Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Steady Progress of Bangladesh

ANSHUMAN BEHERA

THE PROCESSES of de-radicalization initiated by the Sheikh Hasina Government after it came to power on January 6, 2009, have been further and considerably consolidated through 2010, with Dhaka successfully reining in the Islamist extremist constituency in the country, even as it continued to ruthlessly target an incipient radical Left Wing movement.

Interestingly, the country’s extremist Islamist image has been turned around with relatively little bloodshed, even as Left Wing Extremists (LWE), whose activities are little in evidence, continue to be killed in much larger numbers.

According to the partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the country witnessed a total of 56 fatalities, including 48 militants, four civilians and three Security Force (SF) personnel in 2010, in 49 incidents of killing, as compared to 87 fatalities, including 81 militants and six civilians, in 68 incidents of killing in 2009. Also, while 2009 had witnessed two major incidents (involving three or more fatalities), the year 2010 witnessed a single major incident.

LWE-related fatalities were, however, at their lowest in 2010, as compared to the preceding five years. A total of 50 persons, comprising of 46 militants, three SFs and a civilian were killed in 43 incidents of LWE-linked killing. Of the 46 LWE cadre killed in 2010, 33 were killed in two Districts, Pabna (17) and Kushtia (16).

The remaining 13 were killed in Jhenidah (2), Dhaka (2) and Rajbari (2); and Meherpur, Chittagong, Chuadanga, Rajshahi, Satkhira, Magura and Khulna, each with a single fatality. The single civilian killing occurred in Kushtia District on August 16. Also, the single major incident took place on July 20, when three SF personnel were killed by cadres of the Janajuddha faction of the Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP-Janajuddha) in Pabna District. 12 of the country’s 64 Districts recorded a LWE-related killing in 2010.

In 2009, 87 persons had been killed in LWE-related violence, including 81 militants and six civilians, in 68 incidents. Out of the 81 militants killed, 53 were killed in three Districts – Kushtia (29), Pabna (14) and Chuadanga (10). The remaining 28 were killed in Bagerhat (5), Khulna (5), Jhenidah (4), Meherpur (4), Dhaka (2), Naogaon (2), Barisal (2), Faridpur (1), Satkhira (1), Jessore (1), and Magura (1). The six civilians were killed in four incidents in three Districts – Kushtia (3), Pabna (2) and Sirajganj (1). 15 Districts thus witnessed incidents of LWE-linked killing in 2009, with Kushtia (32) and Pabna (16) the worst affected.

13 LWE groups are believed to be ‘active’ in the country: Purba Banglar Communist Party, PBCP (Janajuddha), PBCP (M-L Red Flag), PBCP (M-L Communist War), Biplabi Communist Party, New Biplabi Communist Party, Gono Bahini, Gono Mukti Fouz, Banglar Communist Party, Socialist Party, Biplabi Anuragi, Chhinnamul Communist Party and Sarbahara People's March. Reports indicate that most of these are more or less ‘criminal groups’ rather than militant outfits.

Meanwhile, six fatalities, including three civilians and three militants, were recorded in as many Islamist extremism linked incidents in 2010. Three civilians were killed by the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), in three incidents in February. The civilians were killed in Dhaka (2) and Rajshahi (1) Districts. The three militants were killed in Chittagong (2) and Nawabganj (1) Districts in three separate incidents in the months of February (1) and April (2). There were no such fatalities in 2009.

Indeed, it was after a span of two years that the SFs killed militants involved in Islamist extremism, even as Islamist extremist formations appear to have withdrawn into a defensive shell after the arrest, trial and conviction (and including the execution) of many of their top leadership. It would, however, be far from accurate to suggest that Islamist extremism has been wiped out from the country. Significantly, Maulana Saidur Rahman aka Zafar, chief of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who was arrested on May 25, 2010, disclosed that the JMB had about 400 full-time cadres across the country and a ‘military wing’ capable of launching major attacks.

He also claimed that hardliners who had taken control of the JMB would be more destructive as a result of his absence as chief. Further, he disclosed that Sohel Mahfuz had become JMB’s ‘acting chief’ and Nazmul Anwar Alam aka Bhagina Shahid was its ‘military wing commander’. [Police, however, believe that Alam was the ‘acting chief’ of the JMB]. Rahman also disclosed that, apart from the fake currency trade, JMB received funds from several sources at home and abroad. Rahman also admitted that the JMB has several hundred explosive devices, handmade bombs and grenades stashed at different locations.

