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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Arsenic Poisoning Kills 20 Percent of People in Bangladesh

Photo Pavel Rahman: Hanufa Bibi holds a dipper full of contaminated tube well water at her village in Chandipur, about 75 miles east of Dhaka, Bangladesh


Arsenic water killing 1 in 5 exposed in Bangladesh

CHANDIPUR, Bangladesh — Hanufa Bibi stoops in a worn sari and mismatched flip-flops to work the hand pump on her backyard well. Spurts of clear water wash grains of rice from her hands, but she can never get them clean.

Thick black warts tattoo her palms and fingers, the result of drinking arsenic-laced well water for years. It's a legacy that new research has linked to 1 in 5 deaths among those exposed in Bangladesh — an impoverished country where up to half of its 150 million people have guzzled tainted groundwater.

The World Health Organization has called it "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history," as countless new wells continue to be dug here daily without testing the water for toxins.

"The magnitude of the arsenic problem is 50 times worse than Chernobyl," said Richard Wilson, president of the nonprofit Arsenic Foundation and a physics professor emeritus at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. "But it doesn't have 50 times the attention paid to it."

The issue surfaced about two decades ago, after some 10 million shallow hand-pump wells like Bibi's were sunk across the country in the 1970s with money from international donors.

The wells were meant to provide clean drinking water to help prevent deadly waterborne diseases, such as cholera. But they unintentionally tapped into arsenic deposits in the ground, releasing the odorless, colorless and tasteless toxin into water used for drinking and cooking. Arsenic has been linked to cancers, liver ailments, skin diseases, heart problems and other health issues.

The new research, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and published online June 19 in The Lancet medical journal, is the first to examine how drinking arsenic-contaminated water over time shaves years off lives.

For the nearly 12,000 people followed over 10 years in the country's Araihazar region east of the capital, researchers found that even low doses of arsenic in drinking water could increase the chances of early death. The study also found that damage on all levels appears to be permanent.

"It's similar to tobacco smoking. Once you smoke for 20 years and then you stop smoking, your risk of getting tobacco-induced cancer over the next decade will still be high," co-author Habibul Ahsan from the University of Chicago's Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention said by phone. "Even if, say, for some miracle all the individuals are provided arsenic-free water from tomorrow, these people will also be at a higher risk of dying for many years to come."

More than 75 percent of those studied drank arsenic-contaminated water above WHO's recommended safe limits. About a quarter of deaths from chronic illnesses and a fifth of the total 407 adult deaths were attributed to arsenic.

About half of the 10,000 people living in Bibi's tropical village, which was not part of the study, are drinking arsenic. Victims get sick slowly, and it takes years to develop tiny black or white dots peppering the skin. Most people exposed never develop these classic symptoms at all.

All the tubewells in Chandipur village are contaminated. Red paint once coated every pump's handle as a warning of the danger lurking inside, but the color and message have long faded. None of the tiny palm-shaded shacks have indoor plumbing, and some villagers like Bibi use the well water to avoid walking long distances in the heat to draw foul-tasting surface water from stagnant ponds used for bathing or watering livestock.

"I knew before marriage that there was arsenic in the tubewell, but I decided to take it," says Bibi, who's been drinking the water nearly 20 years. "The water quality of this tubewell is much better than others."

Arsenic poisoning affects some 70 countries, including the U.S., Chile, Vietnam and Cambodia. But the biggest problem by far is in Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of Iowa with about half the U.S. population crammed into it.

It is one of the world's poorest nations, where half the people live on just $1 a day. Few can afford to dig deep wells that draw safe water from aquifers below arsenic-contaminated layers. Filters are expensive or difficult to maintain, and there has been no concerted effort to harness rainwater for daily use. The number of new wells doubled every five years during the study.

Some argue that the international community must help fix the problem created by the wells they first dug.

"They've known about it for at least 20 years, so we expected them to be much more aggressive on this issue," said Dr. Mahmuder Rahman, a retired professor at Dhaka National Medical College and Hospital, who has worked for years on the arsenic issue. "They've got a moral responsibility to do it. Time is running out."

In March, the United Nations and Bangladesh's government announced a plan to provide safe drinking water to all by next year. But the report identified only about 20 million people still drinking high levels of arsenic. It did not address the tens of millions more exposed to lower concentrations.

It also said more research was needed to determine whether arsenic is entering the food chain through rice irrigated with tainted water, and how the poison affects pregnancies and children.

Back in Bibi's village, she digs at her burning hands and the soles of her feet with a razor blade, ripping at the blackened calluses until they bleed. She complains of fevers and constant fatigue, and the 40-year-old's face sags as she shuffles into her small house like a woman twice her age.

She has never seen a doctor. She's more concerned about the damage the arsenic has done to her family's social standing. Her two teenage daughters were recently forced to marry men considered beneath them because of the stigma surrounding the arsenic-infected family.

She worries that if her husband cannot make good on the dowry he promised, the girls will be sent back home forever damaged, like another young woman in the village blighted by arsenic.

"People don't want to eat anything from my hands. They are afraid," Bibi says softly, looking down in shame, her head covered by the red flowered sari. "No one wants to touch me." #

Margie Mason is Associated Press staff writer on Medical and Environmental issues

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bangladesh: a new dark area for press freedom?


