Monthly Coupon

Friday, August 31, 2007

Bangladesh: Ethnic & Cultural minorities living on the edges of violence

Photo: Militarisation in Chittagong Hill Tracts has increased violence, insecurity and threat to indigenous population's tradition and culture in hill forests

IN a major development, Chief of Bangladesh Army and de facto ruler of the country, General Moeen U Ahmed visited Dighinala of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) on August 28, 2007. While nothing has been made public nor reported in the press in Bangladesh, the visit is significant considering that the government of Bangladesh has intensified the settlement of illegal plain settlers into the CHTs and repression on the indigenous Jumma activists.

The Sadhana Tila area under Dighinala, which comprises of about 300 acres of land, and houses a Buddhist Meditation Center and a sizable indigenous Jumma population, has become the flashpoint of the conflict. Since 13 August 2007, indigenous Jumma peoples and illegal plain settlers supported by the military personnel and the police have been living on the edges of an impending communal riot. Bangladesh army personnel led by Dighinala Zone Commander, Major Qamrul Hassan ordered the Buddhist monks of the Meditation Centre and the indigenous people to leave Sadhana Tila area in order to settle over 800 illegal plain settlers' families.

As indigenous Jumma peoples refused to comply, trucks and jeeps load of illegal settlers have been coming to Sadhana Tila and cutting the jungle around the Buddhist temple for constructing houses under the protection and command of the army and the police personnel. The army personnel have reportedly announced an incentive grant of Taka 50,000 for each settler family who will be willing to settle there, in addition to Taka 1,000 as monthly allowance. The army personnel have also reportedly threatened to cut free food rations to those settlers who do not want to settle in Sadhana Tila area. In the meantime, the local administrator of Dighinala has been asked to provide forged land documents to the settlers.

The illegal settlers are in a riotous mood. On 23 August 2007 at about 5 pm, a group of illegal settlers broke into the temple boundary and began cutting tress and shrubs belonging to the temple. When the Jumma villagers protested, the army and the police falsely accused the Buddhist monks of possessing arms and wanted to search the temple. A violent confrontation between the Jummas and the illegal settlers was narrowly prevented after the intervention of Union Council Chairman, Paritosh Chakma. With the ban on “indoor politics”, Jummas are not in a position to highlight the atrocities.

If the Buddhist temple is destroyed and indigenous peoples living in the Sadhana Tila are evicted even after the visit of General Moeen U Ahmed, it will once again prove that the racist programmes like implantation of illegal plain settlers to decimate indigenous Jumma peoples have the sanction of the highest authority in Bangladesh.

I. Continued forcible land grabbing by illegal settlers and Bangladesh military
The case of Sadhana Tila is not an isolated one. The forcible land grabbing by the illegal settlers and the Bangladesh military has intensified after the imposition of Emergency in January 2007.

In another recent case of forcible land grabbing, the illegal settlers have reportedly grabbed 59 acres of land belonging to 17 Jumma peoples in Kobakhali Mouza (No. 51) under Dighinala Police Station in Khagracahri district. In an operation from 1 to 15 August 2007, large groups of illegal settlers led by former Union Parishad (UP) member Md. Abu Taleb of Hashinchonpur village and former UP member Md Kader of Kobakhali bazaar took control of the hilly lands of the indigenous Chakma peoples with the direct assistance of the army personnel, the para-military forces and the local Village Defence Party members. Due to the presence of the Bangladesh security forces, which provided protection to the illegal setters, the Jummas could not offer any resistance. Presently, works for construction of houses in the lands seized from the indigenous peoples are reportedly underway. The army has reportedly planned to settle 200 plain settlers' families in Kobakhali Mouza.

In June 2007, the Bangladesh military reportedly settled down at least 200 families of illegal settlers at Dantkupya village under Khagrachari district after forcibly evicting 12 indigenous families from their ancestral lands. Earlier, on 8 March 2007, an army camp was set up on the land of an indigenous jumma, Prithwiraj Chakma at Dantkupya village to provide security to the settler families.

In March 2007, the Ruma army cantonment acquired about 7,570 acres of ancestral land of indigenous peoples for expansion of Ruma garrison and ordered more than 4,000 indigenous families mostly belonging to Mro community to leave the area. The Mro leaders have not been consulted before acquiring the land. According to the Movement for Protection of Land Rights and Forest, a land rights organisation based in Rangamati, in Bandarban district alone, 40,077 acres of land have been given in lease to the illegal settlers while a total 94,066 acres of land were acquired for so-called afforestation projects and 75,686 acres were acquired for establishment of military bases in the district.

II. Extrajudicial killings
The Bangladesh military has unleashed a reign of terror across the CHTs by carrying out extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, lodging false cases and terrorizing the people by frequent raids, military operations, torture, threats and intimidation.

At least two indigenous persons have been extrajudicially killed in the custody of the Bangladesh security forces in CHTs since the declaration of Emergency.

On 5 August 2007, Rasel Chakma, son of Paritosh Chakma of Dewan Para village under Naniarchar sub-district in Rangamati district was arrested by the security forces and killed in custody. The security forces claimed that he died of heart attack but the body reportedly bore injury marks.

Earlier On 3 March 2007, a group of army personnel from Ghilachari camp under Naniachar Thana arrested Suresh Mohan Chakma, son of Phedera Chakma at Choichari village in Rangamati district without any warrant or reason. The victim was tortured at Ghilachari army camp in Rangamati district and he died on 7 March 2007, a day after being released.

III. Suppression of indigenous activists
The jumma activists have been unfairly targeted by the Bangladesh military taking advantage of the Emergency situation. Since the declaration of Emergency on 11 January 2007, at least 50 Jumma activists have been arrested, including 20 members of PCJSS and 10 members of UPDF.

False cases such as extortion, kidnapping, murder etc have been lodged against the arrested jumma activists. During raids, the Bangladesh military plant their (army's) arms and ammunitions and claim to have recovered the same from the houses of the indigenous activists to show a ground for arrest. Most cases have been filed under Section 16(b) of the Emergency Power Rules of 2007 which denies release on bail to the accused during the enquiry, investigation and trial of the case. Many have been indicted by courts under the Arms Act.

In July 2007, Satyabir Dewan, General Secretary of PCJSS; Ranglai Mro, Chairman of Sualok Union Parishad (Council) and headman of Sualok mouza; and Bikram Marma, President of PCJSS, Kaptai upazila branch were sentenced to 17 years of jail each by the court in Chittagong under the Arms Act of 1878 for allegedly possessing illegal arms. Another indigenous leader, Sai Mong Marma, Organizing Secretary, Kaptai upazila branch of PCJSS was sentenced to 10 years in jail under the Arms Act.

It has been widely alleged that these indigenous leaders have been implicated under the Arms Act for protesting against the injustices committed by the Bangladesh military in CHTs. For example, Ranglai Mro was targeted for protesting against the eviction of 750 families of Mro indigenous community from their land to make way for an army training centre in remote villages of the Bandarban Hill District in December 2006.

On 3 June 2007, indigenous peoples' human rights defender, Santoshito Chakma alias Bakul (52 years), who also serves as the General Secretary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Jumma Refugee Welfare Association was arrested by the Bangladesh Police from the Chengi Square in Khagrachari town. His arrest was totally unlawful and politically motivated. He was arrested when he was returning home after attending a meeting of the Task Force on rehabilitation of the returnee Jumma refugees at the Circuit House. The police did not give any reason for his arrest.

On 29 May 2007, Mr Milton Chakma, Assistant Coordinator of the Hill Watch Human Rights Forum and also a leader of United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), was arrested from Chengi Bridge in Khagrachari without any arrest memo. Mr Chakma was shown arrested on the basis of a First Information Report (FIR) filed by Md. Shahidul Islam, Sergeant (No. 3998686) of 24 Bengal Regiment. In the army records, he has been shown arrested on 31 May 2007, although the Bangladesh army had picked him up on 29 May 2007 from Chengi Bridge area. He was implicated in a false murder case.

Earlier on 5 May 2007, Tatindra Lal Chakma, Central Member of PCJSS, was arrested in connection with false extortion case filed by Md. Fuyad Hussain, Manager of Grameen Bank of Babuchara branch with Dighinala police station in Khagrachari district. The Bangladesh military allegedly compelled Md. Fuyad Hussain to file the false case against Tatindra Lal Chakma. This was proved when the complainant denied involvement of Tatindra Lal Chakma before the court and the court granted bail to Tatindra Lal Chakma in June 2007. But the bail was cancelled on 23 July 2007 as Md. Fuyad Hussain was forced to withdraw his statement under tremendous pressure from the Bangladesh military. Again on 2 August 2007, two false cases of murder have reportedly been filed against Tatindra Lal Chakma with the Dighinala Police Station to ensure that he is not released from jail. Presently, he has been kept at Khagrachari jail.

IV. Peace in tatters
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord has been in tatters much before the care-taker government assumed powers. Even when the democratically elected governments were in power, the army enjoyed unbridled powers which resulted in blatant violations of rights of the Jummas. Since the imposition of the Emergency, the situation in the CHTs deteriorated drastically.

The direction of the High Court on 27 August 2007 to the government of Bangladesh to explain as to why the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord of 1997 signed with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) should not be declared “illegal” has come as a shot in the arms of the military. The two-judge bench comprising Justice Shah Abu Nayeem Mominur Rahman and Justice Zubayer Rahman Chowdhury has already set aside certain provision of the Accord by directing the authorities to allow the illegal plain settlers who were implanted into the Chittagong Hill Tracts to register themselves in the voters' list.

