor Ataur Rahman Khan, president of the Bangladesh Political Science Association.

Khaleda heads another leading group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose participation the government also needs to convince foreign governments the December poll is a legitimate one. Like Hasina, she faces graft charges.

"The government is trying to (say) that the judicial process and politics can continue side by side, and the parties may buy it in good faith," Ataur told Reuters on Thursday.

The country's leading English newspaper, the Daily Star, termed the government move on Hasina a "new beginning for a genuine transition to democracy."

"The standoffishness, perhaps even hostility, which in these last many months characterized relations between the government and the political parties has now led to a breather," it said.

Some other Bangladeshis saw signs of hope in the news.

"I am delighted that something is cooking up to suggest that the country may have political peace, at least in the short run," said Tabibur Rahman, a small businessman.

UNCERTAINTIES LOOM
However, despite the happiness in various quarters over the move on medical treatment for Hasina, who suffers from a variety of ailments, some say obstacles remain on the path to credible and peaceful elections in the impoverished nation of more than 140 million.

"It's too early to be optimistic," said Delwar Hossain, a veterinary doctor. "We have had a history of lost hopes, so (it's) better we be cautious."

Political analyst Ataur said: "despite an offer of goodwill, uncertainties loom large."

"What or how much the government can do for the fellow former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia will be a major decider."

Khaleda, also in detention since last September on charges of corruption, has rejected advice by a separate medical board to go abroad for treatment.

But she has asked the government to let her ailing sons, Tareque Rahman and Arafat Rahmanm, travel abroad for care.

Khaleda said during a court hearing on Thursday that the BNP might join talks with the government "if it could prove its neutrality of purpose and in dealing with political parties."

Hasina has said she expects to return immediately after her treatment to actively take part in politics in the run-up to the election. But there is concern among some analysts she will not be allowed back, and that if Khaleda left that would be her fate.

That might enable the military-backed interim government to re-shape Bangladesh's politics, dominated by the two women and their parties for some 15 years until the interim government took over early in 2007.

If the ex-prime ministers and their followers remain the major forces in Bangladesh politics, the corruption and political violence seen during their alternating terms -- which the interim authorities pledged to end -- could flare up again.

"We don't want the government to make a compromise over corruption in exchange for anything," said another businessman, Aminul Islam.

"Finish trial of all those detained, ensure they get justice ... and make clear to the nation that the law spared no one who indulged in wrongdoing." #

Anis Ahmed is bureau chief of Reuters, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Additional reporting by Serajul Islam Quadir; Editing by Jerry Norton

First published in The Washington Post, June 12, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

General Moeen purge 1/11 key players in power struggle to regain supremacy

SALEEM SAMAD

A MAJOR power struggle occurred in the military quarters recently. A silent coup d’état is in progress in Bangladesh.

Earlier the nation witnessed scores of failed and successful, both bloody and bloodless coup d’état or mutinies since 1975. Military brought General Ziaur Rahman and General H.M. Ershad in power and their remnants are still enjoying major slice in politics.

In the current power struggle, occurs intermittently since Lieutenant General Moeen Uddin Ahmed who was catapulted into helms of affairs of the state power which was actually engineered by four ‘Khalifas’ (conspirators) on January 11, 2007 – popularly known as 1/11.

Has General Moeen been able to consolidate power? Will he be able to govern the nation at the time when political freedom is void? Who gained an upper hand in the latest power struggle? These questions are from the curious mind of enthusiastic citizens, who are cut off from real news from Bangladesh press at a moment when media is controlled by emergency rules.

In the recent power struggle Principal Staff Officer (PSO) General Masud Uddin Chowdhury has become a casualty. He had to clear his desk for a second time in less than a week. Chief coordinator of the corruption-busting task forces, the general has now been transferred to the foreign ministry for possible appointment as an ambassador. In fact asked to leave the country.