THE RECENT developments in Bangladesh are like an old nightmare that is beginning again: arbitrary arrests, closure of news media, attacks on journalists by ruling party supporters, torture of detainees and intimidation. We thought Bangladesh had rid itself of the old demons of intolerance and violence against the media. But certain government and Awami League officials have again chosen the road of repression, dashing our hopes of a real commitment to media freedom in the space of just weeks.
If prime minister Sheikh Hasina does not take decisive steps, Bangladesh is likely to relapse into a period of brutality and intolerance similar to what it underwent at the start of the last decade, when the journalist Tipu Sultan had his hands broken by the supporters of an Awami League parliamentarian in Feni. Those Awami supporters, especially members of its youth movement, used steel bars and beatings to scare the press.

It is appalling that opposition newspaper editor Mahmudur Rahman has been mistreated in prison. It brings back memories of other journalists and intellectuals who have been tortured in prison such as Shahriar Kabir, F M Masum and Saleem Samad. It also raises the question whether security forces will ever be able to abandon such barbaric methods.

What justification is there for closing the privately-owned TV station Channel One after four years on the air? The fact that it was the telecommunications minister himself who announced the closure shows that it was a highly political decision. In this case, 400 employees have been put out of work. The political obstacles to Jamuna TV’s launch are also shocking while The Bangladesh Observer’s recent closure highlighted the difficulties of the print media.

We still have confidence in the judicial system, which must rapidly demonstrate its independence of both the politicians and the power of money by releasing Mahmudur Rahman, authorising the reopening of his daily, Amar Desh, and protecting the right to free expression.
When the BNP was in power, we repeatedly denounced the murders, illegal arrests, censorship and closure of E TV. When the caretaker government and army were in power, we condemned the acts of intimidation that encouraged censorship and the arbitrary arrests of journalists, especially those investigating extra-judicial executions. And now we condemn the dangerously hard line being taken by the current government, which is jeopardising the right to press freedom that Bangladesh’s journalists have won at a great cost.

This country has a long history of repressing its media. Aside from colonial-era censorship, we recall the June 1974 crackdown on the press by then Awami League government. Then, in the past decade, more than 150 cases of physical attacks and death threats were registered every year – a record in the region. BNP or Awami League supporters were responsible for most of this violence. First Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (the BNP’s student wing), then the Awami Jubo League and then the Bangladesh Chattra League all used violence to intimidate the press.

The fight against crime has reduced violence by armed groups and criminal gangs in the southwest of the country, including the Purba Bangla Sharbahara Party (PBSP), which was implicated in journalist Harun-ur-Rashid’s murder, but the police continue to be very reluctant to arrest government supporters involved in violence.

We call for the media’s unity in the face of these difficulties. When you defend press freedom, you defend journalists of all colours. This is a principle that is under threat. There is a need to speak out regardless of partisan considerations.

Instead of targeting the independent and opposition press, Sheikh Hasina’s government should quickly reform the many laws that obstruct the work of the media and allow journalists and intellectuals to be thrown in prison in violation of Bangladesh’s international undertakings.

First published in, June 20, 2010

Vincent Brossel is Asia Director of Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog based in Paris

Thursday, June 17, 2010

South Asian slaves in Dubai


The oil producing states of the Gulf combine tribalism, feudalism and rentier capitalism to produce an egregiously oppressive socio-economic order

A FEW days ago my older son wrote to me from Stockholm to convey his shock over a short documentary he saw by BBC’s Ben Anderson entitled ‘The Slaves of Dubai’. It is about the heart-wrenching plight of South Asian workers who arrive in Dubai in the hope of alleviating the abject poverty they are born in but end up becoming virtually bonded labour. They can also be called slaves. He wrote: “I was really shocked and upset about their situation. If you have not already written about it, can you please do it in your next column?”

So, this essay is largely to disseminate information about the construction industry mafia that ruthlessly and relentlessly exploits South Asian workers, whose labour has created all those skyscrapers, including the tallest in the world, the Burj Dubai, penthouses, luxury apartments, 7-star hotels, golf courses and what not. Now, of course, Dubai has been badly hit by the global financial crisis but it only magnifies the utter disregard that the Arab sheikhs have for all the millions of workers who live in their kingdoms as virtual slaves.

The enslavement process begins in South Asia at the time of recruitment. Impoverished families somehow manage to raise money to send a young man to Dubai — it could be any other country in that region as well. It involves selling whatever land or other possessions they have, borrowing from relatives and so on. The agent charges an exorbitant sum for arranging the passport and visa. Upon arrival in Dubai, the worker’s passport is confiscated and he is sent to a camp where he lives with thousands of other workers. The documentary showed that in a small dirty room some eight to nine people ‘live’; for some 45 people there are one or two latrines, which are filthy and nauseating. Once inside the camp the new arrival becomes practically a slave, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. The wage that is paid is one-half or one-third of what was promised. The construction firms that own the labour camps strictly regulate who comes in and who goes out. In short, the South Asian workers live in camps that are similar to a POW camp where soldiers of a defeated army are kept.

The documentary shows that the Dubai government does not seriously interfere with the way the construction firms run these camps. Occasionally some fines are imposed but these are so light that the firms continue to violate the rules and regulations that should apply to the conditions in the camps. The general line taken by the Dubai authorities and the officials of the construction firms is that the workers earn a better living than if they were living in their own country. That is probably true, but it only captures the utter helplessness of millions of our brethren who are denied their birthright to be treated with respect and dignity, both at home and when they come to the Gulf in search of work. Ben Anderson was able to interview one man from Bangladesh who broke down during the interview as he could not express the level and depth of his suffering in words and the only response left to express the emotions was to start weeping.