The government will not challenge the directions of the High Court to enroll the illegal settlers into the voters' list. Irrespective of whether the constitutional validity of the Accord is upheld or not, the renewed implantation of illegal settlers and continued land grabbing poses the most serious threat to the indigenous Jumma peoples. With indigenous leaders being implicated in false cases, one can protest against such policies in Bangladesh only at own peril. #

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The picture that disturbed the equanimity of Gen. Moeen and his foot soldiers


I chanced to see the photo of a fleeing and terrified military officer who was about to be kicked from behind by a protester. The officer was probably worried and he wanted to get away from the main street and that explains why he was in hurry to retreat. It was a lucky day for the protester that the photographer very cleverly did not take the image of his face. Or else, he would be caught and taken at midnight hour for interrogation; never mind the physical abuse.

When I saw the image for the very first time, I chuckled to myself and did not think seriously about the ramification of this photo. But how wrong was I? On August 28, 2007 I saw the photo again in the net but this time it was in BBC news and the title of the news story was “It is an image that has caused the army much embarrassment.” I personally found the story as depicted in the BBC write-up a very intriguing one.

This image of a hatless army officer in terrified retreat and the sandled feet of a demonstrator about to kick the behind of the retreating army officer epitomizes the mess the joint forces of army, RAB, and police have made in Bangladesh during the three-day demonstration in late August 2007 in which tens and thousands of protestors took to the streets in bold defiance of the stricter laws that prohibit milling of ordinary citizens for the purpose of protestation.

While vividly describing the image, the BBC news man John Sudworth put it evocatively the mess the military is in right now in Bangladesh. He wrote as follows – “If a single image can sum up the thorny mess into which Bangladesh has once again stumbled, then this perhaps is it.”

John Sudworth was talking to rank and file of Bangladesh military on the first night of the curfew and he found out that the foot soldiers of Bangladesh were not very happy seeing the image in popular press. The BBC reporter summed it up as follows: “Its publication was seen as a humiliation, every bit as great as if that flying sandaled foot had been aimed at the behind of the army chief himself.”

What followed after quelling the rebellion is equally disturbing. The government's secret police visited the quarters of a few senior university teachers and they took them to unnamed destination where they were interrogated and tortured to extract information about student-led rebellion of the masses.

The chief advisor, law and information advisor, and the army chief had openly said that the mass rebellion was staged by the “enemy” of the nation by pumping crores of Taka (Bangladesh's monetary unit). They also put forth their pet notion that the rebellion was squashed by the government forces; therefore, a disaster was averted and Bangladesh saved from a bloody civil war. The same trio representing the government had said that a conspiracy was hatched to take advantage of the student protest to destabilize the nation and which was foiled.

The military-back government decided to teach a lesson to university professors who they think had instigated the student-led rebellion. Therefore, five professors were rounded up a la Gestapo tactic. At wee hours of the night the government’s secret service men armed to their teeth knock on the door to arrest these professors. The harrowing tale of the arrest of Prof. Anwar Hossain was narrated by his son, Sanjeeb Hossain. The family members did not know the whereabouts of Dr. Hossain but few days later the family learned via a whispering voice coming through a cellphone that he would be in a court. There, Sanjeeb met his father very briefly; they exchanged vital information and the professor told his son of the ordeal he had gone through. Apparently the senior professor was subjected to both psychological and physical torture.

Needless to say, this is a way with the military in Bangladesh. Only months ago a community leader belonging to minority Garo tribe by the name Choles Ritchil was whisked away by military men from a bridal party and later he was found lying dead with torture mark allover his body. Trust me, this won’t happen to the arrested professors because not only they are important people but also all eyes are on them. Through the blazing speed of the Internet expatriate Bangalees allover the world has come to know the plights of the arrested professors and some activists have already wrote e-petition and gathering signatures electronically. Mind you, some of these petitions are being directed to the U.N. Secretary General who may decide the fate of Bangladesh military for future peacekeeping mission. The other petitions are will be forwarded to various senators, congressmen in the U.S. and to the EU secretariat. Bangladesh depends heavily on donor nations for funding the nation's myriad developmental project. These days it is not difficult to launch a PR campaign via information highway. The military of Bangladesh may have their weapons but the expatriate Bangalees have far more powerful weapon to strangulate them via e-petitions.

Thanks also to the Internet for the dissemination of very disturbing images and accompanying news stories. They help form an opinion and trust me this time around many expatriate Bangalees who had the view that the military-backed interim government was onto doing some good work for the country by arresting some vile and corrupt politicians but when they learned that this wayward government is very much involved in other controversial things such as eviction of poor people from urban slums, re-engineering political parties, arresting many politicians on fabricated charges, and above all doing very little to check the soaring prices of everyday kitchen items, their cumulative ire fell on military who is the purveyor of Fakhruddin Administration.

Gen. Moeen, the man behind the interim government, cut his trip short and returned to Dhaka where he said that the military has averted a civil war. By all accounts, the student-led protest movement developed extemporaneously (carried out without much preparation) but the chief advisor, law and information advisor, and Gen. Moeen had smelled a conspiracy. Without naming any group or people they all said that the student protest movement was hijacked by the “enemy” of the state to destabilize and pit common masses against the army.

As the army-backed government of Fakhruddin was revealing its true color, the students at Dhaka University looked at the army inside the campus with nothing more than disdain and contempt. These soldiers suddenly represented Gen. Moeen and other military leaders who are the real power behind the civilian-led government. They did not like their presence in the campus. Therefore, when the soldiers roughed up some students, all the ire they had on army Generals fell on the garden variety soldiers. The protest movement then spilled over to neighboring areas and before one could count ten the movement spread like a wild fire. Strange things are known to happen when masses run amuck in the streets. The humiliation the army faced because of the photo of a terrified and retreating soldier graced the page of a popular newspaper. It was bad for the ego of Bangladesh military. That is the only reason when a military officer on patrol met BBC correspondent John Sudworth in the dead of the night, he said that how he hated that photo. The officer also thought that the newspaper was irresponsible to publish that image.

The blissful and easy cantonment life in Kurmitola that is full of hubris will never be the same after the publication of that disdainful image of the retreating and panic-stricken military officer. Bangladesh’s military perhaps needed this humiliation to make them understand that the public is upper hand because they pay for the easy lifestyle of an army that has no external enemy. No wonder Bangladesh army ever fought against any external enemy since the bloody birth of this nation in 1971. Just think for a moment how much of the GDP was siphoned year-after-year to look after this privileged men in uniform who only know how to turn their weapon against the public who foot their bill. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

Photo the Bangladesh army cannot stand

If a single image can sum up the thorny mess into which Bangladesh has once again stumbled, then this perhaps is it.

Photo caption: The image has caused the army much embarrassment

A sandaled demonstrator in mid-air kick and a hatless army officer in terrified retreat.

In the background, bystanders hurry away. Out of shot, a military vehicle burns and the security forces are in danger of losing control to the angry mob.

The photo gives a momentary glimpse of just how bad things got during three days of violent protest that rocked cities across Bangladesh last week.

But the picture is significant for another reason. As we found out on the first night of the curfew imposed to contain the trouble it was an image that deeply upset the Bangladeshi rank and file.

Its publication was seen as a humiliation, every bit as great as if that flying sandaled foot had been aimed at the behind of the army chief himself.

Shortly after the curfew came into effect on Wednesday night, the BBC team was out filming.
No one was sure whether the media would be allowed to move freely.

Dhaka's streets, normally a round-the-clock festival of noise, were deserted.

Road blocks and checkpoints were being manned by the paramilitaries and the army was on patrol.

'Wrong message'
Sure enough our presence was soon noticed.

Two army jeeps pulled up sharply and a young officer jumped out. We were ordered to drop the camera as he radioed back to his base.

After a tense stand-off the message was relayed that we could continue filming "as long as we didn't give the wrong message to the country".

But in true Bangladeshi style the officer and I were soon the best of friends.

In the middle of a deserted city I was invited to sit on the kerb with him, while his troops waited restlessly in their trucks.

He offered me a smoke and then, with his arm round me, he told me of his time training in the UK, of his sense of duty and his love of his country.

He told me of the dark forces at work behind the rioting.

And most of all he told me how he hated that photo, and how irresponsible it had been of the newspaper to publish it.

We shook hands and parted on good terms. But then I have a white face and an international press card.

It's impossible to know whether it was this same officer and the same troops, but on that same evening a group of Bangladeshi journalists were left in little doubt about what the army thought about the role of the media.

Masud Parvez was one of a group of reporters from a national internet news service standing outside their office.

Two army jeeps pulled up and the reporters identified themselves as local newsmen.
"So what," came the reply.

Masud was given a prolonged beating on the steps of his office. He has an injury to his hand where he tried to fend off a rifle butt.

Some soldiers hit him with hockey sticks that they'd been carrying for exactly this kind of occasion.

Deepening rift
"I told them we were journalists from But despite giving our identity they started hitting us," he told me.

"It was a terrible experience. I can't make you understand how scared I was at the time."

Masud is just one of a number of reporters and cameramen beaten by the security forces over the period of the curfew.

The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists puts the number at 30 or more.

Of course none of this can be blamed on a single image. But the photograph, and the reaction to it, gives a wider sense of a deepening rift between the military-backed authorities and civil society.

The army top brass has blamed what it calls evil forces and political opportunists for prolonging last week's rioting.

Five senior university professors, all distinguished academics, have been picked up by the army and detained.

One of them, Professor Anwar Hossain, is general secretary of the Dhaka University Teachers' Association.

His son, Sanjeeb, was at home when the army called in the early hours of the morning.

"It takes on a very sinister tone," he tells me.

"The teachers of Dhaka University are considered the heart and soul of this nation.

