Archive for October, 2007

Democratisation of state and society needed to root out terrorism

October 31, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 31, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Islamist militants in the country are very much alive and very much kicking. The periodic arrests of the merchants of terrorism and the haul of weapon, explosives and extremist literature make this clear. They are there in the country, either living incognito among the common people or withdrawing within their hideouts, till apprehended in periodic drives. Obviously, had vigilance been more intense and the lawmen’s drive more regular, they would have been captured long ago. Even then, we welcome the action by the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but with a note of anxiety that such actions are episodic and not sustained.

Monday’s raid by the Rapid Action Battalion after two days of operation resulted in the arrest of nine persons associated with the banned Islamist outfit Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami, for their alleged involvement in the deadly grenade attack on the Awami League rally on August 21, 2004. Two of the seven arrested were alleged to be directly involved in the attack. While the arrests are to be commended it is relevant to enquire why the militants escaped arrest so long and how many are yet to be netted. In other words, the drives must be thorough, intense and sustained. Arresting is only the first stage of the anti-militancy operation. Assiduous investigation must follow, charge-sheeting must be flawless and prosecution unsparing.

However, Islamist terrorism is not entirely a law and order issue; there are educational, political and cultural dimensions of it. Why young people are turning to militancy and why do they enjoy some limited support among the people? Their number may still be small but far from negligible and those arrested may be just a fraction of the army of youths recruited by one or the other of the terrorist outfits bearing different names. Terrorism does not grow out of nothing; behind terrorism and militancy there are sources, financial conduit (foreign link), training, education and indoctrination. And these terrorists are not without their patrons, local and foreign, who may be either religious zealots themselves or encourage terrorism from different motives.

There is also the negative factor that helps nurture extremism: popular frustration over the non-fulfilment of their hopes and aspirations. Economic deliverance of the people has not come and the democratic process which could lead the people to the desired goal is faltering. The local and foreign patrons of terrorism must be disabled, any money laundering must be watched, greatest care must be taken during any transfer of national assets like banks to a foreign national, and the democratic process should be so inclusive and inspiring that none should feel left out and look for desperate alternatives to democracy. As an immediate imperative, the normal process of democratisation must be restored speedily. While the lawmen and prosecutors do their job, the country itself must ponder what is amiss in the field of politics, education and culture and deal the correctives.

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A year on, no closer to democracy

October 30, 2007

NewAge, October 30, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

If the government is really committed to the democratic process, it must refocus its energies on bringing about real administrative and electoral reforms and exit the stage as early as possible. The longer it stays on to try to carve itself a convenient exit strategy, the more complicated will become the transition itself and more uncertain will become our country’s future, writes Shameran Abed

A FULL year has now passed since the last elected government left office in late October 2006, a year that has been arguably the most politically significant in our country’s history since the twelve months that began with the adoption of the fourth amendment to the constitution in early 1975 leading to the creation of BAKSAL. The year that followed that event over three decades ago saw the declaration of a state of emergency by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the subsequent brutal assassination of Mujib along with members of his family by a section of the army, the short tenure of Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed, the jail killings of four national leaders also by members of the armed forces, and ultimately the formation of the first martial law regime of the independent Bangladesh. There have been years since that have witnessed events of great political significance – the year that began with the assassination of General Zia in 1981 and culminated in the usurpation of power by General Ershad the following year and the year following the ouster of the autocratic regime of General Ershad in late 1990 that saw the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991, to mention a couple. This last year, like those years of the past, symbolises a political turning point for Bangladesh, even though the direction in which this nation will now proceed as a result of the ongoing political reorientation is yet uncertain.

