Archive for September, 2007

Fakhruddin’s pledge remains under the scrutiny of the world

September 30, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, September 30, 2007

The chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed’s speech to the United Nation General Assembly holds tremendous significance for ordinary Bangladeshis. By outlining the plans and goals of his interim government—and the reasons behind his assumption of power—Fakhruddin has reiterated the commitments now on a global platform. That he renewed his pledge to hold free and fair elections in Bangladesh, establish democracy, and protect human rights, at the UNGA means that his obligations have increased manifold. We welcome the commitment with a reminder that it will be Fakhruddin’s responsibility and his alone, to ensure that these goals are achieved and the pledges honoured.

But we are, however, forced to note that certain components of Fakhruddin’s speech were not entirely objective. In his speech to the world leaders, the chief adviser observed that it was under the auspices of his government that the Election Commission has been made an independent body. We disagree, in the first place, that the Election Commission has yet attained independence, as at the heart of such independence lies the financial autonomy of the commission, which still remains elusive. Secondly, the Commission is yet to be separated from the office of the state’s chief executive – prime minister or chief adviser. And that the Commission still cannot operate independently is evident in the fact that the government relaxed restrictions on political activity only a couple of weeks ago even though the Commission had been asking the government to do so since April.

Another claim that the chief adviser has made to the world, that his government has ensured the independence of the judiciary, is also misleading. True that his government has taken some final measures to this effect, but the Emergency Powers Rule has snatched away the right of the judges to grant bail in cases that were bailable under the general laws, etc. This is not the way to ensure independence of the judiciary.

We would also like to point out that Fakhruddin’s claim that his government is a successful example of civil-military cooperation in crisis prevention is problematic. While good civil-military relations are indeed desirable, the phrase implies a genuine relationship where the military remains under the command of and is subservient to the elected government of the day. Such is not the case in our country at present, as it reels under an unelected government which was brought about and is sustained by the military. In fact, we are apprehensive, and have warned of this in the past, that the current interim regime is increasingly at risk of pitting the military and the people against each other – a proposition which is entirely undesirable for a nation state to function effectively. In this regard, we only hope that other nations striving for democratic growth of their states would not try to ‘replicate’ our model.

However, we are happy that the chief adviser has made the whole world know that he is pledge-bound to restore democratic process in Bangladesh. We just remind him that all eyes, nationally and internationally, will be on his efforts to turn the pledge into reality.


Corruption of few should not be allowed to malign image of many

September 29, 2007

Editorial: NewAge, September 28, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Berlin-based Transparency International has published its latest Corruption Perceptions Index which shows a slight improvement in Bangladesh’s position although the score remained the same, which indicates that despite the apparent improvement the situation remains as bad as before. While a section of society has repeatedly disapproved of the status of, and rejected the conclusion about Bangladesh, economists have questioned the methodology and the process through which the rankings are arrived at. It has also been pointed out that the index is merely an indicator of perception, as opposed to the actual institutional corruption.

We agree that the perception index is hardly an objective indicator of corruption, lacking a robust and rigorous methodology, but at the same time, it cannot be denied that corruption pervades all spheres and levels of public life in Bangladesh. Through the years government offices and public services have become increasingly corrupt. However, it should also be pointed out that corruption in government offices, which is the matter of greatest concern to us, is fuelled to a large part by foreign multinationals, foreign investors and even the international financial institutions.

As for the report of the corruption watchdog, we should regard it no more or less than an indicator of how some sections of the people think about the government as regards corruption. But perception is important too. Regardless of the real situation, countries placed at the top as free of corruption enjoy a better image and will naturally enjoy an advantage in terms of business and commerce.

The perception that naturally arises out of such reports is one that subsequently becomes applied to the entire nation although most of the general people are only victims of this corruption. As such the corruption index should further qualify that it is the ruling sections who are corrupt and not the populace in general. The ruling elites have no right to malign the character of the entire nation either.