"It's a very unfortunate situation when teachers are being interrogated and actually taken away in the middle of the night."

An unknown number of students are also in custody. We visited one address, very close to where the photograph was taken, shortly after an army raid.

A dozen or so students had been arrested, and we saw clear evidence that a number of people had been interrogated and harshly beaten.

'Retribution and arrests'
This government came to power in January with the backing of the military on a wave of popular support vowing to reform politics and stamp out corruption.

But its reputation has been tarnished. A slum demolition programme, an attempt to exile two former prime ministers and its inability to contain the spiralling cost of food have all added to a growing sense of frustration.

Many newspapers have taken the view that the violence last week was a genuine expression of anger and frustration, rather than the work of shadowy forces of evil.

"Instead of retribution and arrests we suggest that dialogue be opened between teachers and students on the one hand and the caretaker government on the other," read one newspaper editorial this week.

Meanwhile, military intelligence units appear to be using media images to find and arrest those involved in the violence.

As for the photo that so upset the army, luckily for him at least, the protester doing the kicking is difficult to identify.

But they are looking for him.

Both the editor who published the image, and the photographer who took it, have been visited and questioned by the army.

John Sudworth is BBC News correspondent based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Destabilizing Bangladesh? Who are “They” General Moeen?


GENERAL Moeen who is the power behind the present-day despotic regime in Bangladesh talked to the press importunately on August 24, 2007. He took out his valuable time from flood relief work to fly to Dhaka from countryside and talked to news media when he informed that this government has foiled an attempt to destabilize the nation. As per his allegation, he said millions of Takas were poured in to host the agitation. All newspapers published from Dhaka however wrote that the demonstration against the government was an instantaneous reaction to incidents that took place inside the DU campus.

Would the military General be more specific and tell the nation who pumped millions of Taka to stage the countrywide demonstration against the present-day government that came to power via a cantonment intrigue. If he fails to name names, then we will assume that it is just an empty talk by the General to blame others for the failures of Fakhruddin Ahmed Administration.

As a military man Moeen took courses in military academy where he spent inordinate amounts of time to learn the definition of “enemy.” Therefore, Moeen still has this military mentality of seeing the events of a complex world too simplistically. He is of the opinion that the “enemy” of the nation, whoever it may be, is pumping an exorbitant amount of money to hire people for demonstration. We heard the same allegation coming from none other than Mainul Husein who has taken the onus on him to defend and speak for the interim government. In his nationwide speech, Fakhruddin Ahmed also expressed the same sentiment hinting a conspiracy theory behind the non-planned demonstration against the government.

Bangladesh’s authorities are famous for coming up with amazing and mind-boggling stories to diffuse out serious problems that confront the nation. On August 21, 2004 grenade attacks on Awami League leaders Khaleda Zia appointed a lone one-man commission headed by Justice Jainul Abedin. In a short order the Judge came to the conclusion that the grenade attack was planned and executed by the "enemy" of the nation from a neighbouring nation in collaboration with the local miscreants. This time around, the army chief, General Moeen, who was promoted by this government (and talk about conflict of interest!), came to defend the action of Fakhruddin by saying that the masses were duped by Bangladesh’s enemy who infused inordinate sum of money to destabilize the government. All this comes in time when top politicians are either rotting in the jail or whose power were emasculated by some scorched-earth policy of the government that is being controlled from Kurmitola.

It seems as if, General Moeen had an epiphany at long last! He thus smells rats in the entire episode of recent country-wide mass demonstration called by none other than DU professors and students when the nation is under emergency rule. True to the nature of a despotic regime, Fakhruddin Administration sent police and secret service agents at the wee hours of the night to arrest five respected teachers. This government that came to power via a cantonment intrigue is finally showing its true color. They will use all the scare tactics to extract “information” from the five arrestees and then prove their point that a group of enemies are working behind to destabilize the nation; therefore, the government had no other option but to foil the “evil design" of the nation’s enemy.

Enough is enough! Will the senior most military officer be more specific and name names? People of Bangladesh would thank him enormously for letting them know who the real enemies of the country are. If he or Fakhruddin fails to specifically tell the masses that were behind masterminding the protest session that shook the mini-world of the oligarchy, then Bangladesh’s suffering masses won’t believe a thing that emanates from the horse’s mouth.

The good place for an army officer is cantonment. That is where General Moeen belongs. For the life of me I do not understand why he has to come to public in full regalia to tell what is good for this luckless nation of 150 million. Gen. Moeen and Fakhruddin should know that we live in an information age. Those days of fooling the people are almost over. Caveat Emptor! #

A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

Friday, August 24, 2007

Is it the beginning of the movement to end emergency rule in Bangladesh?


DOES anyone want to see the reënactment of Bastille Day in Dhaka? The highly charged atmosphere in the capital city portends to a bloody confrontation between the government’s forces and the public. The mouthpiece of the interim government, advisor Mainul Hosein, whose tongue usually wags to defend government’s multitude of action, had said on August 22 that the students’ protest movement was hijacked by people who wanted to see this government’s fall from grace. The advisor habitually smells conspiracy in everything that goes against the government. For example, when the government failed miserably to check the rampant price hike of everyday commodities, the garrulous advisor said that the spike in inflation in agro-commodities was the handiwork of politicians who engineered it to topple the interim government. This preposterous accusation comes at a time when most of the top politicians are either languishing in jail or their movement restricted by government’s action.

Parenthetically, I would like to add here that I have been keeping a low profile as far as writing about Bangladesh's quasi-military rule in recent days. As far as my track record vis-à-vis forecasting the political turmoil in this hapless nation of 150 million goes, I have been more right than wrong. In the middle of October 2006 when Khaleda Zia Administration was about to handover power to a caretaker government I wrote in one of my articles that the military might come and take power anytime. Well that did not happen in October 2006 nor did it happen in November and December when the partisan president, Iajuddin Ahmed, ruled the nation through dictums emanated from BNP’s Hawa Bhaban. We all know that all hell broke loose in January 11, 2007 when the military chief, Gen. Moeen Ahmed, and his trusted lieutenants barged into the presidential palace in late afternoon and forced Iajuddin not only to dismiss the caretaker government but also to resign from the position of Chief Executive Officer, which is equivalent to the Prime Minister.

On the same day at midnight Iajuddin was forced to read a prepared speech to the nation in which he declared the emergency rule and ushered in military to help run the government. A day later, Fakhruddin Ahmed, a lifelong bureaucrat who also served as an officer at the World Bank in Washington D.C., was invited to be the Chief Advisor of the new interim government. It must be mentioned here that there is no room for a second consecutive interim government as far as the constitution is concerned; never mind the legality of a interim government during emergency rule. The constitution of this beleaguered nation had been maimed quite a few times in the short three decades of its existence.

A week after January 12 when the new interim government was sworn in I wrote an article in which I mentioned that the military was the driving force for this new interim government. On January 19, 2007 my article was published in one of the leading English newspapers. From that day on, the government of Fakhruddin was labeled as the “military-backed” interim government. I also mentioned in my article that this new government was nothing more than an oligarchy. The Chief Advisor, Fakhruddin, appointed two close relatives of his as advisors and he also appointed quite a few friends and acquaintances that served as CSP in Pakistani government. Incidentally, Fakhruddin himself started out his career as a junior CSP officer in 1960s.

Like any other oligarchy the government of Fakhruddin was out of touch of reality and was hopelessly disconnected from the people who were suffering from the malaise brought on by unchecked inflation particularly in food prices.

The military had an agenda of arresting 100-200 corrupt politicians, which was implemented with the first 45 days. Then the military also wanted to debar the two top politicians namely, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. But the implementation of this plan had problems. The military-backed government also wanted to bring a new civic leader and they chose Dr. Yunus who was at the top of his popularity for receiving Nobel Peace prize in October 2006. That plan fell flat because Yunus was unable to muster support from the masses. Then the interim government tried other tricks to bring new faces into Bangladesh politics. Those attempts did not bring fruition for the masses gave a lukewarm support to government's idea. Finally, the government engineered a plan to reform the two main parties by supporting a few reform-minded politicians. However, the ran-and-file Awami Leaguers and BNP men did not show much enthusiasm to government's plan. The reformists realized that all the help from Fakhruddin government is not bringing any discernible results.

When a pall of gloom descended on Bangladesh centering the devastation caused by this year's deluge due to monsoon rain and by political uncertainties, the general masses became restless. In the beginning when Fakhruddin Administration took power there were optimism and hope for better days. But when it was clear that the government was more interested in engineering the polity as exemplified by the rounding up of both corrupt and not so corrupt politicians, they felt that the government was disinterested in the welfare of common men. The atmosphere was highly charged and the entire nation became a tinderbox of suppressed optimism for democracy. The government wasted days in reforming the Election Commission and spent time to give hard time to politicians, namely Sheikh Hasina.

Under this charged atmosphere, a single incident that took place in mid August in the campus of Dhaka University did the unthinkable. It was reported in the newspaper that the government had placed military camp inside the campus and the soldiers manhandled some students. This insignificant incident became a rallying cry for DU students, professors, and workers. They demanded not only the removal of soldiers from the campus but also the end of repressive emergency rule. In short order the urban folks joined the students and things were getting out of hand as far the law and order situation is concerned. Soon the blaze of discontent had spread to other campuses allover the nation. To control the situation on August 22, 2007 the military-backed government had ordered curfew in several cities. The nation is plunging into a state of hopelessness and utter despair.

