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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dr. Fakhruddin’s Speech at Columbia and the “Paradox” of Bangladesh


“Bangladesh is, in many ways, a paradox that has baffled many a pundit.”
-Dr. Fakhruddin at Columbia University (28th September 2007)

THIS morning Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, Honorable Chief Adviser of Bangladesh, delivered a speech at Columbia University on an invitation by its World Leader’s Forum. At the same venue just a few days ago Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad was invited amid massive protests and gave a speech followed by questions and answers session during which Mr Mahmoud underwent a real tough time. Unlike Ahmedinajad, Dr Fakhruddin, however, was well received by the community of Columbia University, its students, teachers, staff and media. Dr. Fakhruddin’s speech was well-written and he delivered it well. Yet it might not be easy to predict, to what extent the Chief Adviser has been able to dispel the doubts about Bangladesh as “a paradox that has baffled many a pundit,” a phrase taken from his speech. Unlike what we see back home, here in US (and in much of the West) a speech or lecture by a VIP is almost always accompanied by the questions and answers (Q & A) session. But this session didn’t go as well as Dr. Fakhruddin might have predicted. And I am sure--our Chief Adviser, a Princeton alumni himself--has realized it as well.

The title of Dr. Fakhruddin’s speech was “Bangladesh’s Socioeconomic Development: Success, Challenges, and Imperatives.” During his more than half-an-hour speech which started at 11 am, Dr. Fakhruddin spoke on a wide range of issues starting from—Dr. Yunus’ micro-credit; challenges of poverty reduction; Bangladesh’s success in population control, food-production, garments industry, primary education, Non-formal education (NFE) (some may not agree with the way he promoted BRAC’s success as an NGO); migration issue— to current caretaker government’s drive against corruption and resolve to hold elections “before the end of December 2008.”

One very interesting aspect of Dr. Fakhruddin’s speech was his repeated utterance “democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good governance.” (May be, General Moyeen has requested him to make it a point every where he goes to!) “Our democratically elected governments during the past 15 years failed to promote good governance and to protect citizens’ rights. We must accept that while democracy may take various forms and manifestations, its ultimate objective is always the same—the rule of law by the will of people. Democracy must put in place checks and balances against abuses of power and corruption,” said Dr. Fakhruddin during his speech. While many of us may agree with Dr. Fakhruddin’s statement about the failure and corruption (moral and fiscal) of country’s mainstream politicians, it’s quite dubious in my opinion that not even once did he mention that about the military’s repeated record of capture and abuse of power in Bangladesh by bypassing country’s constitution. After all, Bangladesh’s age is 35+ years, not 15 years. As for the underlined portion (Note: I did it to make my point. –J.A.) of his remarks, we only wish Mr Chief Adviser’s “various forms and manifestations” of democracy would not remind us of General Ayub’s “Basic Democracy.” The Q & A session started at around 11-35 a.m. I attended the speech on behalf of and carried a question with me which read as follows: Recently in Bangladesh, a young cartoonist Arifur Rahman was arrested and is held in prison for a cartoon which used the word, "Mohammed" and which some fundamentalist groups found objectionable. When a similar cartoon was published in the magazine of another fundamentalist group's own newspaper, no allegation of people’s "religious sentiments being hurt" or any such issue arose. We are aware that lawyers have been restricted from representing Mr Rahman and that his own family has not been allowed to meet him. This follows on the heels of the brutal torture and killing of Tribe leader and Activist Cholesh Ritchil and the arrests of hundreds of university teachers, several thousands of people with no prior criminal record. Would you please comment on this horrific state of affairs in Bangladesh with respect to individual rights and freedoms? During Q & A session I saw Dr. Austin Dacey, a long time friend of Mukto-Mona, United Nations representative of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) Trans-national and assistant editor of Free Inquiry magazine, in the queue on the other side of the hall. The moderator took first four questions from four members of the audience (there were total two lines). I was waiting for my turn. The first four questions were about Dr. Yunus & micro-credit (asked by a Bangladeshi journalist but I couldn’t quite clearly follow it); arrest of cartoonist Arifur Rahman (asked by Dr. Austin); imprisonment and harassment of university teachers, students and others and Bangladeshi refugees in India . In his response although Dr Fakhruddin maintained that his government is “respectful” (?) of the freedom of press, he clearly avoided the issue of cartoonist Arifur Rahman’s arrest. But the question regarding imprisonment and persecution of university teachers, asked by a young South Asian student, shattered the image which Dr. Fakhruddin created of his government through his sugar-coated speech. It was interesting to notice, how Dr. Fakhruddin’s face turned grumpy as the question was asked. And his answer to this particular question was old rhetoric: that it was initially a “minor” incident that was magnified later through some anti-government agents in order to destabilize the country. By the time my turn time came, Ms Clare Oh (who granted me permission to attend the event) came to me telling,” Sorry, media people are not allowed to ask any questions. Q & A session is open only to Columbia students and staff.” Surprised and deeply frustrated, I pleaded saying the first four persons who asked questions were not Columbia students themselves. Ms Clare acknowledged- that was a mistake. I obeyed the rule and came out with Dr. Austin, thanked him for raising the issue of cartoonist Arif’s arrest. If it was not for him, the American audience would not have learned about the example of this government’s policy of appeasement toward Islamic fundamentalists: imprisonment of a boy as young as 19 years only for “hurting religious sentiments” (!) of Muslims (read, Mullahs). As I was coming out, I left the copies of CFI's statement on cartoonist Arifur Rahman issued to Mukto-Mona yesterday on the table with the receptionists near the entrance. Initially I hoped to distribute them among the audience personally but I arrived there late and the speech already started.

