Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does Bangladesh military deserve impunity?

RATER ZONAKI

BANGLADESHI MEMBERS of Parliament and the media have been speaking out against the former military-controlled emergency government, now that a new elected government is in place. They are demanding the prosecution of members of the military forces responsible for arresting and detaining high-ranking politicians, and subjecting them to physical and mental torture in custody. Abdul Jalil, general secretary of the Awami League, which is now the ruling party, has demanded a parliamentary probe into such detentions. The veteran politician could not help crying while describing the torture he underwent in a detention center operated by the armed forces. He said around eight armed men had come to his office, blindfolded him and taken him away in a waiting car. They identified themselves as members of the Joint Forces.

Jalil was detained in custody where he was physically and psychologically tortured for five consecutive days. He was later paroled for treatment abroad, and after returning to Bangladesh, managed to get bail from the Supreme Court.

Another member of Parliament, Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir, has also described his arrest and torture in a number of articles, interviews and talk shows. He has declared his intention to sue the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Lt. Gen. Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury, and other members of the armed forces for torturing and treating him inhumanely in detention.

Barrister Moudud Ahmed – who was minister of law during the former Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led regime and lost his seat in Parliament in the recent election – has also been trying to convince people through the media that he was a victim of brutal torture and degrading treatment in the custody of the armed forces. Moudud also announced that he is writing a book on his life in prison.

However, Moudud’s hue and cry about custodial brutality appears to be aimed at personal or political gain. In fact, Moudud was law minister when the government validated actions of the armed forces during Operation Clean Heart, an 86-day crackdown on political dissenters in late 2002, which resulted in 58 deaths in the custody of the armed forces. The government termed all these deaths as "heart attacks."

More than 10,000 ordinary citizens were illegally arrested, arbitrarily detained and brutally tortured under fabricated charges by the military-dominated law-enforcement agencies. Moudud, as the minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs, issued an ordinance to ensure blatant impunity to the perpetrators in January 2003, which was then enacted by Parliament.

Moudud and his government ignored the people's fundamental rights, especially the right to life and liberty. Later, he was a victim of the same treatment.

Talking about human rights, as Jalil, Alamgir and Moudud are now doing, is rare in Bangladesh’s political circles. This discussion conveys a message to ordinary victims that some politicians now understand the taste of pain. At the same time, their stories support claims made by human rights defenders that the armed forces and law-enforcement agencies operate torture cells.

The real picture of brutality by the armed forces and the police is much more severe than the stories of these three politicians. Ordinary citizens have long suffered immeasurable atrocities at the hands of the military during the state of emergency and the police during previous regimes.

Now the incumbent law minister, Barrister Shafique Ahmed, is talking about the "doctrine of necessity" as a means of justifying the actions of the military-controlled emergency government. Speaking of the armed forces, he told the media, "You cannot say all their actions or activities were within the bounds of the Constitution …Whatever they did, they did responding to the necessity of the time. So we are not giving legal cover to all their actions, we're not validating all their ordinances."

This raises the question as to whether the illegal arrests, detentions, torture and killings were a "necessity of the time." Are the present politicians ready to accept the armed forces' actions even though they defied the Constitution? Isn’t the so-called "doctrine of necessity" merely an excuse to once again grant impunity to the perpetrators of injustice, with the permission of the present government and at the demand of the armed forces?

It is not convincing that those now in power can accept and explain the former government’s brutal and unconstitutional actions under the "doctrine of necessity." Why can’t people like Moudud and Shafique face the truth behind the recurrent take-over of power by the armed forces?

Will the current batch of politicians also surrender to the armed forces instead of taking effective action to stop such brutality forever? Why is there no effective resistance to keep the soldiers in their barracks?

The door must be closed forever on the armed forces’ ability to take over and abuse power. The ruling party could start now by using its absolute majority in Parliament to criminalize torture and repeal Article 46 of the Constitution, which allows Parliament to grant impunity to state officers for any action, however brutal, taken to “restore order.”

The demand for justice by a few senior members of Parliament has aroused the interest of the people. But ordinary people will treat such demands as mere political rubbish unless the politicians follow through and effectively punish the perpetrators. #

First published in UPI Asia Online, February 10, 2009

Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national with a degree in literature from a university in Dhaka. He began his career as a journalist in 1990 and engaged in human rights activism at the grassroots level in his country for more than a decade. He also worked as an editor for publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues and contributed to other similar publications