The last few days of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance government’s tenure, marked as they were by unprecedented political violence and bloodshed, should have been warning enough for the unsuspecting public that a quick and peaceful transition to the next elected government was not likely. The row over who will head the caretaker government and the subsequent confusion, both legal and political, left the door ajar for the BNP to place its trusted Iajuddin Ahmed at the helm of the caretaker administration, the primary responsibility of which was to undo the electoral machinations of the BNP-led alliance government. By this point, any chance of a systematic transition following free, fair and credible elections had already evaporated into the air. Yet, the Iajuddin government was given the benefit of the doubt, not only by the people at large but also, and more importantly, by the Awami League, lest the man confounded his critics by levelling the electoral playing field and helping the Election Commission to hold general elections that would be contested by all major political parties and be acceptable to all. That was not to be.

The president-cum-chief adviser stuck very loyally to his script, becoming, for all intents and purposes, an extension in government of the party that put him in office. His actions and that of his government pushed the country towards a period of sustained political confrontation with many predicting a civil war between the feuding political alliances. Such a situation was avoided by the military intervention of January 11 which ousted the caretaker regime of Iajuddin, forced him to declare a state of emergency and to form a new interim government under Fakhruddin Ahmed. The people, fed up as they were with the senseless political violence and the shutdowns that continuously disrupted their lives and anxious about the violence that was to come, breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the new interim government, even though a state of emergency was now in effect that suspended their fundamental rights.

The instant calm that followed was only the calm before the storm. Having wrested power away from the self-serving political parties that have governed our country in the past decade and a half, the military-driven interim government went on overdrive, promising a whole range of administrative and electoral reforms as it gave itself an open-ended invitation to rule. The government told us that it would root out corruption and misuse of power, contain crime, bring qualitative change in the nature of politics, ensure the rule of law, separate the judiciary from the executive, empower the Election Commission and strengthen democracy. It also began in earnest, arresting high-profile politicians and businessmen on allegations of corruption, breaking down illegal structures and evicting hawkers from the footpaths of Dhaka city. It also reconstituted the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Public Service Commission and took necessary action to give final effect to the long-awaited separation of the judiciary from the executive. The early actions of the government consolidated the public support it had enjoyed immediately following its formation.

However, like all unelected governments, this military-driven government began to lose its way as soon as it shifted its focus from bringing about real administrative and electoral reforms to interfering in and trying to manipulate the political order. A government that continuously preached the democratisation of state and society ought to have realised that real democratisation would only occur when the people would be able to assert their rights under a democratic framework, which in turn would require the democratic institutions of the state to be properly functional. Yet, instead of fixing the rules of the game, the government’s efforts switched to manipulating the game itself. Instead of first bringing about necessary changes to electoral laws to make registration of political parties with the Election Commission mandatory for contesting in elections and regular leadership elections within parties mandatory for registration, the government embarked on an ill-conceived ‘minus-two’ scheme to liquidate the political careers of two former prime ministers, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina. The paradox in a government preaching the democratisation of the political parties on the one hand and trying to force out the top leaders of the two biggest parties by sending them into exile on the other was not lost on the public.

Once the efforts to send Khaleda and Hasina into exile failed, the government tried to take them out of the political equation by promoting factions within the parties that worked to change their leadership in the name of bringing about intra-part reforms. This, of course, led to further complications. On the one hand, the perceived use by the government of its anti-corruption drive as a tool to compel politicians in both parties to revolt against their leaders eroded the credibility of the anti-corruption drive itself, as the people wondered why certain politicians were hauled off to jail along with ailing wives and teenaged daughters while others, perceived to be as corrupt, if not more, were allowed to do politics at a time when all political activity was banned. On the other hand, the government’s efforts to impose ‘reforms’ on the parties from outside called into question its true intentions, as such an approach could not and would not ever lead to the real democratisation of the parties, if that is really what the government was after in the first place.

Once efforts to oust the two leaders by fuelling mutinies within their parties also proved futile, the government put both leaders in jail following highly dramatic late-night arrests on charges of corruption. However, instead of the decapitation of the two parties making it easier for the government to impose democratic reforms within the parties, as is apparently its intention, the arrests of the two leaders have only made the position of the ‘reformist’ sections of the parties weaker as the majority of the rank and file of the two parties have rallied around their beleaguered leaders.