How many more years would Bangladesh remain a ”baffling paradox?” Who might know answer to this question: The politicians, bureaucrats, the military, the public or none of them! I thought about this on my way back home. #

Jahed Ahmed is a secular activist based in New York and moderates

New York, September 28, 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

The minus-two solution

This article published in The Economist magazine, London on September 6, 2007 was censored in Bangladesh by military backed interim government. We reproduce this article with a comment by by Anti-Corruption Commission chairman Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury/Editor

Both the country's leading civilian politicians are in detention. One way or another, the future looks green

EARLIER this year Bangladesh's generals tried and failed to consign the countries' two leading civilian politicians to exile. Now they have locked them both up. On September 3rd police arrested Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and prime minister until last October, and her younger son, on charges of corruption. Mrs Zia (pictured above after her arrest) will be the next-door prisoner in Dhaka's idle parliament building to her nemesis, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister from 1996-2001 and leader of the Awami League, the other big party.

This will be uncomfortable for both women, who loathe each other. Judging from the sentences meted out in recent months by specially created courts to members of their kleptocratic coteries, they can expect long jail sentences. Until now, despite Bangladesh's regular appearance at the top of global corruption league tables, the only politician ever convicted of graft was General Hossain Muhammad Ershad, Bangladesh' s military ruler in the 1980s. In a rare moment of unity, the two women ousted him in 1990. Since then the parties that they managed to turn into patronage-based personality cults have won about 90% of votes in election.

But so appalling was the begums' record of governing the country that most of its 150m people were relieved when the generals took control in January. The mechanism intended to rescue democracy from viciously confrontational two-party politics—an unelected caretaker government to oversee elections—collapsed because the BNP picked a partisan president to rig the poll. Instead, the army forced him to resign as the head of the caretaker government, cancelled parliamentary elections, declared a state of emergency and installed an interim regime to pave the way for elections by December 2008.

Encouragingly, the army has so far resisted following the example of so many military regimes that form their own political parties to prolong their rule. But this, of course, might change. There is little to reassure Bangladeshis that the generals' attempt to redesign society and stamp out corruption will not end up as the totalitarian disaster that follows so many coups.

It is not clear for how much longer the emergency government will be able to keep people quiet. Since January it has detained an extraordinary number: more than 250,000, according to Human Rights Watch, a monitoring group. The army chief, Moeen U Ahmed, has accused “evil forces” of instigating student riots last month. To Bangladeshis, such language is as painfully familiar as the repression that followed the students' call for the early restoration of democracy—censorship, arrests without warrants, and the beating-up of intellectuals and journalists.

Last week a magistrate's court heard two professors allege they were tortured while detained on suspicion of fuelling the campus violence. The court released them back into army custody. According to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human-rights group, 126 people have been killed by law enforcement agencies since emergency rule began; at least 22 were tortured to death.

Despite the elections promised for next year, and efforts to mend a voters' list bloated with millions of extra names, this is not a country preparing for a return to democratic politics. The government refuses to lift the state of emergency. Even if it did, that would not resuscitate the political process. The BNP is in a mess. Hours before her arrest, Khaleda Zia expelled Mannan Bhuiyan, the BNP's secretary-general, for “a conspiracy to split the party”. The League, for its part, has found it impossible to part with Sheikh Hasina, who remains popular. No self-respecting politician will enter the fray while the army runs the show. Mohammad Yunus, a Nobel-prize-winning microcredit pioneer once seen as a potential candidate to fill the political vacuum, floated a party earlier in the year, but has scrapped plans to enter politics.

The generals and their civilian front are finding that their legitimacy, which rests on their competence, is eroding. In part, this stems from bad luck. Devastating floods and rising international prices for oil and food have worsened the plight of the poor. But the economic consequences of military rule have become apparent.

Garment exports, the economy's backbone, have plummeted. Investment has ground to a halt. To reverse the trend, business leaders, the army chief and the pliable head of the civilian administration, Fakhruddin Ahmed, this week held a “brainstorming” session. It is more likely to have made investors cringe than reach for their wallets. The state is desperately trying to hold down prices through administrative measures, though they will inevitably rise further during Ramadan later this month. Last month it decided, in effect, to use $300m of its foreign reserves to pay for fuel subsidies.

Meanwhile Western governments and donors, who backed the army's seizure of power, are getting cold feet as human-rights abuses mount and public opinion turns. Even so, diplomats say that the present regime is “the only game in town”. The generals' secular stance and tough opposition to Islamist extremism still make them attractive to Western governments. But with the two big parties decapitated, the fear is that the Islamists, both the mainstream and a more radical margin, will profit from the political vacuum and growing economic discontent.

This week India, alarmed by the alleged involvement of Bangladeshi terrorists in last month's bombings in the southern city of Hyderabad, urged its neighbour to speed up the restoration of democracy. It would be messy, but as India knows from watching its other neighbour, Pakistan, so is the alternative. #

This article was first published in The Economist magazine, Sep 6th 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


What 's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, sc. ii


WHERE is the FUA & MUA leading the nation – to a dysfunctional state? In their recent challenges the emergency government seems to be threatened by people's ambition for political freedom. Since the FUA & MUA have taken charge of the 1/11 interim government has implemented several decisions which contradict the principles of the freedom of expression enshrined in the state constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights 1966 ratified by Bangladesh in the year 2000.

After blanket censorship on critical news and opinion in newspapers and TV channels, arrests & torture in custody of scores of journalists and editors, specially during curfew hours, intimidating several newspapers and shutting down a TV channel, and the latest victim is free-lance cartoonist Arifur Rahman, after his cartoon under the title “Naam (Name)” published in “Aalpin”, the most popular weekly satirical pullout magazine of largest selling vernacular daily Prothom Alo.

After The Netherlands cartoon outcry on Prophet Muhammad, Bangladesh has been catapulted into the international limelight in the recent controversial decision of FUA-MUA Sarkar to arrest and detain the cartoonist, ban the edition if Aalpin, intimidate the editor to make public apology which was said “hurting the sentiment of the Muslims”.

The cartoonist has been accused of blasphemy, which demonstrates the growing intolerance of Sunni Muslims in a nation which have been created after a bloody war of liberation in 1971 for a democratic, secular and nationalism. It’s a pity that poet Dawood Haider (1974) and feminist writer Taslima Nasrin (1993) had also fallen under the scornful eyes of resurgence of “defeated Islamist” in Bangladesh. Incidentally both are presently living in exile in fear of persecution of radical Muslims.