The masses in Bangladesh are united now. They want to see the end of emergency rule. They had enough of this oligarchic rule. The interim government had amassed enough power by dint of emergency rule and the ordinary citizens who want democracy to be the rule of the land are now demanding in unison the abolishment of this repressive rule. As of this writing, more than 250,000 people are rotting in the jail without any charge. The civil rights of people were taken away and there is no end to emergency rule on sight. Under this dire situation the students and professors of Dhaka University have taken the leadership role. It has not escaped my rapt attention that when a struggle is brewed in Bangladesh and university students with the approval of professors lead the movement, the failure rate is zero. Therefore, the readers are welcomed to draw their individual conclusion.

It is only a matter of time when Bangladesh's own Bastille Day is going to happen and when it happens the leaders of this interim government should look for the exit door. Bangladesh has finally turned the corner. Please stay tuned for more development. Perhaps the time for emergency rule to bite the dust is not far from now. My only concern is that the struggle may become a very messy one. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans

High stakes in Bangladesh protests


AFTER violent demonstrations in Bangladesh, the country's military-backed caretaker government has apparently decided to confront and possibly suppress various sections of the population growing more restless by the day.

The caretaker government appears to have come to the conclusion that the demonstrations represented a real challenge to its authority - if not its continued existence.

In unprecedented scenes, soldiers in uniform were seen being chased out of the Dhaka university campus by students. In two days, the myth of the army's omnipotence was all but laid to rest.

In response the government has done what military-led governments in Bangladesh have done in the past: it slapped a curfew on Dhaka and other cities, closed down all major public universities and colleges, and ordered all resident students to leave their dormitories.

Challenges to unelected governments in Bangladesh always originate on campuses, particularly the 86-year-old Dhaka University, often fondly called the Oxford of the East. Such governments always feel getting the students out of the campus is a must to restore peace.

'We are not idiots'
The ferocity of the clashes between students and security forces has sent shockwaves through the establishment. Its initial reaction was to beat a retreat - the government caved in to student demands and agreed to remove an army camp from the campus.

But the eruption of anger did not remain confined to the campus, and violent demonstrations spread to other parts of the city.

Many of these demonstrators were the dirt poor of the city - slum dwellers whose homes had been demolished by the authorities, and street vendors who had been evicted from the street.

"The army chief should resign. They are killing us to keep themselves in power. They think the public are idiots. But we are not idiots. They have come to organise elections, so they should just hold elections and leave", said one irate street vendor.

The government on the other hand has come to the conclusion that this was not a spontaneous outburst of pent-up anger. It claims to have discovered a deep conspiracy behind it all.

"We have information that there is a lot of politics behind this. A lot of money has been spent to organise this," said law minister Mainul Hosein.

"Students' demand to remove the army camp from the campus was met, so these demonstrations are not about students' grievances," he said.

Teachers say there is a much bigger issue at stake here.

'Evil forces'
"Students and ordinary people are demanding an end to the state of emergency, an end to this atmosphere of fear," said Anwar Hossain, secretary general of Dhaka University Teachers Association.

"I am extremely worried to see how detached from reality the law minister is, and how he is unable to comprehend the situation."

But the law minister was not only speaking for himself. The head of the caretaker government, Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, went on national television to defend his government's decision to clamp down.

"Some evil forces used the events on the university campus to spread chaos in many parts of the country including Dhaka. Under the circumstances, the government has demonstrated extreme patience, and taken some steps to protect the lives and property of people and put an end to illegal activities," he said.

Not everyone is happy to hear the government accuse the demonstrators of being part of a conspiracy.

"We have seen in the past that whenever people have demanded an end to emergency powers or military rule, autocratic governments have always responded by calling the protesters evil and conspirators," said Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age newspaper.

While many see these demonstrations as simply a manifestation of people's anger at the continued state of emergency, others fear such chaos could be used as an excuse to impose direct military rule.

"Every event and action has consequences, and the consequences can be very serious," said Dr Ali Riaz, head of department of politics and government at Illinois State University.

"Direct military rule would be catastrophic for the country's economy as well as the political process," he said

Others like London-based analyst Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury feel the army should be looking for an honourable "exit route".

'Exit strategy'
"Replacement of the current caretaker government with a broad-based government of national unity would enable the army to make an exit from the current impasse," he said.

But the idea of a government of national unity - with representatives of all political parties - has remained an elusive one.

Few believe that ideologically diverse parties would be able to reach the kind of consensus needed to form such a government.

A more realistic exit strategy for the army would be to lift the ban on political activities and bring forward the date of elections from December 2008 by perhaps a year.

To many, there could be no better strategy than to hold early elections and handover power to an elected government, with a clear understanding that the anti corruption drive would continue without hindrance.

But with the government seemingly embarking on a policy of containment by force, there is no reason to believe the crisis now gripping Bangladesh is about to end. It may have just started.

The first student demonstrations against the country's last military dictator, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, took place in January and February of 1983. It took another seven years of agitation and violence before Gen Ershad was finally brought down.

Adding to the mix is a growing fear among many - particularly students and professional groups, that the military has a long-term plan to depoliticise the country, and cement its control over society.

They point out that while politicians are being vilified relentlessly, military men are being appointed to various key institutions. The much-talked about National Security Council with a strong role for the military is close to being formed.

The current student demonstrations may have been the opening shots in another long battle - not to get rid of military rule, but perhaps to prevent one. #

Sabir Mustafa is Bangladesh born journalist and is presently BBC Bengali service editor in London This article first appeared in BBC Online

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bangladesh virtually cut off from rest of the world


Violent student riot demanding for end of emergency rule, restoration of democracy and return of military to the barrack has left Bangladesh's military-backed emergency government face its first major challenge since taking office in January.

To quell the countrywide student riot, the authority clamped indefinite curfew in all major cities, switched off mobile phone network, all internet traffic has been routed through state telecom, imposed blanket media censorship, arrests and raids of suspects of the “evil force” as well as pro-democracy activists, as described by chief of emergency government Dr Fakruddin Ahmed said over state owned media.

Bangladesh is virtually disconnected from the outside world with further fear of deepening political crisis. The military leaders riding a tiger may not have any other alternatives but to imposed absolute military rule in the country to abort the political crisis.

More than a dozen journalists and press photographers were assaulted and detained by army patrols manning the streets of the capital Dhaka. Many of the assaulted journalists were hospitalized.

Three journalists from CSB TV news arrested for broadcasting “disturbing news.” Nearly a dozen journalists were released from police detention. Several journalists are still believed to be in police custody.

Wednesday saw the first death in three days of mayhem when students attacked a police checkpoint northwest of Dhaka, the United News of Bangladesh agency said.

Bangladesh has been under a state of emergency since January, when the interim government took power following months of violence and political turmoil over vote-rigging allegations.

In a third straight day of violence on Wednesday, one bystander was killed and dozens of others suffered mostly minor injuries in a clash between rock-throwing youths and police in Rajshahi, a police official said.

The six cities affected were the capital Dhaka, northern Rajshahi and Sylhet, and southern Chittagong, Barisal and Khulna. All public and private colleges and universities in the six cities would also be closed.

Television channels also showed protesters armed with sticks and stones rampaging through parts of Dhaka and the southeastern city of Chittagong in defiance of a government ban on demonstrations.

The government appealed for calm, accusing troublemakers without any genuine grievances of hijacking the protests which began with demands by Dhaka University students for the army to withdraw from their campus.

The army camp was shut down early Wednesday but the decision failed to quell the sporadic clashes.

In a televised address Dr Fakruddin Ahmed accused "a few evil forces of taking advantage of a trifling incident."

He said opportunists were trying to foment anarchy, but he promised the curfews were only a temporary measure.

Documentary filmmaker and writer Shahriar Kabir in a statement to expatriate Bangladeshi in Europe and North America described that Bangladesh is “going through a dreadful critical phase.”

He said his home phone is cut off and is apprehending that he would be arrested. He urged expatriates to condemn emergency, curfew, police/military atrocities and raise voice for early election and restoration of democracy.

He warmed that Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami is taking advantage of both emergency and people's unrest. Most of the pro-Islamist district administration and police chiefs are very active.

Experts had earlier voiced fears the army could go further.

"If police cannot control the situation it will mean that this government does not have a support base and by implication martial law will be inevitable," said one analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Trouble first erupted on Monday on the Dhaka University campus after several students said they had been manhandled by soldiers during a football match.

The students demanded that soldiers be withdrawn from the campus, where a small contingent was stationed when the state of emergency was imposed in January.

But discontent has been rising in recent months, most notably over the increasing cost of living.
Two other military governments in the past - that of Ziaur Rahman and Muhammad Ershad - were both brought down in protests that were started by students.

Keeping the peace will now be the major test of this government's authority, our correspondent says.

The government has enjoyed broad popular support after nearly two decades of misrule by corrupt politicians although there has recently been rumbling discontent among the very poor about the rising prices of essentials.

It has pledged to implement far-reaching reforms to clean up Bangladesh's notoriously corrupt politics before holding fresh polls by late 2008. #

Troubled waters in Bangladesh


In August 1947, the architects of an independent South Asia had little idea that they were laying the groundwork for the creation of not two, but three countries.

THE two-nation theory of Mohammad Ali Jinnah turned out to be harbinger of three nations - India, Pakistan, and eventually, Bangladesh. And if India was built on secular lines, and Pakistan upon religious unity, then Bangladesh was created by the linguistic and cultural nationalism of the Bengali people.

The founding fathers of Bangladesh were also interested in another idea, one that had yet to fully take root in Pakistan: democracy.

Between the 1947 partition of India and the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan had struggled to establish a democracy, as power passed from one military ruler to another.

On the eve of Bangladesh's birth, we vowed to do better.

Deeply flawed
Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been at pains to create democratic institutions that will weather the multiple challenges of poverty, globalisation, climate change, corruption, and the handicap of being a young country in a world of established military and economic powers.