There is an amazing historical coincidence involved in the story of the South Asian construction workers and another architectural marvel from another age. I named my son Sahir to honour the memory of the great poet, Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-80), who gained fame by writing his unforgettable poem ‘Taj Mahal’ in which the social issue of workers’ exploitation is the main inspiration. Sahir Ludhianvi contrasted the grandeur and matchless beauty of the Mughals’ greatest architectural wonder — the Taj Mahal was started in 1632 and completed in 1653 — with the fact that those whose labour made it possible remained unsung, unrecognised and most probably unpaid. That my Sahir should now request after nearly 350 years to take up an identical issue without knowing it touched me deeply. So, his heart beats in the right place, as did that of Sahir Ludhianvi. That is ample reason for a father to feel proud.

The problem now is that much of the world has moved away from feudal oppression, and while the ravages of unbridled capitalism wreck the lives of millions on a daily basis, the situation in the oil producing states of the Gulf is much worse. These societies combine tribalism, feudalism and rentier capitalism to produce an egregiously oppressive socio-economic order. At least four compartmentalised social segments are to be found in these countries. The indigenous Arab populations are the most favoured in that they are given many welfare facilities. For that they have to keep out of politics. The second group is that of bankers, financiers and business executives and high society people who provide such services that the local populations are not educated or qualified to perform. In Saudi Arabia, I know Asian and African qualified people are paid far less than their counterparts with the same education from the western world. The situation in Dubai may be somewhat better. The third segment is semi-skilled workers, shopkeepers and others who came to the Gulf region in the early years and were able to establish their relatively independent presence. They earn well and send remittances to their families in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The fourth group comprises the millions of workers who live in camps and work day and night but who are treated as human dregs.

After the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008, I visited Pakistan to collect material for my book on the Pakistani military. That gave me an opportunity to interview some senior officers. To my very great surprise I was told that a substantial portion of al Qaeda and Taliban funding came from the Gulf Emirates and not just Saudi Arabia. That made me really angry that some Gulf Arabs had no qualms of conscience in treating poor and impoverished Muslims who work for them as dirt while some of their countrymen finance terrorist activities, which also exploit mainly individuals from poor families. The greater puzzle is of course how fairly educated Pakistanis also join such jihad instead of working for the overthrow of all rentier states in the Muslim world. #

First published the Daily Times, Pakistan, June 15, 2010

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

British man at centre of torture claims returns from Bangladesh

Foreign Office repatriates Faisal Mostafa but second ‘tortured’ Briton remains in detention

Photo: Green Crescent madrassa and orphanage on the remote southern island of Bhola, Bangladesh

A BRITISH man who was allegedly tortured in Bangladesh while being questioned about his associates and activities in Britain has been flown back to the UK with the assistance of the Foreign Office.

Faisal Mostafa, whose detention raised further concerns about British complicity in torture, was repatriated after negotiations with the UK government.

A second British national at the centre of torture allegations remains in custody in Bangladesh. Gulam Mustafa, a 48-year-old businessman from Birmingham, is also said to have suffered severe torture while being interrogated about mosques in his home city, associates and fundraising activities in the UK.

His alleged mistreatment is said to have ended four days before the British general election, when he was transferred from an interrogation centre in Dhaka to a prison hospital for treatment of injuries suffered during questioning.

Mostafa, 46, a chemist from Stockport, was detained in Bangladesh in March last year on terrorism-related firearms charges. He was accused of running a bomb factory at a madrassa funded by his British-based charity, Green Crescent Bangladesh UK.

He was released on bail in February for treatment for renal failure. His repatriation last week came a few days after the British authorities learned that the Guardian was planning to report on his case.

Mostafa’s lawyers say his ill health is partly a result of torture. They say he was suspended from his wrists for days at a time, hung upside down, subjected to electric shocks, beaten on the soles of his feet, deprived of food and exposed to bright lights for long periods. He is said by close friends to have suffered a number of wounds in his arms and other parts of his body that he says were inflicted by an electric drill.

Throughout the period he was being tortured, his lawyers said, he was questioned largely about his associates and activities in the UK, including his work for the Muslim parliament in London.
Bangladeshi officials have refused to comment on his repatriation but say the terrorism-related charges have not been dropped. He could be tried in his absence if he did not return to the country, they said.

The Foreign Office declined to answer questions about its role in Mostafa’s repatriation or say whether it had made any representations about his allegations of mistreatment.

A spokesperson said: “We take all allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously and raise them as appropriate with the relevant authorities. We will never condone the use of torture.”

The UK high commission in Dhaka said it had “made the Bangladeshi authorities aware of a number of issues” concerning Mostafa’s case, and pressed them to treat him according to international standards. But it would not say whether it had made any complaints.

Mostafa came to the attention of British police and MI5 in the mid-90s, having been tried and acquitted on charges of conspiring to cause explosions in 1996. He was sentenced to four years for illegal possession of a pistol with intent to endanger life.

Four years later he was arrested after police and MI5 officers discovered chemicals that could be used to produce the high explosive HMTD at a house in Birmingham. Traces of the explosive were also found on the pinstripe jacket he was wearing at the time of his arrest.

Mostafa was acquitted although his co-defendant was convicted and jailed for 20 years. In 2006 John Reid, the then home secretary, cited this case when he said al-Qaida’s plots against the UK preceded British involvement in the invasion of Iraq or the war in Afghanistan.

Counter-terrorism officers in Dhaka said they had investigated about a dozen British nationals in recent years at the request of UK intelligence officials. One senior Bangladeshi officer told the Guardian that this was done in a manner that would have been unlawful in the UK “because of the question of human rights“, but declined to elaborate.