The citizens, civil society as well as ruling governments should become more aware of this and gradually strive for more transparency and accountability in public offices as well as bringing about a change in the perception, which is only imposed upon us. But efforts to weed out corruption overnight would naturally result in economic slowdown – as Bangladesh is currently witnessing – in any country in a similar phase of economic transition. There must be a concerted plan to fight corruption and the targets should include businessmen and bureaucrats alike, not just politicians. The drive to eliminate corruption should also focus on the irregularities and illicit deals involving projects of foreign corporations, or those funded by agencies and organisations based in the developed countries, who not only export corruption but in fact encourage it to ensure their commercial interests.

As for the real challenge, which is to rid the system of corruption to a level as may be reasonable in the current context, the military-driven interim government should deal with the matter comprehensively and not target a certain section of the guilty parties.

ACC must carry on fight against corruption, lawfully

September 26, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, September 26, 2007

The army-led task forces under the national coordination committee against corruption and serious crimes ‘will wind up their drives against corruption this month,’ announced the communications adviser to the military-driven interim government, who is also the chairman of the committee, on Monday. The upside of the anti-corruption drive is that it has brought to book some people hitherto regarded as being above and beyond the law. However, the downside of it is that actions against these people have not always been either transparent or within the ambit of law. One must say such arbitrary actions by the task forces induced a climate of fear within the business community, which, many believe, not only destabilised the market mechanism but also stagnated the economy. Last month business leaders alleged at a meeting with the chief of army staff that the wholesale hunt for corruption suspects and the drives against black money holders and tax dodgers by the Anti-Corruption Commission and the National Board of Revenue had spread panic in the business community. That their allegation is not far-fetched was evident from the subsequent assurance of the government that businesspeople would not be harassed any further without any specific charges.

Be that as it may, we cannot but articulate our frustration, once again, at the unidirectional manner in which the anti-corruption drive has been conducted thus far. We have pointed out in these columns many a time that it takes a nexus of self-serving politicians, unscrupulous businesspeople and top bureaucrats to pull off high-profile corruption. However, the list of people arrested and prosecuted thus far is heavily dominated by politicians. There are a few businesspeople and even fewer former bureaucrats on the list but there are reasons to believe that they have been targeted primarily for their affiliation with one political party or the other. Overall, the government’s argument that the list of corruption suspects has been prepared on the basis of the gravity of charges and it does not give much thought on ‘whether they belong to any political parties or the business community’ does not hold. The anti-corruption drive continues to be generally perceived as part of a plan to malign the politicians with the objective of depoliticising society.

While the drive by the task forces draws to an end, we expect the fight against corruption to continue with earnestness. As the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission said the other day, corruption cannot be weeded out overnight; therefore, the fight against corruption has to be a perpetual process, not episodic intensification of law-enforcement activities. There has to be preventive measures, such as widespread awareness campaigns against the menace, prohibitive laws and regulations, and, most importantly, stringent and efficient enforcement of the laws. Whoever is suspected of corruption should be probed and prosecuted, in a transparent manner and within the ambit of the law of the land. Last but not least, the commission has to put its anti-corruption activism in the right perspective and try to dismantle the nexus behind high-profile corruptions, instead of going after one of its components or the other.

Govt guidelines on talk-shows must go

September 21, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, September 21, 2007

The decision of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s administration to lift the ban on televised talk shows comes accompanied by a series of ‘guidelines’ that have been provided to the broadcast media in plain paper and which the information secretary has described as ‘informal.’ The government’s guidelines specify the maximum number of talk shows a channel can broadcast in a given week, and even what sections of society can be invited, and stipulates that talk shows cannot have interactive discussions through live phone-in or messaging services. The guidelines warn against ‘statements that can create resentment towards the legitimate government of Bangladesh’ etc.

At the very outset, we would like to point out that these guidelines contradict the very spirit and content of chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed’s recent claims to the BBC that the media is operating freely in Bangladesh without any government intervention. More importantly, it becomes a significant symbol of the curb on the freedom of expression that the state of emergency is forcing on public views and opinions, once again contradicting Fakhruddin’s claim that the emergency is not affecting the general public in their day-to-day lives. Prohibiting dissenting views and opinions with vague and sweeping criteria such as those prescribed by the government allows for arbitrary actions against the media and creates an environment of fear and intimidation that will no doubt hinder their mission in representing the differing points of view that make up a democratic polity. Governments across the civilised world recognise that the media plays an important intermediary role in keeping the channels of communication open between the rulers and the ruled. Only a government that refuses to recognise the sovereignty of the people would want to isolate itself from public criticism.