The second casualty is Military Secretary to the President (MSP) Mohammad Aminul Karim who has been transferred to the top military institution National Defence College in the outskirts of capital Dhaka. As a consolation he has been promoted to Lieutenant General.

General Masud and General Karim are among the ‘Khalifas’ who engineered the 1/11 since 2000. However the fate of the other two ‘Khalifas’ are yet to be known. If the other two are axed it could be concluded that General Moeen is heading for a clear win for consolidating his power base and possibly implement his desire for restoration of democracy.

The four Khalifas used the good offices of retired Major Sayeed Iskander, the blue-eyed brother of former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia (who also responsible as Defence Minister & Supreme Armed Forces Commander) who manipulated themselves in coveted military positions soon after 2001 October election.

As Khaleda Zia returned to power in 2001, General Masud, then a brigadier general, was made head of the Counter-Intelligence Bureau at the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI).

They pulled General Moeen U Ahmed of the 1st BMA (Bangladesh Military Academy) by super-seceding Major General Jamil D. Ahsan, Bir Pratik - the last serving Mukti Bahini officer to become the coveted military chief. General Jamil conceded and accepted diplomatic assignment to Libya in 2002.

Major Iskander played a key role in recommending his course mate General Moeen to make him the military chief. He also recommended to Prime Minister Office (PMO) to promote Masud, the last of the dreaded Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini to take command of the 9th Infantry Division. The reason for his recommendation was because Iskander’s trusted comrade General Masud is the brother-in-law. General Masud incidentally is an engineer and has no experience in commanding infantry or armoured corps.

The Dhaka Division plays a crucial role in taking charge of key installations in the capital, including PMO, Banga Bhaban (president’s palace), international airport, power, telephone exchange, radio and TV centres.

According to the plan General Masud send his trusted officers under the command of General Jahangir Alam Chowdhury (presently Quarter Master General) to Banga Bhaban to ask President Iajuddin Ahmed to declare state of emergency, for which he was not formerly briefed. The MSP also played a significant role to stage-manage the president.

The position of MSP is of course very significant. Specially when the country switches to Care-taker Government after each tenure of parliamentary form of government. The President becomes the Supreme Commander and guardian of the constitution. All armed forces matters rest upon the president. General Karim was planted months ahead before the tenure Khaleda Zia ends.

Meanwhile the key positions in the army headquarters and formation commanders are gradually filled in by East Bengal Regiment (EBR) where General Moeen was the commander.

Chief of General Staff (CGS), Dhaka Division GOC, Chittagong GOC, military security agency and others crucial branches of the armed forces in recent months have seen new faces from the EBR. It is expected that more positions in the army headquarters will have faces from EBR.

On the other hand, General Moeen has deliberately purged his course mates of first BMA from different positions. Former NDC chief General Abu Tayeb Muhammad Zahirul Alam, recipient of ‘sword of honour’ has been made ambassador. So was General Rokon ud Dowla who was fired from the position of general officer commanding (GOC) of 9th Infantry Division and was replaced by General Masud. While former DGFI chief General Sadeque Hasan Rumi was transferred from DGFI, dreaded security agency to head the Directorate of Ansar and Village Defence Party and his course mates interpret as an insult for him.

It is interesting to observe that at the height of cleansing the state of corruption and other vices, General Moeen and chief of anti-corruption task force General Masud spared his buddy Major Iskander for the help he rendered in the conspiracy against the sovereignty and constitution. He was allowed to travel abroad several times with his family, when his sister former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was under house-arrest. In early in June he returned to Bangladesh and held parleys with General Moeen. It is time to question the integrity of the objective of anti-graft drive in Bangladesh by the military installed interim government.

Major Iskander played a critical role in an attempt to convince his sister to agree to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. The plot foiled when Khaleda turned around giving a condition that she will leave, if her sons Tareque Rahman and Arafat Rahman are allowed to leave the country.