Day later the blogger's in Bangladesh have stumbled into a nine-year old juvenile magazine “Kishore Kantha” published by pro-Islamist Chattra Shibir, the student wing of dreaded Jamaat-e-Islami.

The cartoon in the pro-Islamist juvenile magazine was contributed by a student of a notorious Madrassah in Amirabad, Feni in November 1998. Why nobody bothered? Rather interpret - nobody dared to raise the issue of “hurting the feeling of Muslims.”

Now that we know the history of the cartoon published in Prothom Alo, can we anticipate the FUA-MUA will also take action against the contributor madrassah student Mohammad Masud and the editors Matiur Rahman Akhand (chief editor), Ehsanul Mahmud Zubayer (editor) and Sirajul Islam Shahin (executive editor).

Why? Because the cartoon was published in a staunch advocate of Islamic Ummah publication and shadowed by the dreaded Jamaat-e-Islami, who believe in creating an Islamic state and implement Sharia Law to persecute women, secular and religious minorities in Bangladesh. Or because whatever Jamaat and their wings do are “halal” and have the right to express their feelings in whatever forms and language. Outrageous!

As we all know the Baitul Mukarram Khatib (chief priest) Maulana Obaidul Haque has demanded of the government to arrest the editor and ban the publication of Prothom Alo during a parley with the Law (B)adviser Moinul Hossein. I trust the pro-Jamaat-e-Islami Khatib will also demand the arrests and ban of Kishore Kantha!

Of course the FUA-MUA Sarkar should demonstrate that their decision will be applied equally and will also punish the Chattra Shibir leaders responsible for publication of cartoons satirical of Prophet Muhammad. Let the world see that the blasphemy laws can also be applied to Islamist making fun of Muhammad!

It was really painful when we heard that the cartoonist Arif and the sub-editor of the “Aalpin” magazine had lost their jobs with Prothom Alo for publishing a cartoon on the culture of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. We need to understand why the Prothom Alo editor had succumbed to FUA-MUA intimidation. Possibly to save the cancellation of the declaration (registration).

In the past the Prothom Alo editor globalised the cause of Tipu Sultan, who was brutally injured by the cadres of a former Awami League lawmaker Joinal Hazari in 2001, for his investigative reporting. The editor Matiur Rahman had always been outspoken about cause of persecution of journalists. But this time his newspaper is a victim of intimidation of the FUA-MUA Sarkar. Could the editor have continued with his commitment to the freedom of the press, and protect the interests of the journalists? We will have to wait for the next step.

The press is enchained! In other way, we can say people’s voice has been muffled. The civil society is licking their wounds after nearly a dozen university teachers have been arrested to enflame pro-democracy riots. So who will speak for people now?

Well the action by the government will apparently encourage the defeated Islamists and radical Muslims to further intimidate and coerce the secular, liberals and pro-independence population of the country. Already people cannot express their mind in fear of persecution by people wearing military boots and as if they instead running suited-booted interim government (as we see the TV channels). Time to change the expression: SWORD IS MIGHTIER THAN THE PEN. #

Imagine the “Man” in the cartoon is Gen. Moin/Barrister Moin (M) and the kid could be a general public (P)

M: Who is Awami League chief?

P: Shiekh Hasina
M: You should not say like that. Before mentioning any politician, you should address them as "Corrupt", ok!

M: Who is BNP Chief?
P: “Corrupt” Khaleda Zia
M: Who are pro-reformist politicians in AL and BNP?
P: “Corrupt” Mannan Bhuiyan and “Corrupt” Amir Hossain Amu
M: Hah!

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is a Bangladesh born journalist, presently living in Canada in exile. He is former correspondent for TIME Asia magazine, Daily Times (Pakistan) and His email:

Masudul Biswas is a free-lance contributor, media researcher and a former reporter of the Bangladesh Observer. Presently an international student of Mass Communication
in the United States. His email is

This article first appeared in

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bangladesh: Partial Lifting of Ban on Politics Falls Far Short

Photo: Police assault press photographer at cricket game in Chittagong. Security agency often intimidate, harass, detain and torture journalists with impunity, despite continuous international protests

Authorities Should Lift Emergency Rules Undermining Basic Rights

THE Bangladeshi caretaker government’s decision to partially lift the ban on political activities is not nearly enough to address widespread restrictions on basic freedoms and rampant human rights abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

The government imposed a total ban on politics on March 8, two months after it imposed a state of emergency. On September 10, the head of the government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said that the authorities were lifting restrictions on “indoor” politics in the capital Dhaka “to create an environment conducive to talks with political parties.”

“The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is bizarre. If the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy, they must fully end the ban on political activities,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Politics is not a sport that can be played only in an indoor arena.”

The move was aimed at facilitating discussions between political parties and the Election Commission, which is revising the country’s election rules. The Election Commission, led by ATM Shamsul Huda, has been assigned the responsibility to institute electoral reforms. However, the commission said that these reforms would not be possible without consultations with the political parties. The government announced the partial lifting of the ban before the commission begins discussions with political parties, scheduled for September 12.

However, the partial lifting of the ban will only allow a political party to meet to discuss internal party reforms in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform. Parties will still be required to inform the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in advance about all meetings. A maximum of 50 party members will be allowed to attend each meeting. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force in the rest of the country. Under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, those who violate the restrictions face prison terms of two to five years as well as fines.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about emergency rules that undermine basic due process rights. While certain restrictions on some rights during properly declared states of national emergency are permitted under international law, the measures under the government’s emergency law have not been limited to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

Under Bangladesh’s current state of emergency, the government has restricted political and trade union activities and prohibited the media from publishing anything that can be considered “provocative.” Tens of thousands of people – and perhaps as many as 200,000, according to some reports – have been arrested under the state of emergency without proper judicial oversight. A large number of offenses have been made “non-bailable,” meaning that many detainees face indefinite detention without trial. The courts have frequently been sidelined from ensuring due process of law. Many detainees are being held in unofficial places of detention.
Bangladesh’s emergency laws have created an atmosphere ripe for torture and mistreatment, which has been widely alleged by victims and family members. Human Rights Watch has confirmed these allegations in cases that it has investigated.