But far more than our neighbour India, the political leadership in Bangladesh has had a troubled relationship with democracy. Again and again the army has muscled into power.

The longest-standing example of this was the dictatorship of General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh for nine years, destroying our nascent democratic institutions and creating the foundations for the unbridled corruption that has since hobbled the nation.

Through mass protests and a popular campaign of agitation, Ershad was overthrown in 1991, and since then, three general elections have taken place in Bangladesh.

For three consecutive elections, we have had a large and enthusiastic electorate who have ushered in freely elected governments and representative parliaments. Although young and sometimes faltering, we have been understandably proud of our fledgling democracy.

But our democracy has been nothing if not deeply flawed. The last 15 years have seen each ruling party brutally repressing the opposition; in retaliation, opposition parties have boycotted the parliament, sometimes for years at a time. And worst of all, the accountability of our politicians has lessened as corruption, greed, and blatant disregard for their offices has increased without pause.

These trends laid the groundwork for the events of January 2007, when the political landscape in Bangladesh underwent a dramatic shift.

Instead of looking forward to another chance to exercise our democratic rights, we realised, on the eve of the fourth election, that this election was planned and engineered to give victory to the ruling party.

After a series of protests against electoral corruption led by the opposition Awami League, a military-backed caretaker government stepped in, promising to clean up the political landscape and hold free elections.

Although the people at the helm of this shift wore military uniforms, we applauded them, because without them we would have had a sham election.

And when they started arresting corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen who believed they were above the law, we still applauded them, because those people who had been the source of institutional decay were suddenly held accountable for their actions.

Paying the price
The military-backed caretaker government is heralding a series of reforms - electoral, bureaucratic, and institutional.

They have also instigated reforms within the political parties, which have begun a close examination of their party members. But the fact remains that these reforms have not have taken place within a democratic framework, and that raises serious questions about their long-term sustainability.

Instead, we have a non-elected, military-backed regime performing tasks without due process that should have been in the remit of our political leadership.

The only way to ensure the survival of democracy in Bangladesh is if the army does as it has promised: holds an election and returns to its barracks.

Otherwise, even if the military cleans up the political landscape, even if they arrest all the corrupt politicians, even if they seize the illegal assets and raze the buildings that were made with black money, who will become our new democratic leaders? Who will we be left to believe in? Only those who wrested power in the first place: the army.

If they do not hand over power to elected leaders, they will emerge as the most powerful force in Bangladeshi politics. And a victorious army, as history has taught us time and again, is a dangerous thing.

In the meantime, as with any major political or institutional instability, it is the poor who have to pay the price.

The monsoon floods that have hit Bangladesh are some of the worst in recent years.

Millions of villagers are marooned on the rooftops of their homes, waiting for relief supplies, food, and clean water.

The government has made confident declarations about the food supply, and of their own commitment to providing disaster relief.

But as everyone in Bangladesh knows, the state can only do so much in reaching the far corners of the country. For this, they have relied heavily on the grassroots outreach of the political parties.

With the current embargo on all political activity, the parties do not have the liberty of reaching their constituents in rural Bangladesh. Flood relief has not yet begun to stem the tide of hunger, disease, and homelessness.

The floods, tragic as they are, remind us of the importance of democratic politics in a country where the need for democracy among a largely illiterate population has been questioned time and again.

We need a rich and well-functioning democracy, not to provide credibility to a corrupt political system, but rather to ensure that the state acts and exists for all its citizens, rich, poor, sheltered, or homeless. #

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. She attended Harvard University where she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology. She lives in London. Her debut novel, A Golden Age, was published earlier this year This article was first published in BBC online, August 14, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Caretaker, for Whom?


There was a reason that the Constitution put a limit on the term and the authority of a caretaker government. Seven months into this government's caretaking, the reason is becoming apparent. While it showed a strong political stance, the military-technocracy running the country is all at sea with regard to economic and social policies.

From fright to flight
With opaque and selective criteria, the “Anti-Corruption” Commission has gone after some of the leading businessmen in the country. Whether they have defaulted on loans or not, these businessmen have built successful self-sustaining enterprises. If they have caused financial crimes, they should be prosecuted. However, arresting arbitrarily without bail, and even without specific charges (!) disrupt the daily functioning of some of the largest and most successful business ventures of the country. If such enterprises begin to fail, which may be what some of these new leaders want, foreign companies will be the only ones left, and in the present circumstances only they have security against the ACC’s arbitrary actions.

What is the main lesson for the average businessmen? If you are wealthy beyond a certain point, the only safe haven for your wealth is outside the country. Mark this prediction: as soon as emergency restrictions are lifted, there will be a capital flight that would further dampen investment and reduce economic growth.

The spiralling blame game
Politicians have given us nothing good in 36 years: this is the favourite refrain of our top brass. Yet, this authoritarian government is overseeing a price spiral that no democratic government had run. The government’s response? Blame others, as usual.

Bangladesh’s food market is enormous. It feeds 150 million people every day. In such a market, even if there are oligopolies, basic supply and demand conditions apply. The caretaker government (CTG) blames “the cartels” for the spiralling food prices. So it decided to create 200 “fair-price” markets under the armed supervision of the Bangladesh Rifles. This is basically a public-image stunt. In a market of 150 million people, 200 shops will not even make a dent. Furthermore, these special markets are shielded: BDR oversight basically means coerced pricing, and as we know from Soviet-era ideas, “fair prices” forced by the state go hand in hand with long queues. Perhaps our think-tanks should look into who the buyers are. State-run ration shops around the Third World have primarily benefited the civil service and the military while the poor have continued to languish.

But why is there a price spiral? Food is a very inelastic commodity for the fact that people need food. The demand for food has not changed. So it must be the distribution network; something has suddenly spooked it. This network consists of the middlemen, who import, export, transport, and store food. They need money to invest and most times make a profit, eventually. But showing money without receipts (really, how many of our middlemen run formal businesses with accountants and tax lawyers), and god forbid, showing profits may draw the ire of the dreaded “joint forces,” as the government has instructed them to go after middlemen. So a rational middleman, obviously, would decide to stay put, and dip into his savings for some time until the situation settles down. This is the same reason that the number of LCs (Letters of Credit—an indication of trade activity) has dramatically decreased in the last few months.

Blame the hoarders, so say the CTG. One wonders if they have read economics textbooks. According to this government, anyone who stores goods in one timeframe to sell at another is a criminal by default, especially if the timeframe of storage is not “reasonable.” However, these “hoarders” perform a very important function: temporal price arbitrage. They smooth out the price curve over time by storing goods at a time of abundance and selling them at a time of scarcity, in the hope of making a profit. The underlying risk they take (which justifies the potential profit) is that prices may not substantially increase during times of scarcity, or that their storage might encounter difficulties. But this function makes the food supply consistent, resulting in more-or-less stable prices.

The “hoarders” are staying put, and our distribution network is down, and our people are going hungry. It is the arbitrary application of thoughtless policies, not the businessmen, who are to blame.

Callous in calamity
Floods have devastated Bangladesh. Millions are homeless, seeking safe drinking water, food, and medicine. To face this calamity, the CTG first said (via Lt. Col. Firoz Rahim): “Army is already on the ground. We are ready to face any situation arising out of flood” (New Age, July 28, 2007). This comment came a day after the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre noted that floods were likely to worsen in the coming days (New Age, July 27, 2007). But the government kept on posturing that it is fully prepared. It kept up its anti-politician approach, ensuring that political parties don’t participate or get credit for providing flood relief. It forgot that because of their grassroots organization and their interest is getting votes, parties like AL and BNP have historically been essential to extending relief countrywide.

On August 5, Mainul Hosein (Information Adviser) began to correct CTG’s misguided position: “any individual or group can conduct relief operations as no political banner is essential to perform social duties” (BSS, August 5). The next day, the Chief Adviser made an urgent appeal for everyone to step in. By mid-August, the magnitude of the disaster stood at: 10 million people in 40 out of the 64 districts affected, with a death toll over 500.

The CTG’s inability to grasp the gravity of the flood situation (even after its own monitoring center predicted calamity) is not surprising: it is an unaccountable and non-representative government, regardless of what it says in its public rhetoric.

Crime, crime everywhere
Take another example: The painful closure of jute mills. The Jute Adviser said on June 18 that 6,000 employees of four jute mills would be laid off and the mills shut down. The next day, National Relief Committee (a citizen’s organization) opened a gruel kitchen for the sacked workers of People’s Jute Mill. By evening, law enforcers came by and asked the organizers to dismantle the kitchen. The elite Rapid Action Battalion was deployed. The police reportedly visited the house of a local correspondent of a national daily in Khulna who was helping the organizers. According to family members, the police threatened them that the newsman would be put in “crossfire.”

Now, privatizing a poorly functioning mill is one matter. But preventing people from helping each other is something else. From where does this non-representative government get the right to prevent concerned citizens from providing aid to laid-off jute mill workers? With meagre wages, these workers struggle to even buy food. The government’s arbitrary intervention in shutting down the gruel kitchen showed complete disregard for basic human norms that preserve very fabric of our society.

So, politics is a crime, making money is a crime, being a middleman is a crime, selling food for profit is a crime, providing aid to flood victims is a crime, and now even feeding hungry people is a crime. This posture fits not a “caretaker” government but a paranoid unelected government (PUG?) whose favourite pastime is to blame others for everything that goes wrong. #

This article was first published in The Progressive Bangladesh, Friday, 17 August 2007

Ariana has a background in economics and lives in Texas in the United States. She currently consults with companies on improving ways to manage risk. Prior to this role, she worked for two of the most successful investment banks and fund managers on Wall Street in New York

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Assault on Taslima Nasrin as a Litmus Test of Secularism and Democracy


HAVING observed Mukto-Mona’s statement and concern about the physical attack on feminist author and secular writer Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad , India , a friend asked me, ‘So many pressing issues are out there. Why are you so much worried about attack on a ‘controversial woman?’ I believe my friend is not alone in indulging in such thought; there are many educated, “modern” Muslims who think as my friend does. I consider their question a legitimate one, that also warrants a legitimate explanation. In short, that’s the reason why I am writing this article.

