Monday, April 30, 2012

Bangladesh: Old tensions return to threaten journalism

South Asia Press Freedom Report for 2012 that the IFJ is releasing, on behalf of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) on May 3, World Press Freedom Day

Bangladesh’s journalists forged a common platform, the Sangbadik Shramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SSKOP, or United Committee of Working Journalists and Newspaper Employees) and organised early in March 2012 to demand the formal notification of a new wage fixation body. This followed the failure of Bangladesh’s Ministry for Information to formally constitute the eighth wage board for the newspaper industry through gazette by the end of February, despite an assurance from Information Minister Abul Kalam Azad at a meeting with the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) on 22 January.

Within days of Bangladesh’s journalists resolving on pressing their demand for a new wage deal, the Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB) mobilized in opposition. “Forming a new wage board three and a half years after the seventh wage board award will put the newspaper industry into a big crisis,” NOAB said in a statement issued on 19 March. The SSKOP responded within a day with the suggestion that the newspaper owners, rather than resist the formation of a body mandated by law, should adopt a strategy of cooperation in a spirit of transparency and openness.

Seven wage boards have been formed so far under a law adopted by Bangladesh’s parliament in 1974. The newspaper industry has resisted each of these and only complied with the statutory wage awards decreed after losing legal battles that have gone up to the country’s highest courts. The record of compliance remains patchy and uneven, with several of the new media outlets that began operations in recent boom years choosing to ignore the imperative of decent wages.

The Eighth Wage Board was announced by the Government of Bangladesh after representations from the country’s journalists about increasing costs of living and growing job insecurity. A chair has been nominated for the board and the various stakeholders from the side of the news industry employees, including both sides of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) have named their representatives for the board. Yet the formal notification remains to be issued and the news industry owners continue to resist.

Over the year gone by, Bangladesh’s journalists took on several other challenges in unison, offering realistic hope that decades of politically induced estrangement within their ranks would be overcome. The level of rancour in political exchanges though, remained high. One of many flashpoints was the political rally by the national opposition in Dhaka on March 12, when three television channels were blocked for viewers in the city for the duration of a speech by the leader of Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s main political opposition.

The three channels — Ekushey Television, Bangla Vision and Islamic TV — were inaccessible for viewers between 3 pm that day, approximately an hour before the opposition leader began her address, until 6:30 pm, after she concluded. Staff at the affected TV channels revealed that the Cable Operators’ Association of Bangladesh (COAB) had been asked by the government to suspend the transmission of the three channels for this length of time. There were also reports that emerged then, that the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC), which grants licences for use of the broadcast spectrum, may have directly intervened with certain channels to dissuade them from covering the opposition rally live.

Following this, notice was issued to Ekushey TV by the National Board of Revenue for failure to submit tax returns for three years. The channel claimed that it was yet to complete a financial audit for the years in question since it was preparing for an initial public offering (IPO) of shares. The alibi may not have been very strong, but the event fed into the story of deep partisan divisions and a vindictive attitude by those in authority towards media outlets that do not offer unconditional support to the Awami League (AL), the party that has been in power since early 2009.

Soon afterwards, it was reported that nineteen journalists in the south-western district of Pirojpur had presented themselves to the district police station on March 14, demanding protection from threats issued by the district branch of the ruling party at a public rally the previous day. The journalists were reportedly threatened with violence following their publication in local newspapers of critical reports about two members of the elected district council. The reports, which alleged that two local politicians had been involved in corruption and nepotism, were subsequently republished by daily newspapers and news channels based in Dhaka. Members of the ruling party were then reported to have told the journalists that if they continued publishing critical reports about the two elected members of the district council, they would be forced to leave town or “chopped into pieces and buried”.

Heightening confrontation

It was a time of heightening confrontation in Bangladesh and the media was caught in the crossfire. In February 2012, a coup attempt by Islamist elements within the army was seemingly discovered and thwarted. Around then, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid raised the temperature in her war of words with the opposition. Press freedom as an issue was debunked. As the Prime Minister then said, the media was guilty of “exaggeration”. Under the newly gained freedom under her regime, the press was “writing at its will, no matter what is right and what is wrong”.

This was a freedom that it did not enjoy under the reign of the parties now in opposition, said the Prime Minister. As she said it then, the press used to receive “invisible advice” from certain quarters all through the BNP’s tenure in office that began in 2001. Not one of the cases of the sixteen journalists killed during that time had been properly investigated, she said.