British security and intelligence officials warned three years ago that significant numbers of Britons were travelling to Bangladesh to train in terrorist techniques.

The country (Bangladesh) remains a concern to UK officials.

Known or suspected plots with links to Pakistan have reduced slightly in number, while Somalia, Yemen and Bangladesh are said to pose potential problems. It is thought that one British-Bangladeshi man has killed himself in a suicide bomb attack, possibly in Afghanistan.

Mustafa, 48, a businessman from Birmingham, whose UK assets were frozen three years ago under counter-terrorism powers, was detained in April and held in a detention centre known as the Taskforce for Interrogation Cell, where the use of torture is alleged to be common.

When he appeared in court 11 days after police announced his arrest, a journalist working for the Guardian could see that he was unable to stand throughout the proceedings. At one point he sank to his knees.

His family’s solicitor, Gareth Peirce, complained to the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, in a letter that stated: “It is already well known that MI5 has been co-operating with the Bangladeshi authorities and providing and exchanging information with them about Mr Mustafa.” Miliband’s reply did not address the allegations of MI5 complicity. Last week the Foreign Office declined to say whether it had made any representations to the Bangladeshi government about his alleged mistreatment.

Mustafa was transferred to the hospital wing of a Dhaka prison on 2 May and is understood to have been receiving treatment to injuries to his knees and spine.

His Bangladeshi lawyer, Syez Mohsin Ahmed, said: “Gulam Mustafa was physically assaulted and tortured. Medicine, or chemicals, were put on his face and in his mouth to break him down so he would answer their questions. He was blindfolded, and his hands and feet were tied. Now he is receiving treatment for torture.

“He was told that if he admits the allegations against him, he would be released and sent back to London because he is a British national. He was threatened that if he doesn’t admit what was claimed against him, he would be killed in ‘crossfire‘ and so would his family.

“His family members told me that when he was detained, the police told them to tell him that if he didn’t admit the allegations, they would all be killed in crossfire. They also said that if he speaks to the media, they would harm him.”

According to Bangladeshi media reports, the UK high commission has been negotiating the release of Mustafa and another man, Mohiuddin Ahmed, a senior organiser of the Bangladeshi branch of the Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir. #

First published in the Guardian, 14 June 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

That's not the way to do it: Politics reverts to Punch-and-Judy type

“THE CHANCES of another coup in Bangladesh are close to zero,” says a former general in Bangladesh’s army. That sounds excellent. But the country’s “rival queens”—Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and Khaleda Zia, who were both jailed during an anti-corruption drive by an army-backed government in 2007-08—seem to see the soldiers’ docility as an opportunity. The result is that, 18 months after Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) won a parliamentary election in a landslide, Bangladesh’s politics is back to normal: personal, vindictive and confrontational.

This week Mrs Zia’s opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) extended its boycott of parliament. She has called a nationwide hartal (protest strike) for June 27th to call for the government to step down. It will be the first hartal since democratic politics collapsed in late 2006 and will come only ten days after mayoral elections in Chittagong, the country’s second city, which the party is expected to lose.

Demoralised and in disarray, the BNP has just 30 seats in parliament, down from 193 in 2001. But where the BNP is concerned, the AL is conditioned to overreact. It has shut down an opposition-backed television channel. On June 2nd it also closed Amar Desh, a BNP-backed newspaper, and detained its editor, Mahmudur Rahman, one of Mrs Zia’s closest advisers. The BNP is livid, suspecting Sheikh Hasina of punishing Mr Rahman for publishing a story accusing her son of financial irregularities, and for his alleged role in the BNP’s efforts in late 2006 to rig a (subsequently aborted) parliamentary election.

It is as if the two-year military interregnum, during which most senior politicians were in the clink on charges of corruption, never happened. On May 30th Bangladesh’s judges dropped the last of 15 corruption cases against Sheikh Hasina. Four cases against Mrs Zia are proceeding. Aid donors are furious over government plans to make the Anti-Corruption Commission secure government approval before prosecuting officials.

Repeated pledges by Sheikh Hasina to end executions by police and paramilitary forces have come to nothing. The first 18 months of AL rule saw at least 190 extrajudicial killings (typically “in crossfire”), according to the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a human-rights watchdog. This may be an obstacle to Bangladesh’s hopes of winning the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012.

Another headache is Bangladesh’s largest-ever trial—of thousands of members of the Border Guard Bangladesh, a paramilitary force formerly known as the Bangladesh Rifles, for their alleged role in a bloody mutiny in February 2009. The reasons behind the mutiny, in which more than 50 army officers died, may never been known. But, sure enough, the AL and BNP accuse each other of having had a hand in it. The government must be seen to punish the culprits to avoid damaging its relations with the army. That may mean mass executions. As it is, at least 48 border guards died in custody last year.

The army’s attempt to rid Bangladesh of its appalling leaders, or to shock them into better behaviour, has failed. But its intervention has disrupted, perhaps for ever, the regular rotation of power that has marked Bangladeshi politics since the advent of parliamentary democracy in 1991. For the first time since then, Bangladesh’s problems—poverty, energy shortages, terrorism and climate change—may not be enough to bring the opposition to power.