First, let’s not forget, the persons who led the attack on Taslima Nasrin in India are not any ordinary citizen. They are educated Muslims and elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA); and not one but three of them. Hence we cannot dismiss this incident simply as an act of ignorant, uneducated Muslims, or some members of al-Qaeda (BTW, whenever they carried on an attack, al-Qaeda never denied the responsibility, but in this case, attackers didn’t claim any involvement with al-Qaeda). The perpetrators have done it with a cool mind. They uttered furiously but clearly, ”We are Muslims first, only then Indians. We shall not tolerate any insult to Islam.” According to news following attack, the three MLAs and their political organization Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) further issued the threat that if Taslima were to visit Andhra Pradesh (AP) again in future, her life would not be spared as it has been this time. In the meantime, Syed Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati, the Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque in Kolkata demanded that Taslima be expelled from India or she would be killed. He offered his own Rs 100,000 reward for this in addition to that offered earlier by other undamentalist groups and launched his own slogan, “Taslima hatao, desh bachao.” (Drive Taslima out to save the nation.)

Needless to say, Taslima Nasrin herself is quite accustomed to this kind of threat and not the one who would stop speaking up for what she believes is true and just. Long live Taslima! But what did we observe in world’s largest democracy, so called "secular India" ? The government of India under Congress and its allies including communist CPM performed their duties mainly in verbal condemnation of the act but nothing beyond that. A few activists of MIM were arrested only to be released the next day because MIM is an ally of the ruling Congress party in AP. Prior to the attack, the government has denied Taslima Nasrin’s longtime request for Indian citizenship as she’s been living in exile for many years due to the fatwa and troubles created by the radical Muslim Mullahs in her homeland Bangladesh.

If we analyze the utterances of the three Muslim MLAs who attacked Taslima, we may get a better picture not only about the mindset of probably a large number of Indian Muslims, but also beyond. The MLAs’ admission that they are Muslims first and only then Indians would only facilitate the effort of some sects of Hindu fundamentalists who are desperate to see India merely as a Hindu state. After all, Muslims of India themselves don’t consider India as their homeland, the Hindu fundamentalists might think. I know many Muslims would argue and say, those three MLAs are just isolated examples and don’t represent all Indian Muslims. My answer in that case would be: true that not all Indian Muslims consider their “Indian” identity secondary, yet unfortunately a vast number of them do. If not, how many "moderate" Muslim organizations have condemned attack on Taslima Nasrin? Sadly, only a few. So one is forced to think, the vast majority of Indian Muslims are either not courageous at all, or they are simply sympathetic to those radical MLAs and their extreme views of Islam. Besides, if personal experience was to be taken into account, then what I have observed during my five years stay (1993-1998) in India as a student confirms the latter. During my post-graduate years in South India , I was staying in a Muslim community hostel, detached from university premise. The hostel had Muslim students from all over India , some studying medicine, some engineering and other subjects. Two things that came out of my observations of and conversations with many Indian Muslim students are worth mentioning. Many of them (much like our own Bangalee war collaborators or “rajakars”) sided with Pakistan when we talked of 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh . Secondly, whenever there was an India vs. Pakistan cricket, substantial number of Indian Muslims would rejoice with Pakistan’s victory. One possible explanation was the hostel had a good number of Muslim students from Kashmir who are inclined to see Kashmir emerge as an independent state. Yet I found it simply weird and asked a few close friends who were Muslim themselves and had somewhat liberal views. “Yes, it’s a shame and disgrace that my fellow Indian Muslims don’t consider India as their motherland,” answered one such friend named Suhel who was from Hyderabad (what an irony!) studying medicine.

2. One of the common aftermaths of 9/11 was West’s renewed interest in Muslims and Islam. Many otherwise reluctant Westerners started showing a keen interest in reading the Koran, Hadeeth and other books on Islam. One of the most common topics in any political discussion was Jihad. Hundreds of books, leaflets, flyers written by so called “good Muslims” addressed the issue of Jihad and most of them tried to convince- Jihad is not what Usama bin Laden or al Qaeda tells us. Jihad, instead, is a moral issue: the resolve and fight against the evils inside one’s own self. Many naïve readers (Westerners as well as “modern Muslims”) bought the theory that 9/11 and likewise events were not permitted in Islam and those who did and are doing this are “bad Muslims.” This situation is beautifully explained in following excerpt from “How to debate with a Muslim” written by Ibn Warraq.

Muslim scholars themselves referred to sura VIII.67, VIII.39, and Sura II.216 to justify Holy War. Again the context makes it clear that it is the battle field that is being referred to, and not some absurd moral struggle; these early Muslims were warriors after booty, land and women not some existential heroes from the pages of Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre. Let us take another example: Sura IX. Here I have tried to use where possible translations by Muslims or Arabophone scholars, to avoid the accusation of using infidel translations. However, many Muslim translators have a tendency to soften down the harshness of the original Arabic, particularly in translating the Arabic word jahada, e.g. Sura IX verse 73. Maulana Muhammad Ali, of the Ahmadiyyah sect, translates this passage as: “O Prophet, strive hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be firm against them. And their abode is hell, and evil is the destination.” In a footnote of an apologetic nature, Muhammad Ali rules out the meaning “fighting” for jahada. However, the Iraqi non-Muslim scholar Dawood in his Penguin translation renders this passage as: “Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate.”

Action speaks louder than the words. So far we were fooled to believe- Jihad is some abstract moral struggle, not any violence and Islam is all about tolerance and peace. The recent attack on Taslima Nasrin by persons of such responsible positions as MLAs and the subsequent silent role of “moderate Muslims” only confirms that notion. Thus the assault on Taslima Nasrin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie is not a trivial issue and there is nothing personal about it. It’s, rather, the litmus test whether we wish to see values such as liberty, freedom, secularism and rationalism to flourish or perish. If we don't make our choice now, I am afraid someday we'll not have any choice at all. #

This article was first published in, New York August 18, 2007

Jahed Ahmed is a humanism activist and writer based in New York. He's co-founder of, a South Asian Humanist organization. He could be reached at

Friday, August 17, 2007

Does the President have moral ethics to lecture the nation?


AS a decorated war hero, one of America's greatest presidents articulated in his inaugural speech on January 20, 1961: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

Imagine if the same declaration was echoed by the draft dodger President George W Bush in his inaugural lecture to the nation, how ludicrous it would sound to his fellow compatriots!

This sort of ludicrousness surfaced after two lectures delivered by President Professor Iajuddin Ahmed, one on August 6, where he lauded the role of the armed forces for "saving the country from an anarchic situation on January 11," and the other on August 12, where he extolled the virtues of democracy and political honesty.

On August 12, in the inaugural speech of a seminar organized by BIISS, he emphasised that "proper functioning of democracy required a capable, honest, transparent, and accountable administration, as well as responsible, accountable, and patriotic political leaders who would lead the country to the right direction. Without strengthening the democratic institutions, the function of democracy and its gradual maturity will remain unaccomplished."

The President went on to remind the nation that "a proper functioning of democratic norms and values and the establishment of rule of law are necessary to narrow the growing political divides and unite a fractured civil society." The contents of his speech are absolutely befitting for a head state and the first citizen of the republic. But the question is; did Prof. Iajuddin, as the president of the republic and head of the erstwhile CTG, practice even an iota of what he is preaching now?

To begin with, his assumption of the presidency was unethical in the first place, albeit not unconstitutional, since he very well knew that his predecessor was deposed only because he endeavoured to become the president of the republic rather than serve the interest of the party that elected him. Since his election to the highest position of the republic, he faithfully served his benefactors, but not so much the nation, which he was oath-bound to serve.

Since October 28, 2006, all his activities had been shrouded in secrecy, and had been averred to be conspiracies after his assumption of the role of chief adviser (CA) in violation of the constitution, which he was oath-bound to defend. This offence is an impeachable one, as clearly stipulated in article 52 (1) of the Constitution which says, "The president may be impeached on a charge of violating this Constitution" by the parliament.

Nevertheless, this was a historic opportunity for him to prove that a partisan person could rise to the occasion, specially at the fag end of his life and career, and conduct himself to uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

Contrary to expectations, he shrouded himself in secrecy and allegedly conspired to implement the blue print of his mentor bypassing the council of advisers, which compelled four of them to resign. Their action, however, failed to perturb the strongman, who quickly replaced them with a set of cronies.

He destroyed the sanctity of every organ of the state, including the administration and judiciary, by unprecedented politicization, putting partisan and incompetent people in constitutional positions. Never before in the history of this country had the Election Commission been manned by a group of partisan, incompetent, people with absolute moral bankruptcy.

Instead of improving the situation, he accelerated the downfall and put the last nail in the sanctity of that constitutional body. However, he was not at all disturbed by the adverse reactions, which was very much evident from his statement of January 6 when he told the nation that "the government firmly believes that the January 22 election will be held in a free, fair, impartial manner, and in an atmosphere of fanfare."

The most preposterous part of his assertions was reflected in his statement, "being a teacher, I always discharged my responsibility impartially. I had to ignore other parties in accommodating the demands of the agitating parties during the tenure of the caretaker government.