Major Sayeed Iskander is indeed a unique example of rag to riches, so is his brother Shamim Iskander, a flight engineer of Bangladesh Biman airlines. His younger brother bought two worn out F-28 for Biman. After series of air accidents the aircrafts were later grounded and withdrawn from the fleet. Well none of them were accused of corruption or other crimes.

General Moeen in making some giant steps demonstrated that he is the boss, which also caused speculations of him being ambitious. He has published “Selected Collection of General Moeen Ahmed” to ventilate his political and social mind. He with the support of DGFI has floated “Jago Bangladesh” to cheer his effort to end criminalisation of politics and institutionalisation of corruption. Well vines say that Jago Bangladesh is recruiting political elements in small towns, which may soon dawn as a political party. Political activists in upazila (small administrative towns) and districts have seen induction from once outlawed Freedom Party and of course from mainstream Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP) and Jatiya Party.

Nevertheless, the West does not want to see Bangladesh military become another Frankenstein as in Pakistan. In recent change of hearts and minds of the military generals in Pakistan, Nepal and Thailand have given hopes that democracy will be restored in Bangladesh, if not very soon. #

First published in E-Bangladesh.org, June 09, 2008

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is a Bangladesh born journalist presently living in exile in Canada and specialises in conflict, terrorism, security and intelligence in South Asia. He served as Bangladesh correspondent for TIME Asia magazine, press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), Daily Times (Lahore), investigative news portal Telekha.com (New Delhi), and the Bangladesh Observer (Dhaka). He edits DurDesh.net streaming from Toronto, a news portal for South Asian Diaspora in North America. He could be reached at
<saleemsamad@hotmail.com>

Monday, June 09, 2008

Constitution review: Not a worthy interest right now

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

NO MATTER who does, but it is important who has the right to do. Question, is it the right thing and right time to do?

The latest debate sparked off between the major political parties and the military backed interim government while government showed its interest to form a commission to review the Constitution of Bangladesh.

According to the commerce and education Adviser Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman, government is now thinking a review exercise of the constitution of Bangladesh — not of its prime spirit but of certain articles. “The constitution can be reviewed through forming a ‘constitutional review commission,’ but will leave its recommendations to be implemented by the elected government,” he said at a joint press conference at the Chief Adviser's Office on Wednesday, June 04, 2008 after a dialogue with Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal (BSD).

At the dialogue, BSD accelerated the government’s interest, adding to remove any ‘inconsistency’ in the constitution and governance. Gono Forum, headed by the veteran lawyer, who is credited as being one of the principal authors of the Constitution of Bangladesh, proposed the similar kind of review of the constitution and post-election national unity government in its scheduled dialogue with government on June 2, 2008.

But the major political parties, including Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), rebutted to any such attempt, as according to them, only the elected parliament has the authority to discuss any issue relating to the constitution. Reacted sharply against the government’s interest, BNP secretary-general, Khandaker Delwar Hossain said that it would be a total violation of the constitution as nobody, but the parliament has the right to see whether or not there is any inconsistency or contradiction in the constitution. AL presidium member Motia Chowdhury reminded the government about their tasks to hold parliamentary elections, adding that it is the duty of parliament to discuss anything about Bangladesh Constitution.

In his reaction at a city hotel, Rajshahi on Friday, June 05, 2008 prior to a city and district level workers' conference, Workers Party President Rashed Khan Menon, admonished about the dangers that would result if an unelected government does a review of the constitution. According to him, the Constitution of Bangladesh is based upon the spirit of Independence of Bangladesh and if a review of the constitution is opened up, for example, Jamaat-e Islami can claim for establishment of Islamic rule, some other can say that the liberation of the country was a wrong thing, or anti-democratic activists’ can try achieve their goal.

A constitution is a settled arrangement by which a country's parts or elements, within a geographical district, combine themselves because of some common traits or particular features of mind or character of those in the combined group (a country) and which distinguishes it from other combined groups (other countries). It’s a system for governance, often stated as a written document that establishes the rules and principles of an autonomous political entity. It is not so much that a constitution of a country determines its nature and character; but, rather, that a constitution reflects a country's nature and character.