Alam, the ‘acting chief’ of the JMB, was subsequently arrested on July 12, 2010, and disclosed that the JMB had a hit list of 12 top political figures, mostly ruling party leaders. He, however, claimed that the JMB had destroyed all the explosives it had in the northern region. Rahman, however, contradicted this claim, and suggested that Alam could have shifted the arms and explosives to new locations.

Another senior leader of the JMB, Abu Bakkr Siddique aka Shiblu, who was arrested in Thakurgaon District on May 25, 2010, told the SFs that JMB had trained some of its female operatives in using grenades, and they had been making preparations to carry out a series of grenade attacks in Dhaka on a limited scale. Shiblu confirmed Rahman’s claim that the aim of the planned attacks was to signal the JMB’s re-emergence and to attract prospective recruits.

Worryingly, the nexus between the JeI and the JMB was revealed like never before. Investigators brought together Saidur Rahman of JMB and arrested leaders of the JeI, including JeI Ameer (chief) Matiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujaheed, and Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Delwar Hossain Sayedee on July 13. [These three top JeI leaders were arrested from Dhaka on June 29, 2010]. It was there Saidur Rahman admitted his past affiliation with the JeI, as a former Ameer (chief) of the JeI Habiganj District unit. He also claimed that the JeI had provided training in handling small arms and grenades.

In a further development, on December 13, 2010, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) neutralized a hilltop training camp of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B) in Chittagong District and arrested five militants along with 11 live ‘cocktail bombs’, two kilograms of explosive materials, grenades, bomb-making manuals in Arabic, electric circuits, adaptors, fuses and booklets written by ex-JeI leader Golam Azam and incumbent JeI chief Motiur Rahman Nizami. 20 militants managed to escape.

Dhaka has, moreover, taken a number of visible measures to permanently exorcise Islamist extremism and fundamentalism from the country.

The Government initiated a trial of the War Criminals (WCs) of the 1971 Liberation War, as had been promised in the Awami League’s election manifesto. This measure seeks to bring to justice the men, prominently including the top leadership of the JeI, who collaborated with the Pakistan Army and Government in the genocide of an estimated three million people during the Liberation War, and in the use of rape and collective slaughters as instruments of State policy. The Tribunal, which was mandated to trail and prosecute the WCs, was constituted on March 25, 2010.

The Government also appointed an investigative and research organisation, the War Criminals Fact Finding Committee (WCFFC), which handed over a list of WCs and documented evidence in support of charges against them, on April 4, 2010. According to the convener of the WCFFC, Dr. M.A. Hasan, the documentation comprehended 18 books, the names and addresses of 1,775 alleged WCs, and detailed accounts of crimes, including mass killings. Earlier, on March 23, reports indicated that the Government had approved a list of WCs prepared by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

The trial of the WCs was initiated on March 25, 2010, but there have been demands from many civil society organisations to speed up the process. In response, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, on December 15, 2010, gave a commitment that WC trials would be completed within the tenure of the present Government, but that, "We are trying that the war crimes trial lives up to international standards and none can raise any question about it." Further, on December 20, 2010, he added that the trial of the detained WC-accused would start in January-February in 2011.

One of the most significant steps in connection with the WC trials was the arrest of five top leaders of the JeI: Ameer Matiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujaheed, Nayeb-e-Ameer Delwar Hossain Sayedee, senior leaders Mohammad Qamaruzzaman and Abdul Qader Mollah.

In another blow to the fundamentalists, the Sheikh Hasina Government initiated a challenge to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of April 1979, which removed secularism from the Constitution, and imposed an Islamic character. The preamble of the Constitution had been changed to include a pledge that "the high ideals of absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" shall be the fundamental principle of the Constitution.

On January 3, 2010, the Government filed a case against the Fifth Amendment, and on October 4, 2010, the High Court ruled that, "Bangladesh is now a Secular State since the original Constitution of 1972 has been automatically restored following the Supreme Court Judgment." Earlier, on July 27, 2010, the Supreme Court had restored the original Constitution of 1972. The Supreme Court also reinstated a ban on Islamic political parties on July 28, 2010. In a detailed, 184-page verdict, the Supreme Court scrapped the bulk of the 1979 Fifth Amendment, including provisions that had allowed religious political parties to flourish and that legalised military rule. Bangladesh was re-declared a Secular state after a gap of 31 years.

By December 26, the Government had arrested some 958 cadres and leaders of the ICS and the JeI in 2010, as compared to just 23 in 2009. 43 JMB and nine HuJI-B militants were also arrested in 2010, as against 101 and 11, respectively, for these outfits in 2009. Conspicuously, the Government’s drive against both these organizations intensified after the killing of a Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), activist, identified as Faruk Hossain, in Rajshahi University (RU) campus on February 9, 2010, and the subsequent confirmation of the link between JeI and ICS.