Despite that, questions about my impartiality have been raised with a motive." Yet, exactly seven months after his statement of great complacency, Prof Iajuddin Ahmed acknowledged in his speech on August 6 that the army had saved the nation from an anarchic situation. This observation is indeed a big paradox, since it was his action and inaction as the most powerful individual of the republic, especially after October 28, that had accelerated the nation's journey toward anarchy.

What really happened on January 11? The incompetent and one-eyed government headed by Professor Iajuddin Ahmed was overthrown and a new government was installed. This government has been trying to undo the harm that had been inflicted on the nation, largely by Iajuddin and his benefactors, at the expense of suspension of the fundamental rights of the people of the republic. They have no part, whatsoever, in what he and his benefactors had nefariously planned to get a free ride back to the helm of power, or the eventuality that has befallen the nation.

The least Professor Iajuddin could have done was to make a solemn apology to the nation for his part in bringing the nation to the brink of disaster, rather than lecturing the nation on transparency, accountability, good governance, and rule of law, and gone into oblivion, as he had for the last six months.

It would be extremely unwise for anyone or any institution to bring him into the lime light once again, and make him utter words which are, albeit, befitting for a head of state, but not at all befitting for a person like Iajuddin Ahmed, who does not possess the moral ground any more to lecture the nation. They would be belittling the highest office of the land, and making a mockery of the indispensable virtues required of a democratic and civilized nation that a preacher must uphold before lecturing others to adhere to. #

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convener of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Indian Islamists takes “Shodh” (Getting Even) with controversial writer Taslima Nasrin

Soon after radical Muslim public representatives barged into a book launching function of feminist writer Taslima Nasrin and attacked her at Hyderabad, the media, civil society, human rights, women’s groups and scores of elected leaders have decried the incident as a "national shame" and a threat on world’s largest democratic and secular nation India.

“I've never come face to face with death like this,” said visibly shaken feminist writer Taslima Nasrin.

"For half an hour death stared at me from close as I locked myself in a room and those men tried to break in and kill me," a traumatised Taslima Nasrin said after a day after the controversial Bangladeshi feminist author was attacked in Hyderabad, India, during a book release Shodh.

"I was attacked earlier too but it was never like (Thursday’s) attack. There was no police for help because the organisers had not foreseen anything of this kind. If I have returned alive to Kolkata it is because of media persons who fought those men for half an hour and got injured to save me," Nasrin told India Asian News Service after the incident at the Hyderabad Press Club on August 9.

A visibly shaken Nasrin returned Kolkata from Hyderabad where she had gone to release a Telugu translation of her novel “Shodh” (Getting Even).

Taslima is living in exile for the last twelve years after death threats forced her to flee Bangladesh. She is an outspoken champion of equal rights for Muslim women and a fearless fighter against religious influence in society and family.

Taslima has faced numerous death threats from Islamic radicals. Recently, in March 2007, an Indian Muslim group offered a bounty of 500,000 rupees for her beheading.

In the tone of death threat, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (MIM) warned it will not allow the 45 year old writer Taslima Nasrin to return alive if she dared to revisit Hyderabad while the Majlis Bachao Tehreek claimed that their plan to kill her was foiled by the MIM attack.

Radical Muslims led by three State Legislative Council members (MLAs), raised slogans against Taslima and flung bouquets and chairs at her and others attending the modest function in Hyderabad press club.

MIM leader Akhtar Khan, an MLA, described her as "enemy of Islam” and “we will not tolerate talking against Islam. She has written books against Islam."
Bewildered Taslima was rescued by the police and journalists present at the Hyderabad press club and was escorted to the airport.

After the unsavoury incident the police detained three MIM legislators for their bid to attack the feminist writer.

Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy and Home Minister K. Jana Reddy, who restricted themselves to a cursory condemnation of the attack on the writer, chose not to react to these open threats obviously because of political reasons. Police also claimed that they had not come across the statements.

Meanwhile Hyderabad City Police have booked a case against controversial Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasrin for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims. The police have also sought the clearance from a court to file a case against Majlis-e-Ittehaadul Muslimeen floor leader in Assembly Akbaruddin Owaisi for allegedly holding out threats to Taslima Nasrin if she visits Hyderabad again.

The police had booked a case against MIM MLAs and other activists under sections rioting with deadly weapons, voluntarily causing hurt, mischief causing damage to property, trespass after preparation for hurt, assault and wrongful restraint, and criminal intimidation of Indian Penal Code.

On the same day, MIM floor leader Akbaruddin Owaisi had filed a complaint against Taslima Nasrin, alleging that she had hurt the sentiments of Muslim community with her writings and speeches against Islam, including Holy Prophet Mohammed.

Akbaruddin Owaisi, who is in the eye of a storm after the TV news channels claimed that he held out threats to kill or behead Taslima Nasrin if she came to Hyderabad again, "I never said that we will kill her or behead her. This is all distortion. What I said is that there is a 'fatwa' against her. It is the responsibility of Muslims to abide by the fatwa and being a Muslim I will also abide by the fatwa."

"We are very proud of our MLAs and activists who assaulted her," said MIM leader and MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi. "We will implement the fatwa issued against Taslima if she comes to the city again." The MIM leader felt it was not wrong to make such a threat though he was an MLA who took oath on the Constitution. "First of all I am a Muslim," he said. "So I have to vent my anger against a person who insults Islam. Then only I can think of my responsibility as an MLA. As we are protecting the sanctity of Islam, we are not at fault." Meanwhile, Home Minister K. Jana Reddy said the government would review the sections under which the cases were booked against the MIM MLAs if necessary.

Owaisi, for instance, recalled that Hindu fundamentalists had attacked M.F. Hussain alleging that he had insulted Goddess Saraswati through his paintings. "We also condemned him," he reminded.

When asked if he was equating himself with the mob that attacked M.F. Hussain, he avoided a direct answer. "Instead of filing cases against us, police should book case against the organisers for allowing Taslima to make provocative speeches against Islam," he said. MIM president Salahuddin Owaisi also asked the Centre not to give asylum to the writer, who has been disowned by her homeland Bangladesh.

At the same time, the Majlis Bachao Tehreek made an even more alarming claim that they had been planning to kill Taslima. "We were all set to kill her," said Majidullah Khan Farhat, official spokesman of the party. "The MIM activists attacked her with flowers and foiled our plans. It is shameful on their part to stage such a drama."

The home minister was also hard put to explain why cases were booked against MIM MLAs on 'lighter' sections and why the police were treating the issue as a protest and not an attack. "It depends on the police officer.

"We condemn the incident and will take action," was the cryptic reaction of the chief minister soon after the attack.

The government did not want to antagonise either the MIM or Muslims in the run up to the elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.

Meanwhile, the police have stepped up security arrangements at the Mecca Masjid and several other parts of old city in the wake of the Friday prayers. The old city has been put on alert and additional platoons of Rapid Action Force were posted at the mosque.

The journalists acted as a shield to save Taslima, who was targeted by MIM activists at the function.

Only six media persons, mostly photographers, were covering the function as the organisers had invited only a handful of people to the function and Taslima's visit was also kept under warps.

'The legislators and those accompanying them were ferocious. Had we not intervened things would have gone out of control,' Ravikanth Reddy, correspondent The Hindu, told newspersons.

Reddy, also secretary of the Hyderabad Press Club, was attending a meeting of the club office bearers in the boardroom at the time when three MIM legislators along with a few supporters barged into the hall where the function was on.

'For half hour no policeman reached the place and it was very difficult to control the legislators and their supporters who were throwing everything they could lay their hands on,' Reddy told IANS.

Some missiles hit the journalists and a couple of writers and other participants who stood between Taslima and the attackers.

'It is because of the presence of journalists that the legislators were a bit restrained but the mood of the others was nasty. One of them was shouting 'Kill her',' said Reddy, who had tried to pacify the legislators.

'Though we managed to push the legislators and some others out of the meeting hall and escorted Taslima to the store room, another group of people arrived and they were more aggressive,' recalled H. Satish, photographer of The Hindu.

'Taslima requested us to call the police, and I told her that the police will be reaching in a few minutes,' he said.

'She came behind me to protect herself. She was really scared,' said K.V.S. Giri, who received minor injuries in the scuffle. 'The attackers threw books kept on the dais at her and some hit me.'

Innaiah Narisetti, who saved Taslima from several missiles, termed the attack as 'shameful'. #

This article was written based on wire service, print and electronic media reports and dispatches

View express in the article is exclusively of the author and not of

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fugitive asylum seekers in India face charges in Bangladesh


EVEN as India has asked Bangladesh Government to come up with specific information on ULFA leaders Anup Chetia and Paresh Baruah and other outfits during the Home Secretary-level talks last week in New Delhi, Dhaka raised the issue of some of Awami League leaders taking shelter in India.

According to sources, Bangladesh Home Secretary Mohammad Abdul Karim raised this issue during his talks with his Indian counterpart Madhukar Gupta on grounds that these shelter-seeking Awami League leaders were facing serious charges in their country.

Sources said names of the Awami League leaders that came up prominently during the discussion were of Sheikh Helal, cousin of party leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her party's former MP Jainal Hazari. Both were in India recently for seeking political asylum.

Sources said India told Bangladesh Government that New Delhi could not treat Awami League leaders as illegal migrants. On their part, Indian officials pointed out that Dhaka was delaying the process of information exchange on several ULFA and Kamtapuri Liberation Organisation (KLO) leaders and other outfits, like NLFT of Tripura operating from Bangladesh.

The KLO is a separatist force operating in North Bengal demanding Greater Cooch Behar as a separate State. In the beginning, they operated from Bhutan, but after crackdown by the Indian forces during operation 'flush out', their leaders fled to Bangladesh.