Bangladesh had one of the most free and vibrant media environments in South Asia for the past decade and a half. The freedoms that the media enjoyed were no gift from any government; they were the fruit of a long nine-year struggle against dictatorial regimes that saw democratic process restored in Bangladesh in 1991 through a mass uprising. Since the military-driven interim government assumed office in January this year, the media has time and again been straitjacketed with guidelines and advisories, not to mention the intimidation of journalists by the different government agencies. This government’s legitimacy, in the eyes of ordinary Bangladeshis, lies in its promise to ensure greater transparency, accountability and democratisation in the country. It is absurd that the public must now accept that this mission requires the government to impose draconian guidelines to curb press freedoms.

We, therefore, suggest that the government immediately withdraw its ‘guidelines’ that are bound to obstruct airing of different social, political and economic views necessary for the people at large to form their informed opinion on matters of national interests.

Charges framed against six RU teachers for violating Emergency Power Rules (EPR)

September 20, 2007

NewAge, September 18, 2007

A Rajshahi court on Monday framed charges against six detained Rajshahi University teachers for violation of the Emergency Power Rules by allegedly involving themselves in the campus turmoil in late August.

Fazlul Karim Chowdhury, the judge of the Speedy Trial Tribunal of Rajshahi, indicted the teachers for inciting the demonstrations on the campus, apparently to protest against the incidents in Dhaka University.

The court framed charges against former RU vice-chancellor Professor Dr Saidur Rahman Khan, Professor Abdus Sobhan of the Department of Applied Physics and Electronics, Associate Professor Moloy Kumar Bhowmik of the Department of Management, Selim Reza Newton, Dulal Chandra Biswas and Abdullah Al Mamun of the Department of Mass Communications. All of them pleaded not guilty.

The case was filed by Khandakar Ferdous Ahmed, officer-in-charge of Motihar thana, on August 24 after the students’ furious protests at RU. The charge-sheet of the case was submitted on September 2. Former VC Professor Saidur Rahman Khan, Professor Abdus Sobhan and Moloy Kumar Bhowmik were arrested on 23 after the student violence at RU.

Selim Reza Newton, Dulal Chandra Biswas and Abdullah Al Mamun, who had gone into hiding, surrendered to the Speedy Trial Court on September 5.

Appellate Division to decide today if High Court can grant bail under Emergency Power Rules

September 20, 2007

NewAge, September 20, 2007

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court is likely to decide today whether the High Court has the authority to dispose off bail petitions in cases lodged under the apparently unassailable Emergency Powers Rules, 2007.

The full court of the six Appellate Division judges, headed by the chief justice, M Ruhul Amin, on Wednesday set the date for delivering its judgement after hearing three government petitions seeking permission to appeal against High Court verdicts that asserted its power to deal with bail petitions under the emergency rules.

The issue first came up during the hearing of a bail petition by a High Court bench of Justice Nozrul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Zubayer Rahman Chowdhury on March 29, when the deputy attorney general mentioned that the emergency rules, amended on March 21, barred the accused from seeking bail in any court during inquiry, investigation or trial of a case. So, the amended EPR bar the High Court from dealing with bail prayers in cases filed under them, the DAG argued.

On April 22, a High Court bench of Justice Nozrul and Justice SM Emdadul Haque delivered a verdict, resolving the debate it invited on March 29 over the dilemma. The High Court has the jurisdiction to dispose of bail petitions under sections 497 and 498 of the Code of Criminal Procedure even in cases under the emergency rules, and the court has the discretionary power to grant or deny bail to any accused after considering the merits of the case, observed the court.

In the verdict, the High Court also granted anticipatory bail to the petitioner, Mainuddin Sikder, an oil trader of Khulna, sued under the emergency rules. As the government pre-ferred appeal, the Appellate Division on May 24 stayed the verdict. After the April 22 verdict, the High Court on August 19 granted anticipatory bail to the detained former law minister Moudud Ahmed in a case filed under the emergency rules on charge of bringing and selling foreign liquors evading tax.