A country is more than a collection of people with patriotic feelings. A country is the friendly feelings to which such kindred give birth. A country is the feeling of confidence that people have when sharing similar habits and customs. Bangladesh became independent on December 16, 1971 with these feelings. And the constitution that came into effect from 16 December 1972, on the first anniversary of the victory day, follows these feelings. Before that, it was formally adopted by the Constitution Assembly on November 4, 1972.

The Constitution of Bangladesh is divided into 11 parts, which are further subdivided into 153 articles. In addition, there are 4 schedules and 1 preamble. The last and 14 amendment was adopted in May 16, 2004. Whereas, the Constitution of the USA of 1788, which was the world's first written constitution, went through only 27 amendments during more than two hundred years of its adoption.

According to the constitution analysts, law makers, and politicians, constitutions are not set in stone that can not be changed. But every time in amendment, the parliament never experienced full support of law makers, except the 12 amendment that re-introduced the parliamentary democracy in the country.

The Constitution is clearly a living document and is meant to be interpreted and amended over time to ensure that it is up with the times and reflects the evolving aspirations of the people. In considering such conviction, people always welcome any reviews, updates, and necessary amendments of constitution. But it should be implemented by an elected government and a proper process of rules as the Parliament of Bangladesh, which known as ‘House of the Nation,’ is the only source of any amendment to the constitution. The Parliament can amend the constitution with the support of two-thirds of members of the Parliament.

According to the government interest, the reviews are to be implemented by the next elected government. In this context, the review body can be formed at that the next parliament to avoid any difference between government and political parties, which may affect to the next parliament elections.

Although there is a huge debate over its existence, whether the government is constitutional or not, but it has vast popularity as because this non political government is designated to hold a fair election to create a healthy parliament. #

First published in New York, June 07, 2008
Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. He could be reached at Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bangladesh military looking for an exit

Photo: Begum Khaleda Zia, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Shiekh Hasina

Like so many before it, the army finds that coming in is easier than going out


THE TWO big political parties in Bangladesh are loth to accept what lawyers say is now only months away: the conviction on corruption charges of the jailed former prime ministers, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League. This would bar the two rivals, who have dominated Bangladeshi politics since 1991, from the election the army-backed government promises for December.

The parties, both personality cults centred on the jailed leaders, are acting tough. Late last month the Awami League said it would not join election talks with the government unless Sheikh Hasina was released unconditionally. The BNP followed suit—and also reunited, as a dissident faction miraculously rediscovered its love for Mrs Zia. Both parties threatened popular movements to free their leaders.

The army's response was swift. Since May 30th it has arrested nearly 12,000 local strongmen and politicians—a pre-emptive strike to break the organisational backbone of the parties ahead of local-government elections due in July. The latest arrests followed the detention of more leading politicians last month. They included Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of the third-largest party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Some 100 members of the last parliament are now either in jail or on the run.

The local non-party elections are seen as a test for the parliamentary polls. The army, still the country's most popular institution, appears determined to bulldoze both through at any cost. But the unelected government's problems are multiplying: poverty has risen sharply in the past few years because of spiralling food prices, a Dhaka-based think-tank said this week. High oil prices, labour unrest, a severe energy crisis and the country's inability to forge closer economic ties with its huge neighbour, India, add to the woes.

The last time Bangladeshis had the chance to vote out a government was in 2001. But some soldiers despise what now appears a hasty rush to the exit. These dissenters, however, were sidelined in a shuffle this week. General Masud Uddin Chowdhury, the main adversary of the army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, was in effect demoted for the second time since he led the coup that ousted the squabbling politicians in January 2007. The move consolidates General Moeen's power and, for now, removes the threat of a coup within the army. He has vowed to hold within the two years elections for which foreign governments have seemed ready to tolerate the suspension of democracy.