Freedom of the press has also come under assault by the government. In some districts, the army has summoned journalists and photographed them in blatant efforts at intimidation, warning them not to publish anything critical of the security forces. Even as the caretaker government announced that it would make the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) an effective, autonomous body, it pulled the country’s only privately owned 24-hour news channel off the air, days after it warned the channel not to broadcast footage of recent anti-government riots.

Moreover, government censors ripped out two recent articles in the The Economist on protests and Bangladeshi politics before the magazine could be distributed. Bangladeshi editors and journalists have told Human Rights Watch that self-censorship has become common.

“The government should make the same commitment to ending human rights abuses that it it has made to fighting corruption,” said Richardson. “The army and other security forces need to be reined in, and censorship has to end.

“Ripping out pages from an international magazine is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not a caretaker government committed to reform and the rule of law,” Richardson added. #

Human Rights Watch, New York, September 12, 2007

For more on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, please see the August 1 letter from Human Rights Watch to the Caretaker Government, at:

Yet one more contender to form the next government


THE ongoing state of emergency saw the launching of yet another political party as Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi on July 21 floated Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) despite a ban on all kinds of political activities. In his maiden press conference while announcing the formation of party he declared that (DS July 22, 2007) “the PDP will contest all the 300 constituencies in the next general elections, which, he believes, will be held by the end of 2008 and his party hopes to form the next government.”

Yet another politician, the most visible reformist in the political arena, Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan who seems to have been energized by his recent expulsion from the party that enjoyed the longest tenure of ruling the country vowed that (his) BNP “will form the next government through participating in the upcoming general elections after implementation of reforms led by the reformists.” He went on to declare that “the image of the party has been destroyed in the last five years. So, sacrificing leadership would be reinstated in the party and the corrupt and terrorist leaders will be excluded.” This is indeed a wonderful resolution. However, does Mannan Bhuiyan hold the moral ground to lead the crusade against corrupted elements inside the party?

Let us go back about a year from today. The TIB launched its corruption index on July 5, 2006 where the LGRD and Cooperatives ministry came top in corruption. It alleged that the ministry accounted for Tk 208.9 crore out of a total of Tk 526.27 crore misappropriated at different ministries. In response Mannan Bhuiyan threatened (DS July 11) the TIB, “if you [TIB] don't take the report back, there will be processions against TIB in different districts and we will also take legal action.” He went further sordidly aiming at our octogenarian conscience of the nation, “who is Mozaffar Ahmed? He was a minister during the military regime of late president Ziaur Rahman. Allegations of corruption had been there against him as well."

Over the last few days, through the courtesy of satellite TV, audiences all over the world were able to see the palatial house of Mannan Bhuiyan transformed into a Mecca for BNP politicians. They included many former MPs and ministers, whose stories of wanton corruption filled the pages of the media before and after "one eleven." However, the most hypocritical aspect of Mannan Bhuiyan’s resolve to clean ‘his’ BNP from the corrupt elements got revealed from his reported request of M Saifur Rahman to take over the chairmanship of the party. If the stories of credible media are to be believed, Saifur Rahman will undoubtedly be crowned with a distinctive laurel of corruption that may not be surpassed by very many in our corruption arena. Aside from tax evasion, he abused his power to the extent of leasing 500 acres of land to his two sons at a price of 5 taka per acre, an unparallel magnitude of power abuse even by the standard of our depraved political history. His son riding on his own co-tail became an MP and was a notorious terror and extortionist until he was put behind bar following the emergency. Yet, Mannan Bhuiyan wants to get the party rid of “corrupt and terrorist elements” by installing Saifur Rahman at the helm of it and form the next government!”

In full tune with the affirmation of our people Mannan Bhuiyan in his statement said, “the country cannot go back to the situation before January 11 since it saved the nation from a civil war like situation.” Notwithstanding the pathetically short memories of our people, it would not be difficult to recollect the actions and deeds of the political party and their leaders who bear the lion share of responsibility that contributed to the creation of ‘civil war like situations’. Those leaders are no other than the BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia and her second in command and the visible spokesman Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan. Mannan Bhuiyan after his long dialogue drama with Abdul Jalil declared, bulldozing the high expectations of the people, on November 2, 2006 that “the 14-party coalition's demand for restructuring the Election Commission (EC) is 'new' to him.” About the controversy regarding assumption of the office of the chief adviser by the president he said, "the president took the charge constitutionally and by taking the decision he saved the nation from a constitutional crisis."

On October 28, 2006 Mannan Bhuiyan bluntly lied to the ATN audience, from Teknaf to Toronto, at the gate of the Bangabhaban that Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury has refused to take the responsibility of CA. However, the same TV channel revealed to its audience on October 29 at 1:00 am that the former chief justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury reportedly told Bangabhaban yesterday that he has no objection to assuming the post of the chief adviser to the next caretaker government. On December 30, 2006 terming all the demands raised by the alliance as 'resolved issues', he said, "The 14-party wants to make issues of the resolved ones." On the same day, rejecting the demands of Awami League led grand alliance, Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan said “the question of resignation of the chief adviser of the caretaker government does not arise at all.” On January 8, 2007 Mannan Bhuiyan said, “the election must be held on January 22 and if the Awami League led grand alliance has any demands unfulfilled, the next government will fulfil them.” Alas, our Armed forces did not give any opportunity to Mannan Bhuiyan to get a walkover to the helm of the state to fulfil the ‘unfulfilled’ demands of the AL led alliance!