It has also granted bail to Sabera Aman, wife of the detained former state minister Amanullah Aman, in a case lodged under the emergency rules. The government filed petitions to the Appellate Division seeking permission to appeal against these three High Court verdicts.

Bangladesh govt tags conditions to airing talk shows

September 20, 2007

NewAge, September 20, 2007

Some private television channels have resumed airing talk shows after a gap of about a month. The airing of such talk shows had been suspended at a government instruction since August 22 when curfew was ordered of six divisional headquarters. The channels are, however, conducting the shows in accordance with certain ‘conditions’ set by the government.
Others are still hesitant to host such shows.

The information adviser, Mainul Hosein, on Monday called the top officials of the channels to his secretariat office and handed in the guideline printed on plain paper. ‘Mainul Hosein called us to his office and handed in a written guideline for hosting talk shows,’ Channel i director Shykh Seraj told New Age on Wednesday. ‘The guideline was not printed on letterhead. It was a plain sheet of paper and not signed,’ he said.

The informal guideline includes nine conditions:
‘The unplanned and uncontrolled airing of talk shows on different television channels has created an adverse impact on the socio-economic condition of the country… The airing of talk shows can again be allowed now only if the “conditions” mentioned below are adhered to.
‘A. Each channel can air the highest of 2 to 3 talk shows a week. It is better to air a single talk show in a day.
‘B. Talk shows will need to be “edited.” No talk shows can be aired live.
‘C. Talk shows cannot have interactive discussions or live SMS or phone-in.
‘D. Inviting the same guest repeatedly is to be discouraged.
‘E. Enough care should be taken in the selection of guests for talk shows. Noted thinkers, intellectuals, academics, and businessmen can be invited. Panels of guests should comprise people of various ideals.
‘F. Emphasis should be given on constructive criticism and giving realistic and specific suggestions.
‘G. Development, constructive, cultural, economic, social, religious and educational issues should be emphasised in talk shows. But any discussion harmful to cultural, economic, social and religious values should be avoided.
‘H. Any kinds of instigating, blind and biased opinions, and statements that can create resentment towards the legitimate government of Bangladesh should also be avoided.
‘I. Leading questions that can steer discussants towards a prefixed objective should be avoided. Guests should be given more time to speak by keeping the atmosphere congenial.’

Asked if the guideline has been officially imposed, the information secretary, Didarul Anwar, told New Age on Wednesday, ‘It is an informal guideline.’ The NTV chief news editor, Khairul Anwar, said he had received a copy of the guideline.

The Channel 1 chief news editor, Nazmul Ashraf, said, ‘We have been told that it is an unofficial guideline and we are to follow it.’

The Bangla Vision executive director, Aminur Rashid, said, ‘We are yet to make any decision on resuming talk shows…. We are assessing to what extent we can follow the guideline.’

The top official of another television channel said, ‘They [the government] have tagged some conditions to resuming talk shows. But they are not shouldering any responsibility.’

Fakhruddin’s words ring hollow

September 16, 2007

Editorial: NewAge, September 16, 2007

The comments of the chief adviser to the military-driven interim government, Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, made during an interview given to the British Broadcasting Corporation on Friday deserve greater scrutiny. But before moving on to the comments of the chief adviser, it is worth noting that while the interview to the BBC is just the latest in a series of interviews given to the foreign media, the chief adviser has not yet given a single interview to the local media despite the fact that several media outlets, including New Age, formally applied to his office months ago to seek interviews with him. While we are happy that the chief adviser is speaking to the foreign media because this provides us with some insight on his thoughts and plans, his selectiveness naturally raises certain questions: Is it that the chief adviser hesitates to face the local media for fear of being asked more difficult and searching questions, given that the local press is more aware of the ground realities in Bangladesh? Or does the chief adviser feel a greater accountability to our foreign partners than to the people of this country? We should also not forget that this chief adviser found it necessary, soon after his assumption of office, to send a special envoy to the United States of America to clarify his government’s position, and that members of his government like to quote positive comments of foreign governments and their envoys to prove how well this government is performing.