The ruling party followed with a mass rally on 7 March 2012 as a preemptive gesture ahead of the opposition show of strength of 13 March. Disruptions caused to civic life in the city featured widely in media reporting of the 7 March rally. When the government took recourse to extraordinary measures to ensure that the opposition rally of 13 March was deprived of mass participation and denied due media coverage, editorial commentary tended to be extremely critical. As the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, commented editorially: “The tragedy for the AL is that in attempting to suppress the opposition it has suppressed the citizens. Ordinary people were subjected to indescribable sufferings just to prevent the BNP from holding its rally. .... We also condemn the fact that the mass media, especially the electronic media, duties during yesterday’s opposition programme. Several TV stations were barred from airing uninterrupted live coverage of the rally. A few channels that were covering stories of public sufferings during the course of the day were visited by intelligence people and told to tone down their coverage. In other cases the cable operators were partially prevailed upon to take some channels off the air during the peak hours of the opposition’s rally. Such blatant interference in the media’s function amounts to suppression of the freedom of the media and public’s inalienable right to know”.

There has been in short, a considerable decline in tolerance levels for free media commentary since the early days of the Sheikh Hasina regime. To recall, within a year of Sheikh Hasina taking office in her latest tenure as Prime Minister, the Bangladesh cabinet had formally approved an amendment to the criminal procedure code, which granted immunity against arrest to editors, publishers, journalists and writers in defamation cases. A provision of the Special Powers Act 1974 that allowed government to shut down newspapers at will was repealed in the first year of the new government’s tenure.

The Bangladesh Press Council (BPC), which was set up in 1974 and went into a period of oblivion before being revived in 1993, has powers of censure and admonishment. Over the years, the council has evolved a point of view which holds that journalism is a profession that requires licensing. The model the BPC had in mind is analogous to the certification of legal or medical practitioners by empowered professional councils in Bangladesh, as also various other countries.

The idea of licensed journalists, while seemingly rather outlandish, does have some traction in the Bangladesh media community. More than anything else, this is an indication of how deeply the imperative of a professional code of ethics is felt among the country’s journalists. The applicable code promulgated by the BPC, includes a declaration in its preamble that the “war of liberation, its spirit and ideals must be sustained and upheld, and anything repugnant relative to the war of liberation and its spirit and ideals must not be printed, published or disseminated in any manner by the press”.

Quite clearly, this diktat of what is acceptable or not in media practice imposes too stringent a norm, prone to arbitrary interpretation and abuse. As a plural society, despite its relatively high degree of linguistic uniformity, Bangladesh is home to a variety of ideas and opinions about the war of liberation that brought the nation into being in 1971.

By seeking to bring unitary homogeneity to this multiplicity of views, the media code proposed by the BPC was seen to make little contribution to social harmony.

Through 2009 and the following year, when the Sheikh Hasina government made clear its intent to bring to trial those guilty of the worst abuses during the 1971 war of liberation, there were hopes that a new consensus would emerge on the four decade-long history of the country since independence. It was hoped that this in turn would be an antidote to the bitter divisions that have plagued civil society and the media community, especially since the brutal murder of the leader of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. The execution of five of those convicted of the crime in January 2010 was seen as a point of closure for a bitterly contested past. And the setting up of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) soon afterwards and the opening of the war crimes trials were thought to be the occasion for finally bringing all unsettled disputes of ideology to consensus.

These hopes were belied in quick time. On 2 October 2011, New Age, one of Bangladesh’s English language dailies, ran an article on its op-ed page titled “A crucial period for International Crimes Tribunal”. David Bergman, the author, is a British national resident in Bangladesh since 2003 with a background in both the print and visual media and a long-standing interest in the Bangladesh war of liberation.

The ICT took objection to certain of the points made in the article and three days later, issued a notice asking why the writer and the editor and publisher of the newspaper should not be cited for contempt.

Particular sections of the article that found mention in the notice, referred to the public mood which seemingly had prejudged the guilt of some of the individuals who were up for trial before the ICT, as also the procedural weakness of seeking convictions merely on the basis of one witness statement on events that were over four decades in the past. Questions were also raised about the ICT’s rigour in assessing all witness depositions before it took cognisance of purported offences.

No contempt involved in demanding fair play

Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age, submitted a detailed response to the ICT on 23 October 2011. On 19 February 2012, the ICT discharged the three media persons though without observing in its obiter dicta that the article in question was indeed contemptuous. The New Age editor and the author of the impugned article were issued a grave “caution” by the ICT and told to be more mindful of the spirit and process of the law in future actions. Since the hearings of the ICT commenced, there have been reservations voiced over procedure and also its potential contribution to national reconciliation. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described the process as “essential” when he visited Bangladesh in November 2011, but international human rights bodies have been careful to underline the need for appropriate procedures and assurances of fairness. A leading figure of the civil society effort to document war crimes and build a broad consensus on the need for the trial, M.A. Hassan, has conceded that the manner in which it has been undertaken, is “fragmented”.