Would it be unfair to ask Mr. Bhuiyan if the corruptions that made his ministry the number one in the TIB list and his consequent threat to take legal action against TIB were instigated by the then PM of the country? In a similar token, would Mr. Bhuiyan divulge to the nation if his betrayal in the dialogue drama with Abdul Jalil and the his aforementioned comments leading to the creation of ‘civil war like situations’ before January 11, were carried out at the instruction of his erstwhile party chief?

As it stands today only two political leaders so far have expressed their hope to form the next government. As for Mr. Qureshi, so far the political arena is concerned, he neither possesses many assets to help materializing his dream neither is he burdened with much liabilities that would desist him from making his wish list, albeit those who are visible at his side at this time, borrowing the words from Mahfuz Anam, “will not be worth the paper their names will be written on.”

The second contender, however, are sitting on a double edged sword. If he succeeds in establishing his claim, a long shot indeed, of the mainstream BNP, he has to shoulder the burden of the responsibility of the most despicable governance this country has ever experienced. If he fails, the most probable outcome if political parties’ past factional history is of anything to learn from, he has to organize a new political party, which in any pragmatist’s view would be a daunting task indeed. In either scenario, he would need much more than the free and fair expressions of the will of the people to form the next government. The mere fact that his counterpart is languishing in jail, albeit while in power, no corruption story about him or his ministry ever surfaced in any news media while Mannan Bhuiyan is a freeman and more than two dozens AL men are in jail for attending a private dinner party in Sylhet while he encountered no problem in holding a political gathering amid chanting slogans by his supporters, displaying banner and using microphones in front of national and international electronic media glaringly reflecting that some are ‘more equal’ than the others in the eyes of law. Only time will tell how far these extra supports will translate into helping him forming the next government as he has wished after his expulsion from the primary membership of the BNP. #

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh. He writes from Toronto, Canada

Saturday, September 08, 2007



IT is up to the leaders of civil society to speak out and continue to speak out to ensure that the caretaker government does not lose focus again and does not let an over-ambitious agenda detract from its original objectives

Last week, the situation in Bangladesh appeared to be falling apart. There was a scuffle between some soldiers and some students on the always-volatile Dhaka University campus, and within minutes it seemed the trouble had spread to other universities and to the streets. There is some suspicion that the problems were not spontaneous.

Swift government action to impose a curfew for a few days seems to have cooled the situation down. The question is whether what happened last week serves as a wake-up call to this military/civilian regime, and to the usually dynamic Bangladeshi civil society (which has been unusually silent) or whether it is a harbinger of worse things to come.

I think it is clear that one of the problems has been the lack of a political safety valve so far during the tenure of this un-elected government. Many observers, including this writer, have advocated lifting the ban on political activity, at least partially. The first step could be permitting indoor political meetings, which inter alia, would permit the Election Commission to begin consulting the parties on the changes in electoral rules and the party and political reform it has in mind.

Among the first items of business in these consultations is the voters' list. After months, I have still seen no indication that the election commission will be able to complete the list with photos that it has so ambitiously set as its target. The aim was to have this ready by the end of 2008, but recent headlines screamed that the 16,000 laptop computers needed for this operation would not be available by then. Even if they were, I wonder if the 16,000 operators that would be needed can be trained in time.

I have argued that a voters' list with photos is a laudable longer-run objective, but insistence on such a list for the next election is a case of complicating the present by projecting from the past. A photo voters' list would have been useful in the national elections of 1996 and 2001, and was thought necessary by the opposition in the 2006 run-up to the aborted 2007 election because it was the clearly skewed list that was a main bone of contention.

However, it seems to me that almost all parties could agree that an election conducted under this caretaker government is virtually certain to be free and fair. Why not get the parties to agree to a list without photos for this election, with the idea that such a simple list could be completed more quickly and lead to an earlier election than thought possible when this caretaker government took over.

The dialogue between the government and the parties must also get down to brass-tacks on party reform and leadership. Both are necessary if what comes out of this interim period is to lead to a sustainable democratic system. It will not be easy to get agreement on changed leadership in the two major parties, let alone their reform, but the promise of earlier elections may prove an attractive incentive.

In fact, that is part of the problem. In addition to the lack of a forum for dialogue between the caretaker government and the public and political parties, there is the perception of fumbling and halting progress towards an election that would turn things back over to an elected civilian government. That perception is not all wrong. Progress has been halting, in part because the caretaker government's agenda has been too ambitious. A photo voters' list is one example of that; there are several others.

Progress has also been halting, in part, because of problems that the government cannot completely control and that often derive from global or regional trends. These problems take time and energy from the main tasks of the caretaker government, time and energy not available in infinite amounts in a cabinet limited in size by the constitution and, to some extent perhaps, wedded to outdated philosophies. The economy is sagging and inflation is increasing. The primary response should be to protect the poor through income transfers, not price controls, which just impact more negatively on the economy.

I hope that the events of the past ten days have also been a wake-up call to the leaders of Bangladesh civil society. There are a number of outstanding individuals who I know are well regarded by the military and the civil sides of this interim regime - perceived as objective, neutral, and supportive. It is time they spoke out clearly, and publicly if possible, about the need for the government to increase its capacity and focus its attention on the immediate tasks it set out in January to accomplish: a free and fair election as soon as technically possible; a change in the political culture through democratising the parties and agreeing with them to a set of regles du jeu (the rules of the game) that the politicians should live by.

I do not omit the pursuit of the corrupt politicians and allied businessmen, but I have never been convinced that the Anti-Corruption Commission would be able to more than begin its work by the time an election should be held. Just the threat that it poses, under its dynamic and straightforward Chairman right now, would be a major disincentive to attempts to corrupt the next election. What is important is that this election brings on an honest government that will pursue the anti-corruption campaign with determination and neutrality throughout the next decade.