But the exit might be blocked. The parties remain unreformed. Their senior leaders say in private that it would be political suicide to come out openly against their still popular leaders. The army must hope that once the two women have been convicted, their parties will defy them and take part in the elections. Unless they do so and the army lifts the state of emergency, foreign observers are unlikely to lend legitimacy to the elections.

A desperate hunt is on for someone to fill the void. One diplomat recalls a “bizarre” meeting with Mohammad Ershad, a 78-year-old former dictator, who toured embassies a month ago, saying he had the army's blessing to lead a disparate coalition including the anti-Khaleda BNP faction. There is even talk that Mohammad Yunus, a famed microfinancier, might throw his hat back in the ring, after an aborted attempt to launch a party last year. The most sensible solution may be a national-unity government following the election. But that would require both the two big parties to disobey their feudal leaders and to share power. It is hard to say which is the longer shot. #

First published in The Economist, London, UK, 5 June, 2008

Crackdown on Party Members Appears Politically Motivated

Courtesy: The New Age, Dhaka
Bangladesh: End Mass Arrests, Release Detainees


THE GOVERNMENT should immediately end the recent wave of mass, arbitrary arrests under the Emergency Power Rules, Human Rights Watch said today. The thousands detained should be either charged on the basis of credible evidence of criminal activities or immediately released.

Using emergency rules put in place in 2007, Bangladesh’s military-backed interim government has arrested at least 12,000 persons since May 28, 2008. The arrests follow the breakdown of prospects for negotiations between the government and the two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, over planned national elections in December. Many of those arrested are local-level political party leaders and activists. Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the health and safety of the detainees, given massive prison overcrowding and well-documented patterns of torture and mistreatment of detainees.

“The timing and targets of the arrests are a dead giveaway they are politically motivated,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s obvious that they are paying the price for the political parties’ refusal to accept the government’s conditions to participate in the elections.”

The government has rejected suggestions that the arrests are politically motivated, claiming that it was a planned sweep against criminality. Political parties and human rights groups have alleged that arrests are being carried out to pave the way for pro-government candidates to be elected in upcoming local and national elections.

The crackdown started just days after the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party declared that they would boycott a government-initiated dialogue aimed at developing a roadmap for parliamentary elections in December and sustainable reforms of the country’s troubled political institutions. To take part in the dialogue, the parties demanded the release of their leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who are currently detained on corruption-related charges. The parties also stated that they may organize mass movements to secure their release.

Through the Emergency Powers Rules, adopted shortly after a state of emergency was declared on January 11, 2007, soldiers and members of paramilitary forces, such as the Rapid Action Battalion and Bangladesh Rifles, have been granted the same arrest powers as the police. The rules allow for arrests without a court warrant on the mere grounds of a reasonable suspicion that a person is related to an offense and allow for lengthy periods of preventative detention.

“Emergency rule is once again being used to carry out arbitrary arrests and to harass political opponents,” Adams said. “The government’s stated commitment to reform is undermined by its continuing disregard for basic due process rights.”

Since the state of emergency was introduced, the authorities have reportedly arrested well over 500,000 people. Even though the majority were released within days of their arrests, the prison population has nevertheless increased significantly. As the right to seek release on bail is restricted under the Emergency Power Rules, there are fears that the ongoing wave of mass arrests may result in a total breakdown of the prison system. With approximately 90,000 detainees and convicted prisoners in a prison that has an official capacity for just over 27,000, overcrowding is already severe, leading to inhumane and unsafe sanitary and other conditions.

Among those currently incarcerated are several hundred former politicians and businesspersons in pretrial detention or convicted on corruption-related charges.

“The government’s determination to pursue party members stands in stark contrast to its unwillingness to prosecute soldiers and police for torture and killings,” said Adams. “As usual under this government, it’s not clear whether it is the civilian authorities or the army that is behind these decisions. Either way, they are indefensible.” #

Human Rights Watch press release issued from New York, June 5, 2008

For more of Human Rights Watch’s work on Bangladesh, please visit:
http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=asia&c=bangla