Archive for November, 2007

Tax policies should be left to people’s representatives

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 16, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Tariffs and taxes are inherent parts of the economic policy that governs the state. They partially reflect the vision that the politicians have in mind and the direction in which they desire to steer the economy. As such tax policy should by all means remain strictly under the authority of the elected people’s representative, meaning the finance minister. This authority to decide upon tax policies must not rest on a bureaucrat, be it within the revenue board or at the finance ministry. The International Monetary Fund’s suggestion the tax policy unit, in order to ensure impartial implementation of tax regulations, should be placed ‘at an arm’s length’ from the government and thus be located at the finance ministry is erroneous and self-contradictory.

Firstly, establishing this unit at the finance ministry would further integrate the unit with the political establishment, if anything, since it would then be directly under political supervision. Secondly, the tax policy unit would be charged with issuing statutory regulatory orders, which we have pointed out before are undemocratic and illegal, and setting tax policies but it would still be up to the revenue board to ensure implementation of those policies. Thirdly, application of tax laws, as long as they are universally applied, must be decided by the political quarters depending on the economic situation and business environment of the country and as such there must be political involvement in formulation and application of the tax regime. The IMF also recommends that the unit should be headed by a joint secretary at the ministry. As the revenue board officials pointed out at a meeting on Wednesday, this additional secretary or the staff working at the unit are likely to be frequently transferred and may not command the kind of expertise or skills required for the job. Frequent transfers would also hamper the consistency and smooth functioning of such a unit.

We agree with the experts that the suggested move would surely weaken the revenue board when it should rather be strengthened with the infusion of more staff and personnel to review tax policies and gradually strive towards a progressive tax structure that not only ensure income for the exchequer but also acts as a redistributive measure through which the radically unequal distribution of wealth and economic disparity. We believe that the suggestions of the revenue board personnel are justified when they ask for a separate policy unit within the board and more personnel to work there. However, the matter of policy setting should not be left with the bureaucrats or any personnel of the revenue board and must be the domain of the elected public representative in charge.


Chief adviser wrongly reads ground realities

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 16, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

We are extremely disappointed with the latest comment of the chief adviser to the military-driven interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, that he feels the common people are not facing any problems as a result of the continuation of the current state of emergency. It is absolutely unacceptable that a head of government could even suggest that the continuation of a state of emergency – and thereby the continuation of the automatic suspension of people’s fundamental rights – does not cause problems for the ‘common people.’ Such a comment proves once again that this government, like all unelected and apolitical regimes, is neither aware of the realities on the ground nor has the necessary contact with the general masses.

We have tried to impress upon the government time and again that the suspension of the people’s fundamental rights runs counter to its stated aims of positively transforming the nature of politics and strengthening democracy. Democracy requires the perpetual political participation of the people, within certain legal boundaries of course, for them to be able to demand and fight for their rights and aspirations. Suspending the people’s right to think, speak and express freely or their right to assemble and protest is, therefore, extremely problematic, regardless of what the chief adviser might have us believe.

The continuation of a state of emergency is, however, conducive to the spread of fear in society, which we feel this government has managed to do rather successfully. Even though maintaining law and order and ensuring stability is the responsibility of any government, the current government, through the adoption of the draconian emergency power rules that have made usually bailable cases non-bailable, seems to have attempted to frighten the public into compliance. Such is the pervasive sense of fear that the government’s unsolicited intervention in politics, its failure to rein in the prices of essential items or its inability to sort out the fertiliser crisis, for example, has gone largely un-protested by the people. It is also not surprising that the economy is suffering during this emergency period with investment levels dwindling and inflation going through the roof. We have pointed out countless times before that emergency discourages investment, as it indicates to potential investors locally and overseas that an abnormal and unstable situation is prevailing in the country. The lack of investment today can only mean that fewer jobs will be created in the future, which will affect the common people that the chief adviser has referred to.