It is up to the leaders of civil society to speak out and continue to speak out to ensure that the caretaker government does not lose focus again and does not let an over-ambitious agenda detract from its original objectives. It is another case of "the best is the enemy of the good". Of all those who have a stake in the success of the experiment underway in Bangladesh, it is the civil society of the country that has the largest stake. #

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. His columns reflect his personal views and not those of the United States Government This article first appeared in Daily Times, Pakistan, September 05, 2007

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bangladesh News channel silenced

Photo: Emotional breakdown of CSB news staffs on hearing the that the station would be knocked off the air


AFTER "limited censorship" on electronic media, Bangladesh’s only private 24-hour news channel has been silenced, just days after being warned not to broadcast footage of pro-democracy riots.

CSB television said officials from the telecommunications regulator visited with armed law enforcement personnel and took it off the air.

The officials of Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has asked CSB to explain doubts over the allocation of the frequency and accused the station on charges of forging a no-objection certificate, and asked its authorities to respond to an official notice in seven days.

But a senior CSB official argued that he was not convinced by the reason. The authorities are avoiding comment.

Until the TV station administration explains their conduct, the transmission would remain suspended.

Off Air
The order that many of the channel's journalists and employees described as "a surprise" move made most of them emotional.

Niaz Morshed Quaderi, head of the editorial section, read out a statement on behalf of the channel authorities.

"We had requested the BTRC officials to give us some time to announce that we are going to stop our transmission. But they did not agree," an emotional Morshed told

Earlier, on August 23, the interim government served notices cautioning private TV channels CSB and Ekushey TV for ‘breaching emergency rules’ by showing student agitation and country-wide pro-democracy riot.

The student protests in Dhaka quickly spread into three days of violent demonstrations across Bangladesh demanding an end to emergency rule.

The violence posed the most serious challenge to the emergency government since it took power six months ago.

In a statement, the Press Information Department said the two TV stations had aired ‘provocative news, video footage and talk shows against the government’ for the last few days.

"Several news items broadcast by the two TV channels breached the emergency rules. The government will take action if they continue to do so," law adviser Mainul Hosein told on Aug 23.

But neither the PID statement nor the adviser in the phone interview explained which news item of the TV channels had exactly breached the emergency rules.

Gained Popularity
The first and lone 24-hours news channel, which only began broadcasting from March, went off air about 1800 local time (1200 GMT) on Thursday evening.

The channel started broadcasting on March 26 and earned popularity in covering big news events such as the arrests of two former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

"It's quite unfortunate not only for us but for the entire media community that a popular station like ours had to be shut down without any notice," he said.

Watchdog Protest
Meanwhile, the international press watchdogs express grave concerns over the reported harassments, assaults and intimidation of journalists and gagging of the media in Bangladesh and denounces the repression of the journalists.

The law-enforcing agencies resorted to assaults of the journalists, both print and electronic, while they were covering the students protesting against the high-handedness of the army personnel and demanding the lifting of the state of emergency that suspended fundamental rights of the citizens.

The watchdog also notes that despite repeated government assurances of press freedom, the law enforcers resorted to detention, assaults, intimidation and humiliation of the media people particularly since the imposition of curfew on Aug 21.

Reporters Without Border (RSF), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Asia Media Forum (AMF) expresses concern over the government's overt intimidating two private TV channels — Ekushey and CSB, and covert attempts by telephonic instructions to media executives by the government agencies to gag the press.. #

The article was written based on reports of BBC online, Daily Star, The New Age and

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is a Bangladesh born journalist, presently living in exile in Canada for "crying wolf" when he discovered Jihadist sleeper cells in Bangladesh used by the remnants of Al-Qaeda and Taliban who fled the war torn Afghanistan after US led invasion in 2001. He presently edits and also a blog BangladeshWatchdog

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Bangladesh: The Caretaker’s Burden


THE imposition of emergency by Bangladesh’s caretaker government has seen the curtailment of civil liberties along with several human rights violations. Initially greeted with some approval, the excesses of the emergency have now evoked widespread apprehension amongst the people.

In the six months following the proclamation of emergency, Bangladesh’s military-backed government has morphed from caretaker to an aspiring “lord of the manor”. Having ostensibly whisked away the dirt, it now appears keen to settle in. It would do well to consider that a people who might exult over the downfall of their former guardians might not gladly suffer yet another warden riding roughshod over their rights.

As the New Age newspaper pointed out recently:

It is… not surprising that the people who whole-heartedly welcomed the incumbents six months ago, have started getting disillusioned about the commitment and ability of the government of the day. The pervasive atmosphere of fear, automatically generated out of the military-driven emergency, may keep the people quiet for some more days, but they might burst into anger any time – the symptoms of which have already surfaced in Khalishpur and Nachole. It is high time that the incumbents pause to review the deeds, and misdeeds, that they have committed so far.1

There is no doubt that the euphoria following the takeover was real. It was based on the hope that there would be more freedom, not less, and that those who had taken Bangladesh for granted would get their come-uppance. The current government’s gross disregard for due process and fundamental rights, however, echoes the excesses of the former regimes.

Everyone Loves a Clean-up
The state of emergency suspended most fundamental rights, including the right to file writ petitions for the enforcement of fundamental rights. Another presidential order suspended proceedings relating to writ petitions before the Supreme Court until the state of emergency was revoked.2 On January 25, 2007, the Emergency Powers Rules 2007 withdrew this bar, allowing redressal of violations of fundamental rights so long as they did not relate to “political issues”.3 The Rules are wide in scope, and in conjunction with the Special Powers Act 1974, proscribe, among other things, acts intended to “create panic and malice” against the government, acts affecting the country’s relations with other countries, acts against the state and public security, against economic life and law and order, and those obstructing the supply of essentials and services.4 In April 2007, the interim government amended the Emergency Powers Ordinance 2007, giving itself the power to frame rules to expedite and effectively conclude any inquiry, investigation, trial and appeal with regard to any offence committed under any law during the state of emergency.5

What’s That Stink?
Thousands of people are reported to have been arrested without charge under the emergency laws, purportedly as part of the new government’s efforts to tackle crime and corruption.6 As with other countries in south Asia, Bangladesh has had a long tradition of preventive detention. A constitutional amendment in 1973 authorised the country’s parliament to pass preventive detention laws that allow detention for as long as six months. The detainee must be produced before an advisory board within those six months7 and the board must report its decision on a detainee to the government within 170 days of arrest.8 Preventive detention laws such as the Special Powers Act were widely used to target political opponents by the previous Awami League and Bangladesh National Party (BNP) governments.