Mrs Zia must fear that she is the last in line in her political dynasty. Both her sons face charges of corruption. The eldest, Tarique, who is in exile in London, is seen by many Bangladeshis as the symbol of all that was wrong with the BNP’s previous, kleptocratic stint in power. Mrs Zia may reckon he could resuscitate the party if he returned from exile. But the opposition camp is split three ways, between those loyal to her, a reformist wing and former leaders who have now left the BNP. Reuniting them requires reconciliation, not one of Mrs Zia’s strong points. Meanwhile, the party’s ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party, is in trouble. Almost all its leaders will stand trial for alleged war crimes during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Some 70% of Bangladesh’s population of about 160m are under 35. Most have had enough of the politics of personal animosity. The two ladies’ feud and obsession with the past have hobbled development for decades. But the habits of confrontation are hard to break. Some senior BNP leaders have advised Mrs Zia to replicate Thailand’s “red shirt” movement and “turn Dhaka into Bangkok”. #

First published in The ECONOMIST, Jun 10th 2010

Banned daily Amar Desh resumes publication

TO THE excitement of hundreds of journalists, its staffs, journalist union, rights organisations, civil society and opposition leaders the banned newspaper Amar Desh resumed publication after a High Court verdict on Thursday which postponement for next three months the government order that cancelled the publication’s license.
A four-page special edition hit the newsstand from Friday morning (today) after it was closed for 10 days.

Riot police tried to intervene when journalists and press workers unlocked the printing plant in the industrial zone in the capital Dhaka, with an excuse that they did not receive the court judgement. The police, however did not stop the broadsheet from printing and distribution, despite their presence.

The pro-opposition newspaper was forcibly closed down on June 1 midnight when hundreds of riot police in bullet-proof vest, armed with shot guns, batons and tear gas barged into the printing plant and sealed it few hours after the Dhaka district administrator cancelled the publication.

The High Court also stayed the government order setting aside the petition filed by acting editor of Mahmudur Rahman, seeking authority as publisher.

The district magistrate on June 1 cancelled the declaration of the daily's publications on the ground that there is no authorised publisher of the newspaper, after the publisher Hashmat Ali quit in October 2009.

Court orders not to torture
High Court has ordered the authority not to torture the detained acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, but said police officers can interrogate him during his 12 days remand.

The higher court in a rarely given guideline for interrogation said that the authority will undergo medical check-up before and after each interrogation to ensure that he was not tortured. Rahman could be quizzed only by the case investigation police officers, while his lawyers should be present on other side of a glass wall.

The higher court gave the verdict after Rahman’s lawyers challenged the three (3) separate remand orders by Dhaka metropolitan magistrate. #

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Acts of self-destruction


FIRST, SHUTTING down the telephone companies, next came closing the TV channel, then came blocking Facebook, and now cancellation of the declaration of a newspaper; one after another, the government actions do not testify well for a democratically elected government committed to upholding the right of its citizens, ensuring free flow of information, building digital Bangladesh and safeguarding freedom of press.

These are all integral elements of a democratic system which the current government is boastfully pledging to enhance. However, the government actions over the aforementioned matters in the last few months are absolutely paradoxical, to say the least.

A few months ago BTRC, a regulatory organ of the government, raided a few telephone companies' offices and shut their operations down on the pretext of using illegal VOIP. Before taking such a drastic action, did the BTRC ever think of the inconveniences of their tens of thousands of innocent subscribers who were not a party to that alleged illegal operations?

Hundreds of employees of those organisations lost their livelihood in the abrupt actions of the BTRC. It is the government's action that is solely responsible for their inconveniences and naturally the blame fell squarely on the government's shoulder. Subscribers or unblemished employees did not find anyone in the administration to address or redress their government-created grievances. Should we attribute this as a "government for the people"?

A TV channel allegedly owned by the opposition supporters has been shut down on the grounds of some "technical" irregularities, which are neither transparent nor understandable to most of the ordinary citizens. It resulted in laying off thousands of workers who are rightful citizens of the republic.

Making an analogy, by some quarters or individuals, to closing down the Ekushey TV by the erstwhile government does neither bode well for the free flow of information nor for the superior democratic credential of the current government, as it continues to claim.

On the pretext of removing an objectionable cartoon of the prime minister, it is simply ridiculous to close the popular website, Facebook. It is debatable if the drawing a cartoon of the PM in cyberspace, in a democratic society, is a crime to start with.

Even if it is so, only the perpetrator of the crime should be dealt with as per law of the land, not by closing down the website which reportedly has almost a million users from within the country itself and many more millions of users of Bangladeshi origin from every nook and corner of the globe who keep in touch with their near and dear ones back home on a daily basis through this website.

In fact, the popularity of Facebook in Bangladesh should be testifying positively in support of the government's pledge to build a digital Bangladesh. The damage has been irreversible and the self-inflicted wound will never be healed, while the government's reiteration of building digital Bangladesh would simply sound self-contradictory.

Finally, a newspaper owned and edited by an opposition politician, has been shut down and its declaration has been cancelled. To make the matter look even worse, he has been arrested and sent to jail.

The arrest capped a 17-hour drama played out after the paper's publisher, who himself was briefly detained, sued the acting editor on Tuesday night. Ironically, it is the same person who dragged five of the eminent personalities of the nation to dock with a shady accusation is behind bars for a charge not more tenable than the one brought up by him a few years ago.

This is not to say that the detained acting editor as an icon of journalism by any measure. Since his assumption of the ownership and editorship of the vernacular news daily, an otherwise inclusive daily has been transformed into a mouth-piece of blunt lies and third-rated propaganda machine of the main opposition.

It ceaselessly spreads anti-Indian and anti-government venom through baseless stories, a hallmark of BNP-Jamat politics. It never bothered to publish any rejoinder sent by the victims of its baseless stories, a basic journalistic norm to start with. Having said that, what the government has done in dealing with the yellow journalism is not only unacceptable but absolutely self-defeating.