Coming back to the chief adviser’s comments, he said that the government has not played any part in the internal affairs of the political parties and is therefore not responsible for their apparent fracture. This clearly proves that the chief adviser is either hiding the truth or is not aware of certain facts. That there have been overt and covert attempts by a particular government agency to restructure the political order through the political neutralisation of former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina is known to all quarters concerned in our country. The agency has been active from the centre to the local levels in trying to implement the government’s minus-two formula, and even if the people at large are tempted to believe the chief adviser’s statement, the hundreds of politicians who have come in direct contact with this agency will know how hollow the words of the chief adviser are.

The chief adviser has also claimed that there have been no attempts to intimidate the media during this emergency period. Once again, the chief adviser has been less than candid. The people at large may be confused by these statements, but those in the media who have received phone calls from members from the same government agency, been visited by members of it, or have been summoned to its offices, know only too well the extent of intimidation that has taken place. This proves that the chief adviser has failed even to sympathise with the members of the news media, both electronic and print, who are being obstructed from carrying out their professional responsibilities.

Lastly, the chief adviser suggested in his interview that the emergency was not hurting the common people of this country. Nothing could be further from the truth. When a proclamation of emergency suspends the fundamental rights of the citizens, it is those who are most disenfranchised that are hurt the most as all avenues that exist for them to express both their aspirations and their grievances are closed. This government must understand that the people cannot be expected to be apolitical in a modern state, even if the government claims itself to be, and the suspension of their fundamental rights is a denial of their aspirations for a genuinely democratic republic.

Plea bargaining without rule of law may lead to abuse

September 13, 2007


Editorial, The Daily NewAge, Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 13, 2007

According to the law adviser to the interim government, Mainul Hosein, the government is considering the introduction of plea bargaining to speed up the trial process. We welcome this initiative of the government and agree with the law adviser that plea bargaining, which is in practice in many countries around the world, could have been introduced much earlier. The practice of plea bargaining allows an accused to bargain for a reduced sentence if he or she pleads guilty to an alleged crime than the sentence that he or she is likely to receive if the case goes to trial and the person is found guilty of the crime. Therefore, plea bargaining gives those accused of crimes an incentive to plead guilty because of the promise of a lesser punishment. However, plea bargaining works on the assumption that those who are actually innocent of the crime that they are accused of, and are therefore confident of winning in court, will never plead guilty to those allegations. Hence, what is absolutely essential for the practice of plea bargaining to be part of a system that ensures the delivery of justice is the existence of the rule of law, where the basic rights of all citizens, even those accused of crime, are upheld and an accused is considered innocent until proven guilty by a court of law or willingly confesses to his or her crime. If the rule of law exists in society, allowing the practice of plea bargaining can indeed bring positive results by speeding up the trial process and allowing for quicker disposal of the hundreds of backlogged cases, while at the same time ensuring that justice is not short-changed.

However, in the absence of the rule of law, the practice of plea bargaining can lead to great abuses of the power and authority of the state. In the present circumstances, where the country is governed by a military-driven interim government under a state of emergency that has suspended people’s fundamental rights, and at a time when there are widespread allegations of harassment, abuse and even torture of those in custody, there is reason to fear that the practice of plea bargaining may be misused by the government. For example, by using a carrot and stick approach, i.e. threatening the accused with abuse if he or she does not plead guilty and by promising leniency through the practice of plea bargaining if he or she does, the authorities can compel even those who are innocent to plead guilty of the crimes that they are charged with. By making the accused plead guilty, the prosecution would be able to avoid having to prove the person’s guilt in court. Yet, this would result in a most shameful miscarriage of justice.

Therefore, we sincerely hope that this government will not use the practice of plea bargaining to make people plead guilty so that it wouldn’t have to prove their guilt. Instead, we hope that the rule of law will be ensured so that those who are actually innocent of crime do not face any pressure to avail themselves of this facility.

Human Rights Watch: Partial Lifting of Ban on Politics Falls Far Short

September 13, 2007

Authorities Should Lift Emergency Rules Undermining Basic Rights

(New York, September 12, 2007) – 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 today.

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.