While we can go on and on about the negative impacts of emergency on society – economic, political and cultural – we cannot find any good reason for persisting with such an arrangement any longer. If a state of emergency was indeed necessary in January to avoid a bloody confrontation between the two warring political alliances and to bring back political stability, it has been achieved long ago. It is high time that the government lifted emergency and returned to the people their democratic and political rights so that the country can move forward in its struggle to bring qualitative change in the nature of politics and to give democracy proper footing. If the military-driven government and its chief adviser really believe emergency rule does not cause problems for common people and cannot appreciate the need for the immediate lifting of the state of emergency, we, unfortunately, cannot but feel that our democracy is no longer safe in their hands.

Time for govt, Election Commission to pause and ponder

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 15, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The legal notice, issued by the detained BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, to the Election Commission, asking for withdrawal of its invitation to M Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, who was appointed acting secretary general at an eminently controversial meeting of the BNP standing committee, which also made Saifur Rahman the acting chairman, effectively nullifies the effort by the Saifur-Hafiz faction to create the impression that it enjoys Khaleda’s blessings and is, therefore, the mainstream BNP. The notice, endorses as it does Khandaker Delwar Hossain’s claim that he has Khaleda’s support, also poses a legitimacy crisis for the Saifur-Hafiz faction in the public in general and the party’s rank and file in particular. Crucially still, the faction stands exposed in the public eye as a part, if not a product, of the military-driven interim government’s scheme to politically neutralise Khaleda.

Alarmingly, however, neither the government nor the Saifur-Hafiz faction appears daunted by such a decisive turn of event. The faction has already been afforded the right to use the BNP central office, which it exercised gleefully on Wednesday, albeit in the presence of an elaborate security blanket provided by the state’s law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. The security blanket did avert a showdown between the followers of the government-orchestrated and the Khaleda-backed factions of the BNP for the time being, although clashes between the two groups still remain a distinct possibility.

Overall, and we note this with grave concern, the interim government is following to the letter the script, developed and enacted by authoritarian regimes during military rules in the country, of imposing pliant leadership on one major political party or the other, in an effort to reconstructing the political order. History tells us that such attempts never succeed but take a huge toll on the political process nonetheless. Moreover, the government’s persistence with such a detrimental political project runs counter to the pledge it made upon its assumption of office in January to create a level playing field for the political establishments in the run-up to the general elections and will further erode whatever faith the public still has in it. Consequently, all its actions and inactions will remain questionable.

The Election Commission has, meanwhile, made the situation even more complicated by becoming party to the political crime that is being perpetrated. We have already indicated in these columns that the chief election commissioner may have inexorably damaged his and the commission’s credibility by first inviting Hafiz to the reforms dialogue and then unabashedly defending the decision. On top of it, comes the decision to take legal recourse to Khaleda’s notice, which would no doubt put the entire electoral process into question. Thus far, the commission has, through a series of questionable actions, appeared to be toeing the line of the government, which is contrary to the people’s expectations for it to be independent.

In the final analysis, the interim government seems to have put the country in a greater political and legal mess than it was in prior to January 11. The government can still get the country back from the brink of sustained political uncertainty by moving away from its political projects. The Election Commission, on the other hand, should rethink its position and play a proactive role so that the political parties can be democratised under their existing leadership.

Direct democracy: challenges for Bangladesh

November 17, 2007

NewAge, November

Bangladesh is at a critical crossroads in its democratic journey. Top-down reforms imposed, without the participation of the people or their elected representatives, by a military-backed government, which intimidates those it deems to be contrary to the national interest and has scant respect for the due process of law, are unlikely to deliver an improved democracy, writes Adilur Rahman Khan*

EVER since a military-backed government came to power in Bangladesh, on January 11, 2007, the authority of the constitution has faced a number of challenges. The extent to which the current regime is able to identify those challenges and how it responds to them will dictate the course of democracy in Bangladesh.

In an attempt to ensure that parliamentary elections are held free, fair and without undue influence from the incumbent party-political power, Bangladesh, which returned to democracy in 1991, has a system for transition of power from an elected party-political government to a non-party-political, independent, caretaker government shortly before the elections are due to be held. According to article 123(3) of the constitution, ‘A general election of members of Parliament shall be held within ninety days after Parliament is dissolved, whether by reason of the expiration of its term or otherwise than by reason of such expiration.’ The last elected regime, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, handed over power to a caretaker government on October 28, 2006. For the first time, the caretaker government was headed by the president, Iajuddin Ahmed (who was president during the BNP-led regime), as the two major political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Awami League, were unable to reach a consensus on the appointment of a former chief justice as head of the caretaker government.