“We have not being able to touch the tip of the iceberg even, because 95 percent of the crimes were committed by the Pakistani army”, he says. Bangladesh’s leading human rights monitoring and campaigning body, Odhikar, has cautioned that the way in which investigating and prosecuting teams have been  “alarming”. “Witnesses were seen giving testimonies to teams in the presence of television cameras, which were later broadcast. The investigation must protect the rights of victims and witnesses, including their privacy and above all, safety”. Odhikar has drawn attention to the need for a witness protection programme. International observers have also cautioned that “trial by media” could jeopardize chances of fair judicial procedure and undermine public faith in the integrity of the trial.

A seeming political vendetta

On 31 July 2012, Mohammad Ekramul Haq, editor of the Sheersha News web portal and the associated weekly newspaper Sheersha Kagoj was arrested at his home in a neighbourhood of Dhaka on charges of extortion. He was reportedly led away blindfolded and his family was allegedly dealt with roughly by the police making the arrest.

Haq was since remanded to police custody. Charges were made against him of sending two reporters to the office of a local businessman a week before, to threaten him with negative news stories on the Sheersha News website, if a sum of Bangladesh Taka (BDT) two million (just under USD 27,000) was not handed over.

These charges were challenged by other journalists, including staff at Sheersha News, who claimed that the businessman who made the complaint against Haq before a local magistrate did not have his offices in the premises named in his complaint. Initially remanded for two days on orders of the Dhaka city magistrate, Haq’s remand was extended by another two days on August 3, after fresh charges of extortion were laid against him by the leader of an association of Bangladesh government employees.

He was finally granted bail after three months in detention. In granting bail on 25 October 2011, the Bangladesh High Court observed that the principal complainant in the case of extortion, a fruit trader from the capital Dhaka, had furnished an identity and address which proved false. Shockingly, Haq was rearrested at the gates of a Dhaka prison on 1 November, at the moment of his release on bail. A fresh case of extortion was filed on the basis of a complaint from an official of the income tax department in Dhaka.

The government of Bangladesh meanwhile, challenged the High Court bench order granting bail before the Supreme Court, which heard the matter on 2 November 2011, and declined to stay it. Meanwhile, a Dhaka trial court on 9 November ordered his continuing detention in the new cases that had been filed. Five days later, the High Court issued an injunction against implicating him in any further cases and ordered an end to the harassment. Yet it was only on 25 November 2011 that Haq was released from prison.

The course of the cases brought against Haq, the hearings and the final outcome of the bail process lent credence to initial suspicions that the multiple charges brought against him were part of a political vendetta. Observers within Bangladesh suggested that his arrest may have been retribution for news reports carried on his website and newspaper regarding allegations of corruption in public works projects in Dhaka.

On 13 September 2011, the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate issued a summons to three journalists from the Bangla language daily Jugantor, after defamation charges were laid against them by Shahjahan Khan, a minister in the Bangladesh government. Charges were brought against editor Salma Islam, executive editor Saiful Alam and reporter Jashim Chowdhury following the publication of two reports in Jugantor which questioned the high expenses incurred in foreign travel by the minister and his political associates.

A court in Jhenaidah district in the west of the country on 31 January 2012 convicted a local student, son of a political leader of the Jamaat e-Islami party, of publishing “objectionable and misleading information” on the social networking site Facebook. The individual concerned had been assaulted by loyalists of the AL after he reportedly wrote what were deemed derogatory words about Bangladesh’s first president and liberation movement icon, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his Facebook page. In declining the plea for leniency as he ordered the student jailed, the magistrate said that there was sufficient documentary evidence available to warrant a summary conclusion of guilt.

On 27 March 2012 the Amar Desh, its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, and four others, including a correspondent Walliullah Noman, in a case of defamation brought by the BTRC. The case arose from two reports published in the newspaper in October 2009, which were headlined “India Controls the BTRC”. Both Rahman, who was a senior advisor to the BNP leader Khalida Zia during her last tenure as Prime Minister, and Noman, were imprisoned on contempt charges by the Supreme Court in August 2010.  Noman had served a month-long sentence and Rahman, six months and an additional month for refusing to pay a fine.

Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Court framed charges against the daily

Since his release in March 2011, Rahman has had to respond to multiple cases of defamation brought against him, mostly by leaders and activists of the AL.

One of the most traumatic events of the year gone by was the twin murder of a journalist couple, Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, in their home in Dhaka on 11 February 2012. Sarowar was a news editor for private television channel Maasranga, and his wife Runi was a senior reporter with another private television channel, ATN Bangla. Their bodies, both bearing deep stab wounds, were discovered on the morning of 12 February by a five-year old son.

As the official investigation failed to make much headway, Bangladesh’s journalists observed a one-hour work stoppage on 27 February. The demands for a thorough investigation and the swift arrest of those responsible, were made by a broad coalition of media organisations. Failing to get much of a response, the journalists unions began a relay hunger-strike on March 2.