If the interim government was really intent upon bringing about positive change in the nature of politics by making the political parties more democratic internally and behave more democratically in respect to each other, it has gone about its task very poorly. Instead of compelling the parties to alter their style through reforming the political and electoral process, the government has pushed them into a corner through the overenthusiastic and at times arbitrary use of its anti-corruption crusade and forced them to fight back.

On the other hand, if the government is actually looking for an exit route through bringing to power a political party that will consequently ratify its actions and give constitutional and legal legitimacy to the changes brought about by it, the government is no further along that path, if not a few steps back, than where it had been at the start of its tenure. Had the government taken the more measured and sustainable approach of restricting its activities to reforming the system and processes and allowing for political change to take place on its own as a result of its reforms, it would not have currently found itself in the midst of a political and constitutional mess. Had the government led by example in proving its commitment to the rule of law through strict adherence to due process in all of its activities, including the anti-corruption drive, instead of circumventing the due process wherever possible in its zeal to give exemplary punishment, the government’s position would not have become as untenable as it is now.

As far as governance in concerned, this government’s biggest folly has been in thinking that all problems can be solved through the use of force and by spreading fear. Whether it is in curbing corruption, maintaining law and order, containing tax evasion, keeping prices under control, controlling the flood and post-flood situation, preparing a fresh voters’ roll, stopping drug use or for any other issue thus far faced by this government, it has viewed everything from a purely law and order perspective and the answer has invariably been the use of one or several of our paramilitary or armed forces to scare people into compliance. The army, the BDR or the joint forces together have been arresting the corrupt, patrolling the streets, going through people’s tax files, monitoring prices at the city markets, distributing relief and preparing the voter’s database among other additional tasks and responsibilities.

A country, however, cannot be governed through fear-mongering. Whereas the political stability brought about by this government ought to have spurred investment and given a new dynamism to the economy, investment levels are dwindling with fears of a slowdown in the economy. Yet, faced with a problem that cannot in any way or form be reversed through the use of the joint forces, this government is unsurprisingly at a desperate loss for answers. Such pervasive fear has this government instilled in the people that it now feels the need to establish a truth commission through which it hopes to pardon businessmen for their past crimes so that they can go back to doing business and get the economy moving again.

In trying to find answers to the myriad of political and governance problems faced by this government, its initial enthusiasm for bringing about electoral and administrative reforms has all but gone away. The Election Commission, though reconstituted by this government, is still under the chief executive’s office and has not been given full administrative and financial autonomy. The problems inherent in our system – the administrative tangles and bottlenecks that facilitate corruption and other irregularities, the lack of transparency in government, poor checks and balances between the institutions of the state – have not been addressed. Most unfortunately, on the eve of the separation of the judiciary, the government has compromised separation itself in the face of pressure from the administration by giving judicial powers to administrative magistrates.

As things stand today, one year on from the time the last elected government left office, the country’s democratic credentials have only gotten weaker, and not taken firmer roots, thanks to the complete loss of focus of the current government. The problem stems from the fact that the government sees neither its tenure nor its role as being one defined by the constitution. Although the government continues to call itself a ‘caretaker government’ by dint of being sworn in under article 58, it has not only refused to restrict its actions within the confines of article 58, but has given itself, with no popular mandate whatsoever, an open-ended agenda. At the urging of certain quarters, which were worried that the people might start to feel anxious if the government does not limit its time, the government, through the Election Commission, has brought out an electoral ‘roadmap’ that gives it till the end of next year to hold parliamentary elections. However, given that truly free and fair elections leading to the return to power of the BNP or the Awami League, which are inevitable in the present political context of Bangladesh, are contrary to the interests of this government, at least as far as a dignified exit from the scene is concerned, doubts linger about whether free and fair elections will be held, that is if parliamentary elections are held at all.