However, sources said Dhaka is concerned about the meeting recently of two top Awami League leaders with senior Left and Congress leaders, including AB Bardhan, D Raja (CPI), Abani Roy (RSP), Sitaram Yechury (CPM) and Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee.

Even as India has asked Bangladesh Government to come up with specific information on ULFA leaders Anup Chetia and Paresh Baruah and other outfits during the Home Secretary-level talks last week in New Delhi, Dhaka raised the issue of some of Awami League leaders taking shelter in India.

According to sources, Bangladesh Home Secretary Mohammad Abdul Karim raised this issue during his talks with his Indian counterpart Madhukar Gupta on grounds that these shelter-seeking Awami League leaders were facing serious charges in their country. #

This article first appeared in The Pioneer, New Delhi, India The article does not reflect the editorial opinion of and is only of the author/writer

Dr. Payam Akhavan international counsel for Sheikh Hasina

Statement by Dr. Payam Akhavan International Counsel to Sheikh Hasina

IT is my privilege and honour to speak on behalf of Sheikh Hasina. I have undertaken to represent her with great aforethought and fully aware of the far-reaching importance of her struggle. Like every other human being, Sheikh Hasina is entitled to the protection of her fundamental human rights under international law. But it is obvious that the campaign by the military-backed caretaker government to eliminate her as a political leader has grave consequences not just for her, but also for the future of democracy in Bangladesh. As such, her political persecution through the perversion of justice may be the most significant measure of whether this nation will continue to have free and fair elections, to continue on a historical path of developing a mature democracy through trial and error, or whether Bangladesh will go the way of other countries in the region, where unchecked military rule, political radicalization, and religious violence prevail.

While outstanding local counsel in Bangladesh struggle to protect her rights before national courts, the caretaker government must be reminded that this case also implicates the government’s obligations under long-standing United Nations human rights covenants. It is in this respect that I have assumed the position of international counsel, to ensure that Bangladesh abides by its obligations under international law, to remind the government that its actions are being watched closely by the world community, that it cannot establish a military dictatorship under the cover of an anti-corruption campaign, that it cannot engage in such flagrant abuse of power with impunity.

The conduct of the government over the past several months leaves little doubt that the prosecution of Sheikh Hasina is a thinly masked political trial with no merit whatsoever. Those of you who have followed her case are well aware that when the government first accused her of corruption in April of this year, it was Sheikh Hasina that insisted on returning to Bangladesh to challenge the accusations. You will recall that it was the government that vigorously attempted to prevent her from returning from her travels abroad, threatening to impose heavy penalties on any airline that would dare fly her to Dhaka. And it was only after considerable international pressure that the government relented, allowing her to return. Sheikh Hasina returned, as the Economist wrote, to a “rock star’s welcome”, as tens of thousands of Bangladeshis welcomed her back, a testimony to her overwhelming popularity as a leader, and an indication of why the so-called caretaker government is so intent on eliminating her from the political scene. Surely, Sheikh Hasina’s return is inconsistent with the slanderous image of a corrupt Prime Minister that the government tries to portray.

But it is the government’s case itself that most clearly betrays the merit-less accusations against her, and the lengths to which the police and prosecution have been manipulated to use the judiciary as an instrument of political assassination. I refer here to the accusations of businessman Azam Chowdhury, whose information report forms the basis of the current charges against Sheikh Hasina. It cannot go unnoticed that in his original statement to the police, Mr. Azam did not in any way implicate Sheikh Hasina in his allegations of corruption. He only accused her cousin Sheikh Selim who was the Minister of Health at the relevant time. It was only after Sheikh Selim was arrested, detained, and interrogated under questionable circumstances, that a case against Sheikh Hasina could be made. The sole evidence is Sheikh Selim’s supposed “confession” that he approached Sheikh Hasina concerning illicit payments, and that she advised him that those payments should go to her sister Sheikh Rehana. Now what were the circumstances that led to such an incredulous admission by Sheikh Selim? There are credible indications that while in custody, he was subjected to serious physical and mental abuse. His interrogators reportedly threatened that if he did not collaborate with them, his family would “die a slow, painful death”.

Should there be any doubt about the veracity of such allegations of torture, should I be accused of hyperbole in advocating Sheikh Hasina’s case, I draw your attention to the August 1st letter that Human Rights Watch submitted to Mr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, Chief Advisor of the caretaker government of Bangladesh. In this letter, coming from one of the most distinguished human rights organizations in the world, Mr. Fakhruddin is advised that: “Serious and systemic human rights abuses are taking place on your watch.” In addition to torture and extrajudicial executions, Human Rights Watch notifies the Chief Advisor that “emergency rules that do not respect basic due process rights, or the large number of arbitrary arrests and detention without proper judicial oversight or public accountability, are a direct result of your government’s policies” and that “the rule of law appears to be breaking down under your administration.” The letter goes on to state that “Because the sweeping regulations under the state of emergency now in force do not comply with international requirements and have been misused in practice, we urge you to repeal them immediately.” As indicated by a recent hearing in which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh granted bail to Sheikh Hasina, the use of the Emergency Power Rules by the government reflects a deliberate policy to deny her basic due process rights. Under the Rules, those accused of corruption may be held without bail. It is regrettable that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court has stayed the grant of bail following an appeal by the Attorney-General, and that the government has initiated new cases in order to continue Sheikh Hasina’s unlawful and arbitrary detention. It is also telling that she has been given only a few days in which to prepare a Wealth Report under the Emergency Rules, while in prison, without access to her papers or other records, which were all confiscated at the time of her arrest, and without the cooperation of the banks.

Notwithstanding these gross abuses of due process, it is the evidence obtained through the torture of her cousin Sheikh Selim that stands out as the most egregious violation of human rights. Consider the following statement by Human Rights Watch to the government concerning the use of torture in order to obtain “confessions”: “Bangladesh’s military forces have become notorious for taking people into custody, torturing them to death or executing them in faked ‘crossfire killings.’” Indeed, this letter refers to the case of Mr. Tasneem Khalil, a consultant for Human Rights Watch and stringer for CNN, who in May of this year was “taken from his home in front of his wife and child, blindfolded and driven to an interrogation centre, where he was tortured and questioned … Mr. Khalil saw sophisticated torture equipment and could hear other detainees screaming in pain. … Before his release, [he] was forced to make false confession, and asked to sign documents and testify on video admitting to acts that could be considered treasonous.” It is in this dire context that the so-called “confession” of Sheikh Selim has to be assessed, and I will also note that since he is still in detention, the full extent of his mistreatment may be difficult to divulge.

One of the most fundamental human rights norms is the prohibition of torture. This includes the inadmissibility of confessions obtained through torture as evidence in judicial proceedings. The government of Bangladesh must be reminded that the use of torture in the trial of Sheikh Hasina is a particularly serious violation of international law. It is in fact an international crime that the government is under an obligation to prevent and punish under United Nations human rights treaties which it has signed. Torture gives rise to individual criminal responsibility not only of those who perpetrate it, but also of those in positions of authority that legitimize it by failing to prosecute perpetrators. Those that are acquiescing in this travesty of justice against Sheikh Hasina should consider the doctrine of command responsibility, not least in a case with such a high-profile and intense international scrutiny. It was after all in the Pinochet case before the House of Lords in this country that the consequences of tolerating such conduct became apparent for once untouchable Heads of State. The message should be clear for the current leaders of Bangladesh. Instead of prosecuting Sheikh Hasina on trumped up charges of corruption, those responsible for the torture of Sheikh Selim should be put on trial, otherwise those that are condoning such conduct may themselves be in the dock one day.

As part of our initial campaign to hold Bangladesh accountable to its international human rights obligations, we have last week communicated the details of Sheikh Hasina’s case to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. In particular, we have sent information to the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak of Austria, and to the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of the Judiciary, Leandro Despouy of Argentina. We will ensure that the United Nations system, and more widely, the international community, is fully appraised of the legal proceedings against Sheikh Hasina, and hope that the government will appreciate that its human rights violations, its attempt to subvert democracy, will exact a heavy cost. It is especially regrettable that Bangladesh, a nation with a proud tradition of internationalism, a nation whose military have served as United Nations peacekeepers throughout the world, must now become a symbol of a military bent on usurping the power of democratically elected leaders. We are certain that there are those amongst the ranks of the military that realize the grave consequences for Bangladesh of becoming an international pariah, of losing the tremendous hard-won prestige and influence that the armed forces have brought to this nation.

In charting its course of action, the international community must also realize that the laudable goal of fighting corruption cannot be at the expense of human rights. Surely, Bangladesh’s deterioration into a military dictatorship will only increase the abuse of power, will only increase the corruption that comes with the absence of accountability. Democracy and respect for the rule of law is a long and arduous process that is achieved in over time. While Sheikh Hasina herself supported the assumption of power by the caretaker government in January of this year, it was based on the desire for free and fair elections, for an end to the turmoil that had gripped the country, and not for the elimination of democracy. And those that believe that the military-backed government should be given yet more time to prepare for elections now postponed till 2008 should consider how with the most popular political leader in prison, and with rights of assembly and free speech severely curtailed under emergency laws, it is possible to hold free and fair elections. This amounts to denying democracy in the name of attaining democracy. We therefore appeal to the international community to adopt a principled policy that upholds human rights and the rule of law, lest Bangladesh fall prey to the same authoritarian forces that have resulted in a steady deterioration of peace and stability in neighbouring countries.

And most of all, our message to the government of Bangladesh is that we will not allow this travesty of justice to go unchallenged. We will use every means at our disposal to enlist the support of the United Nations, and to expose the trial of Sheikh Hasina for what it is: a military coup masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign. #

London, August 6th, 2007