Significantly, one of the leaders of the banned ICS in RU, Ekram Hossain, convicted for the February 9 murder, admitted that the top leadership of the JeI had been involved in the incident. Similarly, Rajshahi JeI leader Gias Uddin, in his confessional note before the Rajshahi Court, stated, on March 14, 2010, that all tiers of the JeI had backed the ICS in the February 9 violence at RU, following an organizational decision.

With the top leadership of the JeI behind the bars, a leadership vacuum has emerged in the organisation. A March 25, 2010, report quoted a senior JeI leader, who requested anonymity, as conceding that the Government’s move to try top JeI leaders with alleged links to the WCs had forced them to desperately search for ways to evade prosecution and protect their political future. The JeI and the ICS have been engineering sporadic street violence and protests against the Government in attempts to free their arrested leaders.

On June 13, 2010, JeI and ICS cadres clashed with BCL cadres in Dhaka, resulting in injuries to some 35 persons. This was followed by JeI and ICS clashes with the Police on June 30, 2010, during demonstrations demanding the release of top JeI leaders. In another incident, on July 4, 2010, cadres of the JeI and ICS rampaged through the streets of Chittagong, destroying 100 vehicles, during the JeI’s two-day protest against the arrest of its leaders. On December 7, 2010, 43 JeI leaders and cadres were arrested and 40 persons, including eight Policemen, were injured in clashes with the Police in Narsingdi and Chittagong District.

Apart from the indigenous extremist groups, Bangladesh is also struggling against foreign terrorist outfits, mainly from Pakistan, linked to extremist formations in Bangladesh. On February 28, 2010, RAB personnel arrested five Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants headed by Rezwan Ahmed, a Pakistani national.

According to the RAB sources, Rezwan coordinated JeM operations in Bangladesh and was involved in recruiting locals for the terror outfit and sending them to Pakistan for training. In another similar incident on April 8, 2010, RAB personnel arrested a Pakistani national, identified as Mobashwer Shahid Mubin alias Yahia (25), an ‘organizer’ of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). RAB revealed that Yahia was suspected to be involved in devising a plot to attack the Indian and US missions in Dhaka.

The Government also took strong measures against insurgent groups active in India’s northeast, which had long secured safe haven in Bangladesh and taking shelter on its territory. In a major development, the Bangladeshi authorities allegedly arrested Manipur based United National Liberation Front (UNLF) ‘chairman’, Rajkumar Meghen on September 29, 2010, and handed him over to India. [Indian officials claimed that Meghen was arrested in Motihari, the District Headquarter of Champaran District in the Eastern Indian State of Bihar.]

Earlier, on May 1, 2010, Bangladesh handed over, Ranjan Daimary, the 'president' of the Anti-Talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-ATF) to India. Also, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) ‘general secretary’ Anup Chetia, who was arrested in Bangladesh on December 21, 1997, and kept under detention later is likely to be handed over to India shortly.

Chetia was arrested on December 21, 1997, in Dhaka, for illegally carrying currencies of 16 different countries, illegal possession of arms and a satellite phone and carrying fake passports. He was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment by a Bangladeshi court. After his jail term, the then Khaleda Zia Government stalled the process of his expatriation to India.

Since then, he has been held at the Dhaka jail. Further, on December 4, 2009, the exiled ‘chairman’ of ULFA, and the outfit’s ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Baruah, were handed over to Indian authorities. In November 2009, another two top ULFA leaders, ‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury, and ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarika, had been turned over to Indian authorities at the Gokul Nagar post of the Border Security Force, before they were brought to Guwahati by an Assam Police team.

Meanwhile, during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, on January 11, 2010, India and Bangladesh signed agreements on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters, Transfer of Sentenced Persons, and Combating International Terrorism, Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking. On January 13, 2010, replying on the issue of handing over top ULFA and NDFB leaders, Sheikh Hasina disclosed that India and Bangladesh were working on an extradition treaty.

The gains of 2010 have been dramatic, but a note of caution remains to be sounded. The residual capacities of the JeI and JMB are significant, even as HuJI-B continues to maintain close links with a number of ambitious Pakistani groups adamant upon spreading their base in the country.

Moreover, the corrosive nature of violent and disruptive street mobilization by political parties in Bangladesh has the potential to destroy the tentative stability that has been secured after decades of rising disorder. Bangladesh has made very steady, indeed, dramatic gains, in two short years, but is still at risk of sliding back if the Government wavers even slightly. #

First published in South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 9, No. 25, December 27, 2010


Anshuman Behera is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India