A number of custodial killings, euphemistically called “crossfire” deaths by security forces and by those in the media, have also been reported. Torture is routinely used in Bangladesh to extract information and also as a form of punishment. Extrajudicial executions are routine. The emergency laws have now given a carte blanche to the security forces who are known to hold and torture detainees in unofficial places of detention. Those arrested include a number of high-profile politicians and functionaries in the previous governments who have been detained mainly on charges of corruption. Due process in all this has been blithely ignored. No warrants were produced at the time of arrest, and family members not informed as to where those arrested would be taken and held. At least one person was reportedly blindfolded before being hauled away.9 Homes were searched and belongings taken way, again without a warrant, and without an accounting of the items being confiscated.

The Emergency Powers Rules provide that under the Anti-Corruption Commission Act, if a person is suspected of possessing property disproportionate to his/her “legitimate” income, he/she must provide a statement listing all movable or immovable properties within 72 hours of receiving a notice to this effect from the Anti-Corruption Commission. If such a statement is not provided, or if the investigation officer believes the statement is false, the Anti-Corruption Commission may bring charges against the detainee within 45 days. In some cases, this time limit has already been breached, with the suspects remaining in detention.

The Anti-Corruption Commission’s remit is shockingly vague. When asked about the working methods of the commission, its secretary was unable to explain the basis on which the list of suspects was prepared. Information about suspects, he told a media correspondent, is received “through our intelligence unit, other intelligent (sic) agencies and also from newspapers”.10

The potential for abuse of arbitrary determinations of this nature is even more appalling. Those who fail to submit a “wealth statement” after receiving 3541the official notice, or submit a “false” declaration or document can be imprisoned for a minimum term of three years or a maximum term of five years along with a fine or both. A conviction in such a case can be appealed, but the court of appeal cannot grant bail or stay the trial court verdict during the appeal period.11

The rule banning release on bail was later relaxed with regard to offences under the penal code. However, the government maintained that this did not apply to those facing trial under the Emergency Powers Ordinance and that all courts and tribunals, including the high court and the apex court, were barred from entertaining bail pleas by those charged under the Emergency Powers Rules. In April 2007, the high court ruled that the government could not bar it or the Supreme Court from hearing applications for bail. The Supreme Court appellate division has however stayed that decision as it takes up the matter for consideration.

The court should expeditiously rule and recognise the right to be free on bail those not judged to abscond or a danger to the community. Such a right flows naturally from the presumption of innocence and would ensure a meaningful opportunity for a detainee to assist with his or her legal defence. A right to be freed on bail is of particular salience in countries beset with massive criminal justice backlogs like Bangladesh, where the opposite rule – no bail allowed – would mean prolonged detention in overcrowded conditions without any judicial review. Finally, even as the number of those detained in prisons increases, little information is available on the conditions of detention. Several detainees are known to be seriously ill. The authorities claim adequate medical facilities are provided; the general public must take their word for it. The ongoing “crackdown” by the “caretaker” government has demolished any illusion of there being a clean break from the past.

Out, Damned Spot
Bangladesh is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which allows member states to derogate temporarily from parts of the covenant but only in extreme cases of declared public emergencies so dire that they threaten the very existence of the nation (Article 4). According to the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of the covenant, “States parties (must) provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation”. Further, “not every disturbance or catastrophe qualifies as a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation, as required by article 4”.

The UN Human Rights Committee has also reasoned that member states may not invoke article 4 of the covenant as justification for, among other things, arbitrary deprivation of liberty or deviations from fundamental principles of fair trial, including the presumption of innocence, because it found no compelling reason why such rights should be disregarded even in a genuine emergency.

It is unlikely, however, the any official communiqué has been delivered by Dhaka to the UN declaring an emergency of existential proportions. The army chief, meanwhile, is striving hard to show that he is an internationalist. He has made absurd noises about replicating the examples of other countries in the areas of institution-building and the right to information. He has also held forth on the steps taken by other countries to counter corruption and to review their constitutions, but is plainly not concerned with the fundamental incongruity of an unelected government claiming the mantle of legitimacy to bring about these changes.

Sanitised and Done
Meanwhile, “civil society” in Bangladesh has yet to rally its forces. The fear is evident from the tone of news articles in the Dhaka press. However, a few voices have dared to protest despite the inevitable pressure. As the spirited New Age pointed out soon after the declaration of the emergency:

Just as we do not support unabated crime and corruption under a jungle law in the guise of rule of law, of which some of the arrested have been frequently accused, we do not subscribe to any persecution in the name of prosecution under cover of a state of emergency.

Such voices are in danger of being stifled if not supported by a wider, more strident call for a restoration of human rights and democracy. This has not been forthcoming. In fact, the actions of Bangladesh’s interim government have received little international criticism. Reactions have ranged from cautious optimism, “Indian style”, to hushed encouragement for illusory “roadmaps”, western style.

Even as India and the US join hands to evolve a “strategic partnership” to promote, among other things, democracy throughout the world, it is clear that this generous ideal does not extend to India’s neighbourhood. It would not constitute interference in internal affairs, for example, to remind Dhaka of its obligations under international human rights law.

For now, however, it appears that the caretaker knows best, and the people must go by his rulebook. They must hand over suspects, see them indefinitely detained without trial, and not cringe when they are brought to courtrooms on stretchers, wearing oxygen masks. They must control their rising horror when the relatives of suspects, including their children, are harassed and threatened.

And they must refrain from speaking about these things, since that might weaken the caretaker’s resolve and demoralise his troops.