Dhaka city police for their part, indicated they had a fair idea of the motive behind the crime, but could not reveal any details because that, ostensibly, would impede the investigation. A city court meanwhile, issued an order restraining “speculative media commentary” on the matter.

This was read by many as an effort to restrain legitimate investigative journalism. At the time that this report is sent to press, there has been no progress in the investigations, at least as far as the public are aware.

Friday, April 20, 2012

United States, Bangladesh explores avenues of security cooperation

SALEEM SAMAD

Top United States officials and Bangladesh explored avenues of cooperation to combat terrorism, piracy and strengthen coastal patrol dominated the first-ever crucial security dialogue on Thursday.

The US embassy in a media statement said the dialogue will enhance partnerships in peacekeeping, joint military exercises and exchanges, counterterrorism, and security cooperation.

Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro held closed door parleys with senior secretary to the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mustafa Kemal.

"We discussed how Bangladesh and the United States can work together on anti-terrorism and anti-piracy activities," top official Ahmed said after the meeting in the capital Dhaka.

The day-long dialogue was held after two months after reports that the U.S. Special Forces were present in five South Asian countries, including Bangladesh.

Immediately both Dhaka and Washington dismissed the notion of deployment of American Special Forces in the region, except for training purpose.

During the war against terror, Bangladesh was among the first few Muslim majority country to have lent it political and logistic support to the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Since then Bangladesh armed forces have collaborated in several joint military exercise with the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow in journalism, is a Bangladesh based award winning investigative reporter. He is student of Islamic militancy, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was twice detained and tortured. Once in 1982 and second in 2002. Later he was expelled in 2004 from Bangladesh for whistle-blowing of the arrival of Jihadists from international terror network. He recently returned home from Canada. His email: saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

British Muslim leader faces war crimes charges in Bangladesh over murders during country's independence struggle

• Mueen-Uddin allegedly linked to crimes during 1970s• Faces death sentence if convicted

IAN GARLAND

One of Britain’s top Muslim activists is facing war crimes charges in Bangladesh.

Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, the director of Muslim spiritual care provision in the NHS and a trustee of the charity Muslim Aid, is accused of involvement in the abduction and murder of ‘intellectuals’ during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in the 1970s.

Mr Mueen-Uddin has denied any involvement in the crimes he has been allegedly linked with - but faces the death penalty if convicted.

Mr Mueen-Uddin moved to Britain from Bangladesh in the early 1970s and has since become a British citizen and forged a successful career as a community activist and Muslim leader.

In 1989 he was a key figure in the protests against Salman Rushdie controversial book, The Satanic Verses.

And he was photographed with Prince Charles when the heir visited a Islamic centre in Leicester in 2003.

In the early 1970s, before he moved to Britain, Mr Mueen-Uddin was a member of Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist party that supported Pakistan during Bangladesh’s fight for independence.

As it became clear Pakistan was losing the war, a number of prominent Bangladeshi citizens were rounded up and killed by a militia - a bid to deprive the new state of its intellectual elite.

Mohammad Abdul Hannan Khan, the chief investigator for the country’s International Crimes Tribunal, claims to have evidence Mr Mureen-Uddin was involved in the militia.

He told the Telegraph: ‘There is prima facie evidence of Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin being involved in a series of killings of intellectuals.

‘We have made substantial progress in the case against him. There is no chance that he will not be indicted and prosecuted. We expect charges in June.’

The evidence includes the testimony of the widows of those who disappeared - including Dolly Chaudhury, who claims Mr Mueen-Uddin was one of three men who abducted her scholar husband Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury, on 14 December 1971.

Another member of the group who was caught allegedly gave Mr Mueen-Uddin’s name in his confession.

Mr Mueen-Uddin claimed the charges were entirely politically motivated.


His lawyer Toby Cadman told the Daily Telegraph: ‘No formal allegations have been put to Mr Mueen-Uddin and therefore it is not appropriate to issue any formal response.


‘Any and all allegations that Mr Mueen-Uddin committed or participated in any criminal conduct during the Liberation War of 1971 that have been put in the past will continue to be strongly denied in their entirety.’

First published The Mail Online, London, Britain, 15 April 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bangladesh satellite orbital position opposed by United States, other countries

SALEEM SAMAD


Bangladesh ambition space program to launch a communication satellite has drawn cold shoulder from 20 countries, including United States, Russia, France and Australia.

The country’s $150 million plan to launch a satellite by 2015 now seems to be uncertain.

The officials said on Monday that the countries opposed the Bangladesh satellite orbital position, as state telecommunication regulator applied for approval to send the satellite in 102 degree slot.
The state Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC)  said they have applied to ITU (International Telecommunications Union) to send the satellite named after independence hero “Bangabandhu” for 102 degree slot.