As the government reflects over the events of the last year, and especially of its time in office since January, one can only hope that it will realise that its actions have pushed the country towards greater uncertainty rather than bringing it closer to its democratic and constitutional moorings. It isn’t that the government has not done anything right but that it has got its priorities mostly wrong in its haste to do everything during its tenure. Fighting corruption, like America’s war on terror, will be an ongoing struggle as long as Bangladesh exists as a nation-state, and cannot be won by an unelected interim government, no matter how long it holds on to power. Similarly, real political change will come only when the democratic institutions are allowed to function properly, not under duress and through fear of a military-driven government. As a matter of fact, spreading fear through prolonging a state of emergency and keepings people’s fundamental rights suspended are totally contrary to the democratisation of the state and society. Therefore, if the government is really committed to the democratic process, it must refocus its energies on bringing about real administrative and electoral reforms and exit the stage as early as possible. The longer it stays on to try to carve itself a convenient exit strategy, the more complicated will become the transition itself and more uncertain will become our country’s future.

There is no doubting Jamaat’s collaborator past

October 29, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 29, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The claim made on Thursday by Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, that a tripartite agreement of 1972 that identified 195 Pakistanis as war criminals means that there were/are no other war criminals in Bangladesh is a point that can be made only in technicality. In fact, the Simla Agreement between the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and endorsed by the then Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a diplomatic necessity (for all three parties) that dealt with what was to happen to Pakistani prisoners of war and not their Bangladeshi collaborators.

The collaborators to the genocide committed by the Pakistan army in 1971, of course, were offered a general amnesty by Mujib. But that amnesty came alongside a collaborator law that set up 75 tribunals across the country that would try the more serious crimes – murder, rape, arson – that were committed by non-army personnel during the war, making the amnesty a qualified one. These tribunals saw some 36,000 cases lodged, and investigations were ongoing when, in an unfortunate and ultimately telling turn of events, the post-Mujib regimes of Khandakar Moshtaque and Ziaur Rahman abolished those tribunals in the name of ‘national unity,’ effectively making the amnesty unconditional. Those actions, however, cannot and does not wipe out from the nation’s history or conscience certain undeniable truths – that there was a War of Independence, that war crimes took victims by the millions, and that whether in committing these crimes themselves or in actively abetting the Pakistan army, there were collaborators to the genocide who have ultimately gone unpunished, some of them even unrepentantly so.

There can also be no debate or doubt about the active collaborator role Jamaat played during the war, both as a political unit and many of its members individually. No amount of amnesty or statement of denial can wipe away either the documentary evidences or the oral history borne of lived experience of Jamaat’s part in the genocide.

Despite that, however, today Jamaat finds itself not only socially rehabilitated but also a major player in the political mainstream. The twin factors responsible for that are (a) the gradual Islamisation of politics and the state since almost the inception of the once-secular state of Bangladesh, and (b) the political opportunism of the ruling class, including those who have presided over every regime since independence. The process began with Mujib’s general amnesty, followed by Moshtaque and Zia’s abolition of the collaborator tribunals, Zia’s introduction of ‘bismillah’ to the constitution, and Ershad’s adoption, by way of the eighth amendment to the constitution, of Islam as the state religion.

Then the latter-day leaders of Bangladeshi mainstream politics took on the baton of providing Islam in general and Jamaat in particular with ‘democratic’ credentials. When the eighth amendment was challenged in the courts by pro-Awami League lawyers, it was challenged partially, with the adoption of a state religion, and by extension the legitimacy of Islamist parties, remaining unquestioned. This was followed by both the Awami League and the BNP accepting Jamaat as an ally in the anti-Ershad movement, the BNP taking support from Jamaat to ensure majority in the fifth parliament, the Awami League joining forces with Jamaat in opposing and ultimately ousting the sixth parliament, the Awami League inducting at least one identified war collaborator in its cabinet in the seventh parliament, and the BNP doing the ultimate honours of forming government with Jamaat in the eighth parliament.