In the arena of press freedom, anyone is entitled to his opinion, but is not entitled to creating a "fact" of his own. It does not allow anyone to say or write anything about anyone without proper substantiation. It does not give the journalists absolute immunity from divulging their source of information.

Every democratic society must be having well-defined laws and rules to deal with the publications of unsubstantiated stories involving individuals, society, or the government, resulting in defamation, a serious offence in a free society.

It was reported that as many as 31 cases have been filed against the detained acting editor in various courts in the country involving publishing unsubstantiated stories resulting in defamation.

However, so far none of them have seen the light of day, and no serious legal proceeding has ever been drawn against him in the court of law. It reflects either the weakness of the existing laws in dealing with the crimes or the inability of the judicial system to bring the perpetrators to book, thereby giving immunity to publish unsubstantiated stories to mislead members of the public with the ulterior motives.

If there are weaknesses in laws, the government has all the legislative powers within its arsenal to legislate new laws, guarding the absolute freedom to publish truth and nothing but the truth and with well-defined consequence to deter the practice of yellow journalism.

Failing to resort to due process, arrest of a grade B politician-turned grade C journalist will simply backfire in transforming him into a martyr. It is a simple lesson of history. Instead of doing what the government ought to have done, what it has done is simply self-defeating and will simply accelerate its sliding further down the slope of democracy and good governance if it, at all, means something to the government leaders of the day. #

First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, June 5, 2010

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

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Burning Inside, Nation Mourns

AP Photo/Pavel Rahman: A victim of a fire lies on a hospital floor after receiving treatment at the Dhaka Medical college hospital on Friday, June 4, 2010 in the Bangladeshi capital's worst fire in recent history, killing and injuring 117 people
Bangladesh mourns fire victims
CITY OF INFERNO: Click here for newsphoto slideshow


'গরিবের প্রানের কোনো মুল্য নাই এই দেশে', (There is no worth for poor people in this country) says the Biriwala in front of Dhaka Medical College.

I returned from the burn unit of Dhaka Medical College. People are still trying to figure out there what just happened. The roads were too congested and small for the fire trucks to go in. Once they were in, pretty soon the water ran out and so they had to go back and get water again. In the process, more than 100 lives were in flames -- just like that. By the time I went this morning, most of the bodies were dispatched to the morgue. I went in to the unit of the not so seriously injured ones first.

As it happens in Dhaka Medical College, most of these emergency patients don't have any bed in the first place. They are either in the lobby and the not so serious ones typically are on the floor. But it did not seem that way yesterday (Thursday). A man, half burnt, lying in pain, a mother sitting with his young son with burnt hands, father carrying his 7 year old with burnt legs and promising him what he will bring him from the store when he gets better. Most are blankly staring not sure what has hit them. A few journalists reporting. They are also tired from reporting, I guess. The nurses could barely keep their eyes open. I slowly walk towards the serious injuries -- or attempt to move there and I can't.

Driving down in the city, you can not tell that such a crisis has hit. Turned on the radio and DJ is saying 'মন খারাপ করা চলবে না, নতুন দিন, নতুন সম্ভাবনা '. (We can not lose heart, new day brings new possibilities). These people were invisible. They remain invisible and what difference does it make whether they go in 100s or 1000s.

As Dhaka's infrastructure starts crumbling, these are early indicators of perhaps an impending disaster. The city has grown many folds but very little money has gone into the service sector to match the requirement. The fire brigade, the public hospitals have little money to cope with the demand of the times. These discussions are barely in the public discourse. Because people who receive the brunt of this, have little say in this discourse. But in all likelihood, as tomorrow comes, if tomorrow comes, we will forget about it and move on to the next disaster. Just like we have moved on from the accident that struck the day before -- the collapse of the unapproved 5 storied building (set up on a low lying land without proper foundation) on to the shanties next door killing another 25 odd people or better yet, we will pretend that these did not even happen and submerge ourselves on to the world cup fever in a few days. If the size and amount of Brazil-Argentina flags on the roof tops of Dhaka are any indicator, that is the more likely thing to happen.
 AP Photo/Khorshed Alam: Firefighters and bystanders try to extinguish a large fire which has killed scores of people in a residential area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, late Thursday, June 3

"We are a 'resilient' nation after all."

The radio has moved on to advertisement. The tag line of a local beauty parlour says -- 'beautiful you, beautiful bangladesh'. Beautiful us, indeed.

I keep wondering about the time 25 years ago when an university dorm (Jagannath Hall) collapsed killing and injuring many students. That's when we had one TV channel where there were appeal for blood. The whole city came together to respond. I remember New York after 9/11 or London after 7/7 and the people in those cities responded together. Today's Dhaka is a lot more fragmented -- just like the TV audience who has options of 80 channels. Volunteering has become certificate oriented. I doubt the city will even care.

The burn victims and the relatives looked lost. Some going out to the store to get water. Some desperately trying to use the hand fan to make the victims feel better. Its going to be 32 degree centigrade tonight. There is no fans for these victims. The atmosphere inside is not for the faint hearted for sure. We will, of course, let the resource crunched government deal with these problems, of course, forfeiting our collective responsibility.

We will go on with our lives -- attending the seminars, the cafes, the protibad shobhas. "ভাবী, যা ব্যস্ত!! আর বলবেন না!" Or May be not. May be we will respond differently.