The countries who raised the objections argued that the Bangladesh request the position of the satellite likely to have frequency problem.

Space Partnership International (SPI), the U.S. based space satellite consultant for Bangladesh is working to enable that both parties could be benefited.

Bangladesh has alternative plan to send satellite at 69 degree east slot if it is refused the 102 degree orbit. However, ITU will give final decision regarding slot approval.
On the other hand, if Bangladesh is given the 69 degree slot, then Malaysia, Singapore, China are likely to raise objections, BTRC chairman Major General Zia Ahmed said.

Bangladesh spends $ 11-million annually for renting satellite for the local satellite television channels, telephone and radio.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow in journalism, is a Bangladesh based award winning investigative reporter. He is student of Islamic militancy, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was twice detained and tortured. Once in 1982 and second in 2002. Later he was expelled in 2004 from Bangladesh for whistle-blowing of the arrival of Jihadists from international terror network. He recently returned home from Canada. His email: saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Monday, April 16, 2012

Leading British Muslim leader faces war crimes charges in Bangladesh


Photo: Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, left, with the Prince of Wales at the Markfield Islamic Foundation, Leics

One of Britain's most important Muslim leaders is to be charged with war crimes, investigators and officials have told The Sunday Telegraph

ANDREW GILLIGAN, Dhaka

Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, director of Muslim spiritual care provision in the NHS, a trustee of the major British charity Muslim Aid and a central figure in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain, fiercely denies any involvement in a number of abductions and "disappearances" during Bangladesh's independence struggle in the 1970s.

He says the claims are "politically-motivated" and false.

However, Mohammad Abdul Hannan Khan, the chief investigator for the country's International Crimes Tribunal, said: "There is prima facie evidence of Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin being involved in a series of killings of intellectuals.

"We have made substantial progress in the case against him. There is no chance that he will not be indicted and prosecuted. We expect charges in June."

Mr Mueen-Uddin could face the death penalty if convicted.

Bangladesh's Law and Justice Minister, Shafique Ahmed, said: "He was an instrument of killing intellectuals. He will be charged, for sure."

For 25 years after independence from Britain, the country now known as Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, even though the two halves were a thousand miles apart with India between them. In 1971, Bangla resentment at the "colonial" nature of Pakistani rule broke out into a full-scale revolt.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians were massacred by Pakistani troops.

Mr Mueen-Uddin, then a journalist on the Purbodesh newspaper in Dhaka, was a member of a fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported Pakistan in the war. In the closing days, as it became clear that Pakistan had lost, he is accused of being part of a collaborationist Bangla militia, the Al-Badr Brigade, which rounded up, tortured and killed prominent citizens to deprive the new state of its intellectual and cultural elite.

The widow of one such victim, Dolly Chaudhury, claims to have identified Mr Mueen-Uddin as one of three men who abducted her husband, Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury, a prominent scholar of Bengali literature, on the night of 14 December 1971.

"I was able to identify one [of the abductors], Mueen-Uddin," she said in video testimony, seen by The Sunday Telegraph, which will form part of the prosecution case.

"He was wearing a scarf but my husband pulled it down as he was taken away. When he was a student, he often used to go to my brother in law's house. My husband, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, we all recognised that man."

Professor Chaudhury was never seen again.

Also among the as yet untested testimony is the widow of another victim, who claims that Mr Mueen-Uddin was in the group that abducted her husband, Sirajuddin Hussain, another journalist, from their home on the night of 10 December 1971.

"There was no doubt that he was the person involved in my husband's abduction and killing," said Noorjahan Seraji. One of the other members of the group, who was caught soon afterwards, allegedly gave Mr Mueen-Uddin's name in his confession.

Another reporter on Purbodesh, Ghulam Mostafa, also disappeared.

The vanished journalist's brother, Dulu, said he appealed to Mr Mueen-Uddin for help and was taken around the main Pakistani Army detention and torture centres by Mr Mueen-Uddin. Dulu Mostafa said that Mr Mueen-Uddin appeared to be well known at the detention centres, gained easy admission to the premises and was saluted by the Pakistani guards as he entered. Ghulam was never found.

Mr Mueen-Uddin's then editor at the paper, Atiqur Rahman, said that Mr Mueen-Uddin had been the first journalist in the country to reveal the existence of the Al-Badr Brigade and had demonstrated intimate knowledge of its activities.

After his colleagues disappeared, he said, Mr Mueen-Uddin had asked for his home address. Fearing that he too would be abducted, the editor gave a fake address. Mr Rahman's name, complete with the fake address, appeared on a Al-Badr death list found just after the end of the war.

"I gave that address only to Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, and when that list appeared it was obvious that he had given that address to Al Badr," Mr Rahman said in statements given to the investigators.