Today, with the elections to the ninth parliament uncertain and a perceived political vacuum hovering over the nation, all those responsible for Jamaat’s rehabilitation – especially the beleaguered Awami League and BNP – should own up to the part they played in allowing Jamaat to come to the fore. And instead of stopping merely at rhetoric, they should propose and deliver on constructive, rigorous actions – politically, socially and culturally – to take up the fight to secularise the state.

As for Jamaat, setting up a commission to revisit and reopen the war crimes and collaborator files would be a welcome step towards breaking its growing hegemony. Because that hegemony is not only one of obscurantist, Islamist politics, but also a legacy of a collaborator past.

Let bureaucratic self-preservation not derail judiciary separation

October 22, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 22, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

THE administration cadre appears to be serious about obstructing the implementation of the seven-year-old set of Supreme Court directives, issued to the government, to separate the judiciary from the executive branch of the state. While the government is legally obliged, by a Supreme Court order, to implement the directives by the first of November, a section of the administrative cadre is opposing the process, already set in motion, on the plea that the implementation of the directives would hamper governance. The members of the administration are right in that that it would be a difficult for the executive to govern the country the way, the undemocratic way to be precise, it has been for decades now. However, to initiate the process of genuine democratic governance, an independent judiciary, along with other things, of course, is a must.

In the modern political world, a democratic state is visualised as a machine consisting of three separate organs – legislature, executive and judiciary – with adequate checks and balance between them. The people being the source of power in a democratic dispensation, their elected representatives constitute the legislature, which makes law for the citizens, and the government as well, within the framework of a constitution, which, again, is nothing but the expression of the people’s will. The executive, the government in other words, is supposed to govern the country in accordance with the law formulated by the legislature, while the judiciary is to oversee whether or not the executive is governing in accordance with the dictates of law as well as the constitution of the state. It is also the responsibility of the judiciary to censure the executive, if and when the latter oversteps its legal and constitutional boundary. Understandably, the judiciary cannot play its democratically desired role to punish the executive for any violation of law, and thus put it back on the right track, if the former cannot function independently of the control of latter. And here comes the democratic importance of separating the judiciary completely from the executive.

Notably, the constitution of Bangladesh state exactly envisioned this legal scheme, which still remains unimplemented. The Supreme Court, which has not always maintained democratic norms, issued the directives in December 1999, understandably to implement the democratic constitutional scheme, which is now being obstructed by the administration cadre reluctant to the power of judicial magistracy, which is supposed to be the job of the judicial cadre. Bureaucratic self-preservation is the source of such undemocratic and un- constitutional obstruction by the administration officials. The administration cadre, however, is not the only group to be held responsible for obstructing the freedom of the judiciary; the political parties who ruled the country since 1999 – the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – also made all possible efforts to delay the process of implementation of the Supreme Court directives. The objective of such foot-dragging was nothing but using the judiciary for partisan political purposes, despite the fact that the parties in question had repeatedly made election pledges to facilitate the independence of the independence. The political parties almost completed the process, by way of enacting necessary laws and formulating rules, of implementing the court directives – thanks to sustained legal pressure of the Supreme Court and political pressure of civil society.

The ‘caretaker’ government of Fakhruddin Ahmed is now legally obliged to implement the court directives on November 1. In this circumstance, we only hope that the government would comply with the highest court of the country, braving the obstruction of the administration cadre, and thus contribute to the democratic growth of the state.

The army chief’s comments

October 18, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, has made several important statements while talking to reporters at the Bangladesh High Commission in London on Tuesday. The army chief said that while he was aware of the widespread rumours that he wants to become the president of our republic, those rumours have no basis in reality as he does not have any such ambition whatsoever. Although the army chief may have attempted to sound selfless and magnanimous in declaring that he did not want to become the president, and while it may even be true that General Moeen does not have such a political ambition, the very fact that these rumours exist only shows the weaknesses that our two important institutions, the political parties and the national army, suffer from: the fragility of our political process and perceived political ambition of the army. Had there been a functioning democracy with a sound political culture, there would and could not have been any rumour to the effect that the chief of the army has ambitions to become the head of state in the first place.