May be, those of us, who are in Dhaka, could stop for a couple of hours and take a trip down Dhaka Medical College (where we never go) and take that hand fan from that mother and let her rest for a bit while we wave. Or may be we will get those two bottles of water for the young man and spare his brother a little bit of relief for a bit. Or may be we can get those toys that the father promised his child. This won't change any thing. But may be, just may be, this will at least make these people feel a little less lonely in this heartless, cruel town. #

Asif Saleh is Executive Director Drishtipat and could be reached

Please check out related article on the inferno in crowded old Dhaka city: 
Bangladesh fire kills more than 120 people
Bangladesh fire races through buildings, kills 117

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bangladesh bans daily Amar Desh, editor arrested

SALEEM SAMAD, Dhaka, Bangladesh

BANGLADESH AUTHORITIES forcibly shut down the opposition Bangla-language daily Amar Desh as of June 2 and arrested the acting editor Mahmudur Rahman (m) early morning on charges of fraud.

Few hours before the authority cancelled the license of the newspaper arguing that the daily was being published without any authorized publisher and has not been approved by the relevant authority as described in Printing Presses and Publications Act, 1973.

Hours after the cancellation of the opposition daily and filing of fraud cases against the editor, nearly 200 riot police with bullet-proof vest (flak jackets) armed with batons, tear-gas and automatic rifles encircled the newspaper office in a commercial area of the capital and also the printing plant shortly before midnight (June 1).

As the newspaper was being printed the riot police along with security agents from Special Branch stormed the printing plant and stopped the publishing the daily. The police confiscated the June 2 printed newspapers before it could be distributed to newsstand. The police also sealed the printing press in the industrial zone, confirmed Tejgaon police chief Omar Faruk.

The journalists and other employees of the newspaper barricaded the main entrance to the office for several hours and closed the lift (elevator) for the 10th floor office to prevent police officers from entering the newspaper office. The journalists chanted anti-government slogans. Shortly before dawn the police baton charged the agitating journalists. Dozens of journalists and employees were hurt, but not seriously.

Shortly after 4:00 am in the morning of June 2, plainclothes security agents accompanied by police officers in riot-gear barged into the editor’s office and took him into custody on charged of fraud (under Criminal Procedure Code 420).

The civil administrator Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka, Mohibul Haque (m) claimed that the declaration of the newspaper has been cancelled as the publisher has quit last October, BBC quoted him.

The civil administrator cancelled the declaration according to Article-5 and -7 of Part-III of the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973. Article-5 says, "No newspaper shall be printed or published except in conformity with the provisions of this part and unless there subsists an authenticated declaration in respect thereof."

Leaders of the journalists union said they are not clear why the broadsheet was shut down, which hit the newsstands during the previous regime in September 2004. The daily was popular among pro-opposition supporters.

The arrest capped a 17-hour drama after the paper's publisher Mohammad Hashmat Ali (m), who himself was briefly 'detained', sued Mahmudur on Tuesday night, reports news portal

The administrator explained said the publisher Ali notified the Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka office in March that he is no longer the publisher of the newspaper and has quit from the responsibility. Until June 1, Amar Desh published with Mohammad Hasmat Ali's name as the publisher in the printer's line, writes Daily Star.

The events unfolding since morning – when Ali’s family said he had been whisked away by plainclothes security agents to an undisclosed place. Later it took a new twist when the Dhaka's deputy commissioner Mohibul Haque cancelled the paper's declaration at 10 pm – after government office close at 6:00 pm.

The energy adviser to former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia (2001-2006) addressed a hurriedly called news conference at the daily's office, after Rahman talked to Hashmat Ali soon after he returned from his brief detention at National Security Intelligence (NSI) office, who had told him that he was 'frightened'.

Rahman said the security agents took Ali and forced him to sign two papers. "He was made to sit at their office for several hours until he signed two papers," the editor alleged.

Rahman, chairman of Amar Desh Publications Limited said the press meet was organised to protest the current government's 'autocratic' behaviour and conspiracy against the news media.

Among the two papers in white he signed, one addressed to the civil administration reads: “I, Md. Hasmat Ali, is no longer the publisher of the Amar Desh newspaper. The newspaper is being published using my name. I am requesting to take legal action against the move".

Earlier on the day (June 1) Ali’s family told that he was picked up by security agents and returned to his residence in the capital after six hours.

Neither security agency nor the police admitted the “detention” of the former publisher. Security agency and police also denied having any charges against Ali.

Later publisher Ali said he has quit as publishers on 11 October last year and the resignation application was submitted to the civil administration for necessary formalities. Despite his resignation as publisher, Rahman continued to have his name as Amar Desh.

This has caused him trouble. Ali said during the tenure at least 30 defamation cases were filed against the daily and he was implicated as accused in all the cases. He said this has tarnished his social image and incurred financial loss.

Rahman took over the management of the newspaper in September 2008. Later the newspaper management sent a letter requesting the authority to change the name of the editor and publisher to the relevant Deputy Commissioners of Dhaka office. However, the government has never communicated to the newspaper management that the authorities would allow change of name of editor and publisher. Since then Rahman was the acting editor of the Amar Desh and Hashmat Ali remained as publisher.

Reazuddin Ahmed (m) leader of the South Asian Freed Media Association (SAFMA) remarked that closure of newspaper tantamount to of curb of freedom of press and taints the image of the democratic government.

The updated website of Amar Desh concluded the newspaper was not shut down and the editor was not arrested because of the Amar Desh content.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) strongly reacted to the ban of the newspaper and arrest of its editor.

BNP Secretary General Khandaker Delwar Hossain (m) demanded immediate release of Mahmudur Rahman and urged the government to cancel its decision to close the publication of Amar Desh.