"I'm sure I gave the address to no-one else."

Mr Rahman then published a front-page story and picture about Mr Mueen-Uddin, who had by that stage left the city, naming him as involved in "disappearances."

This brought forward two further witnesses, Mushtaqur and Mahmudur Rahman, who claim they recognised the picture as somebody who had been part of an armed group looking for the BBC correspondent in Dhaka during the abductions. The group was unsuccessful because the BBC man had gone into hiding.

Toby Cadman, Mr Mueen-Uddin's lawyer, said on Saturday: "No formal allegations have been put to Mr Mueen-Uddin and therefore it is not appropriate to issue any formal response. Any and all allegations that Mr Mueen-Uddin committed or participated in any criminal conduct during the Liberation War of 1971 that have been put in the past will continue to be strongly denied in their entirety.

"For the Chief Investigator to be making such public comment raises serious questions as to the integrity of the investigation. The Chief Investigator will be aware that the decision as to the bringing of charges is made by the Prosecutor and not an investigator.

"Therefore, the comments by the Chief Investigator are highly improper and serves as a further basis for raising the question as to whether a fair trial may be guaranteed before the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh.

"The statement by the Bangladesh Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs is a clear declaration of guilt and in breach of the presumption of innocence."

Since moving to the UK in the early 1970s, Mr Mueen-Uddin has taken British citizenship and built a successful career as a community activist and Muslim leader.

In 1989 he was a key leader of protests against the Salman Rushdie book, The Satanic Verses.
Around the same time he helped to found the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe, Jamaat-e-Islami's European wing, which believes in creating a sharia state in Europe and in 2010 was accused by a Labour minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, of infiltrating the Labour Party.

Tower Hamlets' directly-elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, was expelled from Labour for his close links with the IFE.

Until 2010 Mr Mueen-Uddin was vice-chairman of the controversial East London Mosque, controlled by the IFE, in which capacity he greeted Prince Charles when the heir to the throne opened an extension to the mosque. He was also closely involved with the Muslim Council of Britain, which has been dominated by the IFE.

He was chairman and remains a trustee of the IFE-linked charity, Muslim Aid, which has a budget of £20 million. He has also been closely involved in the Markfield Institute, the key institution of Islamist higher education in the UK.

The International Crimes Tribunal, a new body set up to try alleged "war criminals" from the 1971 war, has already begun trying some Bangladesh-based leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami.

Trials were originally supposed to start soon after the war but were cancelled by the military after a coup.

The new tribunal was welcomed by most Bangladeshis and international human rights groups as finally bringing justice and closure for the massive abuses suffered by civilians in 1971.

However, it is now subject to growing international criticism. Human Rights Watch said that the ICT's proceedings "fall short of international standards" with a "failure to ensure due process" and "serious concerns about the impartiality of the bench."

"The chairman of the tribunal was formerly one of the investigators," said Abdur Razzaq, lead counsel for the defence.

"As chairman, he will be pronouncing on an investigation report he himself produced."

The law minister, Mr Ahmed, denied this. Mr Razzaq described the tribunal as "vendetta politics" by Bangladesh's ruling Awami League against its political opponents.

Any trial of Mr Mueen-Uddin would also be fraught with practical difficulties. There is no extradition treaty between Britain and Bangladesh and the UK does not extradite in death penalty cases. Many of the witnesses are elderly and some have died.

However, Mr Hannan Khan said that Mr Mueen-Uddin was likely to be tried in absentia if he did not return.

"We have a duty to bring alleged perpetrators to justice," he said.

"They must know the fear, however long ago it was. What happened here forty years ago is on the conscience of the world."

"I have waited 40 years to see the trial of the war criminals," said the widow, Noorjahan Seraji.

"I have not spent a single night without suffering and I want justice."

First published in The Sunday Telegraph, London, UK, 15 April, 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lifting of tsunami alert brings sigh of relief in Bangladesh

SALEEM SAMAD

WITH A big sigh of relief the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Japan Metrological Agency has withdrawn the tsunami watch issued in the evening issued for Bangladesh and other Indian Ocean countries following a powerful earthquake and two strong aftershocks off Indonesia on Wednesday.

Meanwhile Bangladesh capital and other places experienced two medium tremors at around 14:38 (local time), but authorities said there appeared to be no threat of a tsunami.
The center also lifted the warning from India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia shortly afterwards.

The tsunami warning came in the wake of an earthquake followed by aftershocks that jolted various parts of the country, including the capital, triggering widespread panic among people.
Shamsuddin Ahmed, an assistant director of Bangladesh Meteorological Department, said earlier the Pacific Centre issued a tsunami warning for Bangladesh other countries of the Indian Ocean.