However, the army chief also suggested on Tuesday that had outright martial law been declared on January 11, which was an option open to him, the people would have welcomed it. We cannot help but disagree with him. While it is true that the people were absolutely fed up with the crude power struggle of the political parties that have ruled our country in the last two decades, this does not mean that they were hoping for the armed forces to take their place. What the people have always wanted and have fought for is a real democracy that allows them greater rights and freedoms and that makes the government more transparent and accountable to the people. Had martial law ever been a welcome alternative, the people of this land would not have repeatedly fought, over the last fifty years, against every extra-constitutional form of government to have ruled this country – whether military or otherwise – resulting in their ultimate ouster. There may be some within our society who always advocate for and support extra-constitutional governments, but such individuals in no way represent the people at large.

The army chief also listed the successes of this government, speaking of the anti-corruption drive, the changed situation at the Chittagong Port, the steps to separate the judiciary from the executive etc. While this government has had some successes to boast about, it has even bigger failures that the army chief chose not to mention. The primary responsibility of a ‘caretaker government’ is to help the Election Commission to conduct parliamentary elections within three months of its formation. But the current regime has been in place for over nine months now and not only have parliamentary elections not been held, a correct voters’ roll is not even close to being prepared. Also, the tenure of the current government has seen a considerable slow-down for our economy, with investment levels – local and foreign – falling significantly. Inflation, on the other hand, has risen to record levels leading to justified fears of stagflation of the economy. Hence, the successes of this government in the different sectors are more than cancelled out by its fundamental political and economic failures.

While talking to the reporters, the army chief also said that some incidents of obstruction and harassment of journalists had taken place in Bangladesh since the proclamation of emergency on January 11, making them seem like minor isolated incidents. We, again, disagree with the claim made by General Moeen, as the experience of the media suggests a very different picture. There have been repeated advisory and at times intimidating phone calls and messages sent to the newspapers and television channels by this government in an effort to censor and control the media. The electronic media houses in particular have even received an ‘unofficial nine-point directive’ from the government telling them what they can and cannot broadcast. They have even received a list of people who the channels should invite as guests at their talk shows. This proves that the censoring of the media is a policy decision of this government, and the incidents of obstruction and harassment are part of that policy, not mere isolated incidents.

All said and done, we appreciate the army chief’s latest announcement that he has no political ambition and hope that he will not develop any in the days to come for the sake of both the credibility of the army and the future of our democracy.

Political move by an apolitical govt to depoliticise society

October 6, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 6, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The latest list of corruption suspects, released on Thursday by the Anti-Corruption Commission, reinforces, once again, our long-held suspicion that the much-hyped anti-corruption drive, initiated by the military-driven interim government since its assumption of office, may be part of a political scheme of an apolitical administration to depoliticise society. Previously, in these columns, we have repeatedly pointed out that the anti-corruption drive appears to be an extension of the incumbents’ not-so-overt machination to introduce a ‘new political order’ through deconstruction of the existing political establishments. Right from the word go the anti-corruption drive has primarily targeted the politicians for their supposed involvement in high-profile corruption, although it is common knowledge it is impossible for the political authorities to pull off high-profile corruption without active help of the unscrupulous sections of the bureaucracy and the business community. The lists of corruption suspects that the commission has released thus far are predominantly populated by politicians. The few businesspeople and even fewer bureaucrats, former and serving, who are on these lists, appear to have been implicated for their affiliation with one political party or the other.

The latest list has an added significance, came as it did just over a week after a list of 80 corruption suspects was made available to different media organisations on September 27 and published on September 28. Curiously, there was no official acknowledgement of the list, which is why New Age decided not to publish it. The list, which contained the names of several businesspeople along with politicians and civil servants, nonetheless followed hectic lobbying by the business community, overt and covert. It now seems that the lobbying did work as the latest list of 35, derived from the ‘unofficial list’, contains not a single businessperson and only five bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the law and information adviser to the interim government made public on Wednesday the incumbents’ plan to institute a truth commission, which, according to him, would enable corrupt businessmen to avoid serving jail sentences, if they confess their financial crimes and pay fines as recompense, and which, we believe, would institutionalise the ‘double standards of dealing with similar crimes by the businessmen and the rest of the populace in dissimilar ways.’