He also announced that the party will stage demonstration across the country on June 2 afternoon in protest against the arrest of Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court Appellate Division has issued a contempt of court rule on June 2 against Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, publisher Hashmat Ali and three others for publishing a report in the Bangla-language daily. It also asked them to explain in two weeks why they should not face the charge.

A lawyer Reazuddin Khan filed the petition following a report published in the newspaper on April 21 stating that a petition filed with the chamber judge means stay order in favour of the government.

Former Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Barrister Moudud Ahmed and opposition member of parliament raised on the point of order remarked that the newspaper was illegally shut down because it was writing the truth and government fears speaking the truth.

Soon after the opposition members of parliament walked out for the second time in the evening of June 2 protesting the closure of Amar Desh, and arrest of its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman.

A magistrate's court on June 2 sent Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman to jail and asked police to question him at the jail gate office in the next three days in a case accusing him of assault on police officers.

The court dismissed the police request to take Rahman into remand in custody for five days on the charges.

Rahman secured bail from the court in another fraud case filed by the former newspaper's publisher Hashmat Ali.

They later filed a case against Rahman and other journalists of the newspaper on charges of assault on police officials and obstruction of duty.

Rahman along with deputy editor and chief correspondent Syed Abdal Ahmed, reporters Sanjeeb Chowdhury, Jahed Chowdhury, Alauddin Arif, along with another 100 unidentified people were made the defendants in the case.

Lawyers Masud Ahmed Talukder and Sanaullah Mia on behalf of editor Rahman argued said the assault on police case was filed intentionally to put him under bars.

Reaffirming her administration's commitment towards freedom of expression, prime minister Sheikh Hasina has said the media in Bangladesh enjoys adequate freedom.

The prime minister made the remark when US ambassador to Bangladesh James F Moriarty called on her on June 3.

The prime minister's comments came amid criticism by opposition political parties that the government was gagging the media by closing Amar Desh and blocking social networking website Facebook.

Earlier the Information Minister Abul Kalam Azad told parliament on June 2 that it was not the government but the Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka who had closed the Bangla daily Amar Desh for alleged violation of the publication law.

He was responding to the allegation of opposition BNP Moudud Ahmed, MP who blamed the government for closure of the newspaper.

Police on June 3 have quizzed recently closed Amar Desh newspaper's acting editor Mahmudur Rahman at the jail gate office for just over half an hour in a case accusing him of assault on police.

Police sub-inspector Rezaul Islam questioned him in the afternoon, but refused to divulge details of the interrogation for the sake of investigation. #

Bangladesh blocks Facebook amidst global uproar


BANGLADESH FOR the first time bans social networking site Facebook on May 29 evening and arrested a youth Mahbub Alam Rodin (m) for cyber crime.

Earlier in March 2009 Bangladesh blocked by unknown person for uploading sensitive audio tape which was purportedly recorded at a crucial meeting of the Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina with the senior military officers soon after the army crushed a bloody mutiny of the border guards.

Media activists, supporters of free expression and thousands of Facebook users have strongly protested the decision of the authority and maintain that Bangladesh is following the footsteps of Pakistan, China, Syria, Iran and Burma.

Majority of the nearly 900,000 users in Bangladesh engaged in networking with friends and relatives spread all over the world are youths who are angered by the action of the authority. Bangladeshi Facebook users living abroad have opened couple of accounts to protest the action of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh authority argues that Facebook has uploaded “objectionable” and “dangerous” content and the site would remain blocked unless Facebook authority removes those materials, but promised that the action is temporary.

The government is exasperated by the 23 years old college graduate Rodin who has upload several photo-collages of Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia in his account “BNP Support Groupwhich taints bad image of the government externally. The group depicts caricature of the present prime minister, which according to media specialists was not “inflammatory, offensive, provocative or insulting”. Possibly the government is nervous about its image and has over reacted, writes a local Bangla language newspaper in its editorial.

In the past Bangladesh governments has punished and intimated several journalists, print and electronic media blaming them for smear negative image of the government.

Retired Brigadier General Zia Ahmed, Chairman, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) believes that the activity of the youth as a threat to the unity, progress and sovereignty of the nation.

Anti-crime squad Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) allege that the youth was responsible of a number of cyber crimes using a number of fake identities in the Facebook. He is being interrogated, whether he is involved in a conspiracy.

"BTRC engineers tried in vain to block access to the links to the provocative images. The site [] had to be blocked," said Post and Telecommunications Secretary Sunil Kanti Bose to Daily Star.

For several days the BTRC has tried in vain to black access to the link of from the Facebook, failing to do so they took help of two IIG (International Internet Gateway) service providers. The commission tried second option to block the content of the by application of DPI (deep packet inspection) in data handlers -- a method similar to applying a filter to the server to block unwanted contents. But it did not work.

On the other front a number of religion-based political organisations demanded closure of the site on last Friday (May 28) blaming Facebook for spreading blasphemy by having a group “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”.

The parties that made this demand in a meeting at Muktangan include the Islami Andolan, Islami Oikkyajot and Khilafat Andolan.

Bangladesh authorities however denied that the Facebook has been blocked because of the agitation by the Islamist. The Islamist announced agitation programme after Friday prayers could not be held.

The decision came from a government that swept to power with a vision to establish "Digital Bangladesh" by 2021. The government has already taken steps to ensure freedom of the press and right to information bills in the parliament.

M Lutful Kabir (m), chairman of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology's information, communication and technology, understand that much harsher measure has been adopted by the Bangladesh government, he said.

Aktaruzzaman Manju (m), president of Bangladesh Internet Service Providers, termed the decision awkward. #