Dhaka University's earth observatory's caretaker Professor Humayun Akhter said, "The tremor in Bangladesh resulted from the earthquake in Sumatra. The tremor registered a 3.8 magnitude on the Richter scale."

The quake was felt as far away as Singapore, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage in Bangladesh.

Prof. Humayun Akter, head of the Earthquake Observatory Centre said after Wednesday’s earthquakes that Bangladesh will remain safe from any devastating tsunami.

“The tsunami route is East-West. Bangladesh is situated at the north of Indonesia. So, Bangladesh will remain safe from tsunami,” said Dr Humayun. 

Dr Humayun said a devastating tsunami hit Indonesia after a 9.1 earthquake in 2004 claiming 230,000 lives in 13 nations and that tsunami did not affect Bangladesh.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow in journalism, is a Bangladesh based award winning investigative reporter. He is student of Islamic militancy, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was twice detained and tortured. Once in 1982 and second in 2002. Later he was expelled in 2004 from Bangladesh for whistle-blowing of the arrival of Jihadists from international terror network. He recently returned home from Canada. His email: saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bangladesh war crimes suspect escapes police dragnet

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH MOST-WANTED war crimes suspect escaped police dragnet and flees to India on his final destination to Pakistan.

Home minister Shahara Khatun on Tuesday told reporters that the authority will seek help from Interpol to arrest suspect Abul Kalam Azad aka 'Bachchu Razakar'.

Quoting close relatives of Azad, elite anti-crime forces Rapid Action Battalion on Monday at late night press meet told that he had left Dhaka on Mar. 30 and fled to India on Apr. 2.

The country’s International Crimes Tribunal issued arrest warrant for Azad on Apr. 2 for his alleged involvement with crimes against humanity committed in Faridpur, in the west of capital Dhaka during the bloody war of independence in 1971.

Meanwhile, elite police forces detained two sons and a brother-in-law of Azad for obstruction of justice and abetting the fugitive war crimes suspect to flee the country. They are being grilled by police.

The 64 year old Azad was described by war crimes investigators as henchman of marauding Pakistan army responsible for genocide of millions, sexual abuse of Hindu women and torching villages suspected for harboring guerillas.

Azad is accused for abduction, murder and missing of scores of pro-independence supporters. He was an accomplice of jailed Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujaheed, leader of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami also charged with crime against humanity.

Only recently, Azad was a popular TV host of Islamic program. A Muslim evangelist had often travelled abroad including United States advocating for converting a pro-secular Bangladesh into an Islamic state and implementation of Sharia laws, a strict Islamic code.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow in journalism, is a Bangladesh based award winning investigative reporter. He is student of Islamic militancy, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was twice detained and tortured. Once in 1982 and second in 2002. Later he was expelled in 2004 from Bangladesh for whistle-blowing of the arrival of Jihadists from international terror network. He recently returned home from Canada. His email: saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Female Factor: Success in a Land Known for Disasters

Photo: Munem Wasif for the International Herald Tribune: Nur Jahan cared for a relative at a hospital. Ms. Jahan worked on a road maintenance crew for two years and hopes to one day run for a local government position.

BETTINA WASSENER

SOMESHPUR, Bangladesh — To many outsiders, Bangladesh is best known for its poverty and the natural disasters that hit it with depressing regularity.

When it comes to the position of women, however, this country has made progress that would be unthinkable in many other Muslim societies. Bangladeshi women have served in U.N. peacekeeping missions. There are women ambassadors, doctors, engineers and pilots. Two powerful women — the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her political rival, Khaleda Zia — have been alternating at the country’s helm for years. The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women is 19.7 percent, not much lower than the 22.3 percent in the British House of Commons.

“This is a country where women are active in every field,” Dipu Moni, the minister of foreign affairs, said at her office in Dhaka, the capital. Ms. Moni, the daughter of a prominent politician and a Western-educated lawyer and physician, has campaigned for years for women’s rights and improved health provisions in the country.

Such efforts by successive governments and development organizations have led to major improvements in the lives of women across the country, with expanded access to health care and basic education in rural and urban areas. Decades of microlending and, more recently, the burgeoning garment sector have underpinned the progress by turning millions of women into breadwinners for their families.

Nur Jahan, who lives in Someshpur, a ramshackle village of about 1,000 people four hours from Dhaka, illustrates how tough life remains for many Bangladeshi women, but also how many women’s lives are transforming.

Ms. Jahan’s husband abandoned her, penniless and in rags, on the main square of Someshpur when she was pregnant with her second child about 10 years ago. A compact and vivacious woman who is about 26 years old — no one keeps exact records — Ms. Jahan spent years doing odd jobs for other households to keep herself and her children above water. In a country that ranks as one of the poorest in the world, she was about as low as it is possible to get.

Then, two years ago, luck finally arrived, in the form of a development project that arranged for women who had been widowed or left by their husbands to get jobs maintaining roads in the vicinity.