Overall, the latest list and the circumstances leading to its announcement lend credence to the prevailing public perception that the incumbents are adamant to use the anti-corruption drive to malign the political class with a view to depoliticising society. Such a ploy will not only defeat the purpose of reasonably containing corruption but also put paid to the people’s aspiration for democratisation of the state and society. The incumbents will be well-advised to abandon the pursuit of such a plan and genuinely try to rid society and the state of corruption.

Proposed truth commission: a travesty of truth and justice

October 5, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 5, 2007

The military-driven interim government has now come up with a puzzling idea – the idea of setting up a truth commission as an institutional mechanism through which corrupt businessmen will be able to avoid serving jail sentences, if they confess their financial crimes and pay fines as recompense. The rationale that the law and information adviser, Mainul Hosein, reportedly offered on Wednesday is that the process would help dispel the fears of businessmen, who will now be able to carry on their activities without being ‘hampered’ by anti-corruption drives. While it is of immense importance to remove the environment of fear generated by arbitrary drives, the idea of institutionalising the double standards of dealing with similar crimes by the businessmen and the rest of the populace in dissimilar ways contradicts the central tenet of the rule of law that upholds equality of citizens in the eyes of the law. The principles of the rule of law could never endorse the idea of awarding prison terms to some people, say the politicians, and providing amnesty to others, businessmen in the present case, for similar crimes. Besides, such double standards, if really adopted, would create serious complexities for the perceived commission to address such crimes committed by, say, politicians running businesses, or vice versa.

It has not escaped the public’s notice that the Fakhruddin Ahmed government broke with the judicial norms when it arrested scores of high-profile politicians and businessmen in its first few months in power without specifying the charges against them. Now that the adverse implications, particularly the economic implications, of that arbitrary actions have started surfacing, especially in the form of economic slowdown, the government has perhaps is desperate to manage the situation by way of making legal concessions to the unscrupulous sections of the business community. This is something like one mistake breeding another, and so on and so forth – a way that any prudent administration would always avoid.

The choice of name for the perceived commission seems, on the other hand, to be intended to echo the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up in South Africa in 1995. We find it a tragic trivialisation of the spirit and mandate of the historic South African commission, created to reconcile the majority black South Africans with their minority white counterparts, which was the need of the hour to avert a violent civil war. Besides, the essential goal of that process was not so much to grant amnesty to those who committed crimes – as is the case with Bangladesh’s proposed commission – as much as it was to reconcile the two sides in finding the way forward for a post-apartheid democratic South Africa. It must also be recognised that the South African commission, headed by no less than a man called Desmond Tutu, was formed under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, who, again, not only led the anti-apartheid movement but was also elected president before setting up of the commission. As such, there was neither a credibility crisis nor a legitimacy crisis that could undermine the South African commission’s findings in the years to come. Not the same could be said of the truth commission proposed by a government, which is already exposed to legitimacy crisis.

Under this circumstance, we urge the government to abandon the idea of going ahead with a ‘legal’ mechanism which is inherently inconsistent with the democratic value system that does not support the idea of inequality of citizens before the law.

Elections, emergency mutually exclusive

October 5, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 4, 2007

The election commissioners, and particularly the chief election commissioner, have stated time and again that they are committed to bringing about necessary electoral reforms to make the electoral process free and fair. The commission has also recently initiated a series of dialogues with the political parties on its proposed electoral reforms. However, up until now, we have not seen any real work by the commissioners to strengthen the Election Commission, which, we believe, requires greater power, authority and logistics to hold proper elections. A report in New Age on Wednesday says the government has decided to purchase 150 jeeps for upazila nirbahi officers this fiscal year, but no such purchase is being made for the commission officials at the district or upazila levels. This indicates to us that the government will continue to control local officials of the commission even at the time of elections and, therefore, it is the administration that will once again preside over the elections at the constituencies and not the commission. This is indeed unfortunate, as genuine reforms in the electoral process require that the commission is made more powerful than the administration with regard to elections and that the civil administration at the local levels are brought under the control of the commission officials during the elections.