There is no doubt that these times – “when to speak of trees is almost a crime” – too shall pass. How much longer, is a question Bangladesh must ask itself. #

This article was first published in Economic and Political Weekly, India, September 1, 2007

Rineeta Naik is with the New Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC). SAHRDC has Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Email:

1. Nurul Kabir, ‘Time for Some Soul Searching’, New Age, July 11, 2007, at
2. ‘Writ Petitions on Fundamental Rights Put on Hold in Supreme Court’, New Age, January 15, 2007, at
3. ‘Emergency Rules Framed Restricting Politics, Media’, New Age, January 26, 2007, at
4. Ibid.
5. ‘New Changes Empower Government to Make Changes It Wants’, New Age, April 20, 2007, at
6. ‘Thousands Detained without Charges in Bangladesh’, India Abroad News Service, June 25, 2007, at
7. ‘Dealing with Dissent: The “Black Laws” of Bangladesh’, Human Rights Features (HRF/8/99), South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, October 11, 1999.
8. ‘Bigwig Jailbirds Produced before HC Advisory Board’, New Age, May 18, 2007, at
9. ‘Axe Begins to Fall on Top Leaders’, New Age, February 5, 2007, at
10. ‘Fifty Persons Issued Notices to Submit Statements of Assets’, New Age, February 19, 2007, at
11. ‘Convicts under Emergency Powers Rules Barred from Polls’, New Age, February 15, 2007, at

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Political Purging in Bangladesh

AP Photo/Pavel Rahman: Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia arrives at Dhaka court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007. Authorities jailed Zia on Monday in a corruption case involving container terminal contracts, the second former premier detained in the interim government's crackdown on graft in Bangladeshi politics


TO the surprise of nearly everyone in Bangladesh, the mighty appear to be falling fast in a corner of Asia where power and impunity have long gone hand-in-hand.

A military-backed government is trying to stamp out the corruption that permeates nearly every layer of Bangladeshi society _ from getting a hospital bill (a few dollars) to opening a factory (millions) _ and, in the process, undermine the two politicians whose rivalry is widely blamed for the country's rampant graft.

The soldiers and technocrats who assumed power nine-months ago moved a step closer to their goal Monday with the arrest of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, picked up nearly two months after her rival, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, was jailed.

The arrests have been welcomed by many in the country that long-ago grew weary of watching the pair trade premierships while corruption worsened and strikes and protests intensified, shutting down everything from urban markets to the garment factories that churn out J. Crew and Banana Republic shirts.

"These people are our Al Capone, people you would never have imagined being taken to task," said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer, in a telephone interview from Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital.

But with Zia, Hasina and more than 200 former government ministers, politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats now imprisoned on corruption charges, concerns are also beginning to grow about who or what the generals envision filling the political void.

For Bangladesh's 150 million people, the stakes are clear. Bringing graft under control would go a long way to solving the country's myriad problems, especially it's poverty _ 2-3 percent of its economy, or $1.5 billion, is estimated to be lost to corruption each year, according to the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International.

For the rest of the world, the stakes are also high. Zia and Hasina's rivalry has left Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of New York state but with more than seven times as many people, barely governed in some parts, raising concerns about instability in this strategic, largely Muslim corner of Asia already contending with Islamic militancy.

"We all know that they did it. But can a convincing case be made?" asked Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, a former lawmaker from Zia's party.

"If not, everything that is going on now, the crackdown on corruption, the promise of effective government, goes down the drain," he added. "We could easily go back to where we were a year ago."

That is, back to a democracy so riddled with problems that many in Bangladesh _ with its history of brutal military rule _ cheered when the military-backed interim government canceled January's elections and imposed emergency rule after months of street violence between supporters of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Hasina's Awami League.

Bangladesh's problems existed before and after 1971, when it became independent from Pakistan. It was political instability that led to the assassinations and coups which brought Zia, 62, and Hasina, 59, to prominence.

But their rivalry, which emerged after democracy was restored in 1991 following more than a decade of military rule, has done nothing to improve things.

Zia was elected in 1991, Hasina in 1996, and Zia again in 2001. And after each election, a well-worn pattern emerged: the winner distributed plum jobs and lucrative contracts to supporters; the loser did their best to make the country ungovernable through strikes and protests.

Their disdain for one another runs so deep that no one has seen saw the two speak to each other _ not a "hello," "how are you?" or "goodbye" _ for years, making it nearly impossible for their two parties to work together as political rivals often do in better-functioning democracies.

Only the most die-hard Zia and Hasina supporters are sorry to see those days go.

But with the initial euphoria that accompanied the imposition of emergency rule wearing off, concerns are growing about what the generals plan to put in the place of the political elite that it's working so hard to discredit.

A brief foray into politics by Muhammad Yunus, an economist who last year won the Nobel Peace Prize, quickly foundered. And with the soldiers not saying much publicly, a number of theories, most based on nothing more than rumor, abound.

But there are two heard most often _ and given the most credence by experts.

The first, usually offered by optimists, is that the authorities are hoping reformists in Zia's and Hasina's parties will take over. "If the reformist are successful in taking over the parties, I think we could be on the road to elections in 2008," as the government has promised, said Chowdhury, the former lawmaker.

The more pessimistic theory sees the generals trying to draw politicians from the two parties to form a third front closely tied to the military.

"It's a complicated time here, and its dangerous," said a lawyer with ties to the current government who asked not to be named for fear of upsetting authorities. "You can't rewrite the politics here immediately _ and that could keep the interim government from holding elections next year, or the year after or longer."

Most, however, agree corruption is easing.

A French businessman who runs garment factories in Bangladesh said that while he still has to offer small bribes to low-level customs officials and other bureaucrats to get his goods out of the country, "we're not sending envelops of cash to Dhaka right now."

He asked not to be identified because passing bribes is a crime. "One never knows who can come back to power," he said. #

Matthew Rosenberg is a journalist with Associated Press in New Delhi, India bureau, additional contribution is made by AP writer Parveen Ahmed from Dhaka, Bangladesh

The article was first published by AP on September 5, 2007