The project, funded by the European Union and the U.N. Development Program, and implemented with the assistance of local governments, helped about 24,400 women like Ms. Jahan across Bangladesh.

For two years, they cleared shrubs and smoothed surfaces. They were paid 100 taka, or about $1.20, a day. But the savings they accumulated allowed many of them to buy a plot of land or a humble dwelling. In addition, they were taught to start tiny businesses that should allow them to make a living going forward.

Ms. Jahan now makes and sells compost, and trades dried fish. Others in the village sell wood, cookies or stationery for a slim profit. One became the proud owner of a hand loom. Instead of being destitute, these women are now merely poor. They can afford to eat and to send their children to school.

Ms. Jahan hopes to run for a local government position in a few years. Already, people come to her for help, she explained proudly. Recently, the relatives of a sick neighbor asked her to accompany them to the local clinic. Before, they would have hardly looked at her.

“When I think about my past, I want to cry,” she said. “When I think about life now, it is nothing but smiles.”

The roots of much of the development work were laid in the aftermath of the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. What started off as efforts to support the tens of thousands of women who were widowed during the fighting was later expanded into much wider efforts to alleviate poverty and facilitate women’s empowerment, said Ferdousi Sultana Begum, senior social development officer at the Asian Development Bank in Dhaka.

“There is still a long way to go, but there has been a lot of gradual progress, especially over the past two decades,” she said. Girls’ education, in particular, has been embraced widely, she added.

Statistics, too, underline the improvement in women’s lives. The number of births by teenage mothers, for example, plummeted to 78.9 per 1,000 in 2010 from 130.5 in 2000. That is still high by Western standards (the figure for the United States is 41.2), but it is below the 86.3 recorded in India.

Fewer babies die in Bangladesh than in India: 52 out of 1,000, compared with 66 in India and 87 in Pakistan.

And population growth has been stemmed. In the late 1980s, women in Bangladesh had on average 5.1 children. By 2009, the rate had been more than halved, to 2.3. India has a rate of 2.7, according to the World Bank.

The progress comes despite the toughest of backdrops. Over all, Bangladesh ranks 146th of 187 countries on an index measuring human development compiled by the U.N. Development Program — ahead of Myanmar and many African countries but behind Iraq. Nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty. Corruption, red tape and poor infrastructure mar everyday life. Access to clean water and electricity is scarce in the villages that dot the flat landscape of the country, whose 160 million inhabitants squeeze into an area smaller than Florida and larger than Greece.

Conservative traditions are deeply enshrined in this country, where about 70 percent of the population lives in the countryside. There are frequent reports of domestic violence, often related to demands for dowry payments. And many women who have achieved top leadership positions owe their prominence in part to powerful male relatives.

But while women in many other Muslim nations are seeing their rights eroded by the rise of conservative Islamism, this is not the case in Bangladesh. Extremism is a fringe phenomenon, and women’s development projects encounter little religious opposition.

The country is predominantly Muslim, but moderate; Buddhist and Hindu traditions are widely respected, and there is a widespread acceptance of the concept that women can work outside the home.

Microlending, which took off in the 1980s, has allowed many women to start tiny businesses over the years.

More recently, millions of people have found work in the garment sector, which accounts for about three-quarters of exports from Bangladesh.

At the Mustafa Garments Industries factory in the southeastern port city of Chittagong, hundreds of women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were recently bent over sewing machines and cutting tables, making shorts for customers in the United States and Europe.

The factory employs about 500 people — 95 percent of them women — who earn between 4,500 and 5,000 taka a month, according to Kallol Majumder, the general manager. That is about $2 a day — but even that gives them breadwinner status. And it underlines the fact that women in Bangladesh are not simply recipients of Western charity, but active economic agents in their own right.

Bangladesh is undergoing a structural change in the economy, from agricultural to manufacturing,” said Stefan Priesner, the U.N. Development Program country director in Dhaka. “Women have played a huge role in this.”

On the education front, men still outnumber women in universities. But the number of women enrolling has risen steadily. In an attempt to help redress the balance, a women-only university was set up in Chittagong in 2008.

Kamal Ahmad, a Bangladeshi who worked for many years in development organizations and as a lawyer in the United States and Britain, spent years raising donations and lobbying the government for land for the university. The goal for the Asian University for Women, he said, is to create women leaders capable of bringing about change across Asia.

The first class is expected to graduate next year, and many of the students already have plans to set up businesses, campaign groups, banks or schools in their 12 respective home countries.

“I have a real responsibility to help social progress,” said Moumita Basak, a bubbly 21-year-old from Chittagong. Her goal: to become a writer, and set up organizations aimed at promoting social causes.

First published in The New York Times, New York, USA, April 9, 2012