We are also disappointed with the conflicting comments of the chief election commissioner about the continuation of the state of emergency. On Monday, he suggested that emergency should continue until parliamentary elections for the maintenance of law and order. On Tuesday, he said elections cannot be held under emergency and hoped that emergency would be lifted prior to the declaration of the election schedule. Even if we disregard the first statement and assume that his second statement is correct, we unfortunately cannot agree with him. We believe that the state of emergency should be lifted immediately for the restoration of fundamental rights and full political freedoms should be ensured so that the country can prepare for elections in an enabling environment. While the political parties and politicians need to be able to get their message across to the electorate without restriction, and the electorate for their part need to be able to freely discuss and debate the various programmes and policies of the political parties prior to exercising their franchise. A state of emergency only creates a restrictive environment which is not at all conducive to the holding of truly participatory general elections. Moreover, continuing with the state of emergency has dire economic implications. Emergency rule always indicates that an abnormal situation persists in a country and that the country lacks political stability. Such an image invariably discourages investment, local and foreign, and leads ultimately to a slowdown of the economy. Such a situation is entirely undesirable. As for maintenance of law and order, it is a routine and ever-present responsibility of a government and not relevant only during the time of general elections.

Lastly, we do not believe that the rule of law can ever flourish when a country is under a state of emergency. Rule of law requires that the people enjoy full freedoms and rights, as ensured by our constitution. Therefore, we hope that the chief election commissioner will reconsider his suggestion and ask the government to withdraw the state of emergency at the earliest in order for credible and meaningful general elections to be held on the one hand, and work to strengthen the commission for it to be able to preside over credible and acceptable elections on the other.

Pitting beneficiaries against benefactors of corruption

October 2, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 2, 2007

Three of the seven serving and former bureaucrats, who were part of the cabinet committee on purchase that approved the proposal for awarding a contract to Global Agro Trade Company on container handling at the inland container depot in Dhaka and the Chittagong port and summoned by the Anti-Corruption Commission in connection with the GATCO scam case against former prime minister Khaleda Zia, reportedly came up with identical testimonies to the commission’s investigation committee on Sunday. According to media reports, each of them claimed that ‘higher authorities,’ meaning the political authorities of the day, had approved the proposal for awarding the contract to GATCO. If there were any manipulations by the political authorities in this particular case, the bureaucrats in question, as servants of the republic who are oath-bound to protect national interest, should surely have taken a strong position against the move. They could have had their opposition made public or even step down in protest. However, we are not aware of any bureaucrat taking such a strong position against the GATCO contract. On the contrary, we have seen some of them actually reaping benefits in terms of getting prestigious postings and transfers, multiple contractual appointments after serving out their tenure, etc from their association with the political authorities in question. It is rather unacceptable that the same bureaucrats who let manipulations by the political authorities in the GATCO affair without a semblance of protest should be summoned to testify in the case.

We have to point out though that this is not the first time that the incumbents have employed this tactic in taking their anti-corruption drive to the politicians. The Awami League president, Sheikh Hasina, has also been implicated in a corruption case filed by a person who had supposedly been forced to pay her in order to get a contract when she was the prime minister. Obviously, the complainant of the case was a beneficiary of the underhand dealing that had supposedly taken place. We have maintained all along that whoever is found to have engaged in corrupt practices should be prosecuted and punished in a transparent manner and within the ambit of law. However, in what may well be construed as a unidirectional move to malign politicians, especially Khaleda and Hasina, the incumbents have made a travesty of justice in using those as complainants or witnesses in corruption cases who may have been beneficiaries of the supposed corrupt practices. This is unacceptable.