However, the Awami League soon alleged that the Iajuddin-led administration was neither neutral nor entirely independent of the influence of the BNP-led alliance, and that it would not facilitate fair elections. Subsequently, the party announced that it would boycott the polls, scheduled to take place on January 22, 2007. The AL and BNP supporters launched a series of confrontational street protests, which became increasingly violent, prompting the army to step in, seemingly with the support of some development partners and a section of ‘civil society.’ A new ‘caretaker’ government, backed by the army, took over on January 11. Iajuddin was removed from the position of head of the caretaker government but retained as the head of state and an indefinite state of emergency was declared, suspending fundamental rights and freedoms – including the right to move the Supreme Court to enforce human rights.

The government declared that it had multiple mandates granted to it by popular support, including the holding of parliamentary elections – not within the 90 days dictated by the constitution but after completing a fresh voters’ roll. The head of the government, former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, announced that the administration planned to prepare a new electoral roll to put the possibility of any controversy over vote rigging to rest. In addition, it announced that free and fair elections would not be possible until rampant corruption was tackled. The principle targets in the drive against corruption would be politicians and party activists suspected of illegal activities and their businessmen cohorts. The institutions that would tackle corruption such as the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were reorganised and retired or in-service army officers were installed to run those.

The current situation
Several months into the tenure of the Fakhruddin-led government, the Election Commission unveiled a roadmap for elections, which are supposed to take place before December 2008. There are serious obstacles in place. While launching its so-called anti-corruption drive, the government said democracy would not be possible while there was corruption within the political parties. Along with many senior staff, the top leaders of the BNP and the Awami League were accused of corruption and arrested; they remain in detention awaiting trial. Despite their detention, both remain extremely popular among the people. With a view to eliminating the influence of political leaders who were mired in a culture of corruption, the government has undertaken a series of reforms, both overt and covert, to minimise the influence of the political parties’ ruling cliques.

With plans to create a entirely new voter list in a predominately rural country of 150 million people; arrest, try and punish corruption suspects; begin institutional reforms – including reforms in the political parties and the separation of the judiciary from the executive; improve law and order through an anti-crime drive; and hold local and national elections all before the end of 2008, the government has a long way to go in very little time.

Trials of corruption suspects have not met international standards guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the administration has been accused of selectively choosing which corruption suspects to bring to trial based, not on the strength of evidence or severity of alleged crime, but on political expediency. This has created uncertainly among businesspeople, which, in turn, has led to a severe downturn in the economy. During the ten months or so that the government has been in power, extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies – common under the elected regimes – has continued; 162 people have reportedly been extra-judicially killed during the state of emergency. Furthermore, human rights defenders – including Odhikar’s acting director – have been intimidated by the intelligence agencies of the state. Torture of people detained on police remand continues.

The print and electronic media in Bangladesh, which has a reputation of freedom and impartiality, has been under significant pressure from the state to refrain from reporting news or comments critical of the government. Journalists report being regularly ‘reminded’, usually by telephone calls, that if they publish news critical of the government they may face negative consequences. This has reportedly led to a significant level of self-censorship by the media – a restriction on the freedom of expression. During the nationwide curfew in August 2007, journalists were assaulted, beaten up and injured by the security forces. Additionally, the government declared that it had the power to ban or attach conditions on broadcasting so-called ‘provocative news,’ documentaries, talk-shows and discussions critical of the government under powers given to it by article 5 of the Emergency Powers Rules 2007.

The government has also used the Emergency Powers Rules 2007 to quell protests by jute mill workers who have recently been made redundant and farmers who have demanded the distribution of fertiliser.

Under pressure to deliver results, supposedly independent agencies, such as the Election Commission, have taken decisions that are seen to be based more on conforming to the plans of the regime rather than adhering strictly to the due process of the law.

All the while, the state of emergency has outlawed public protest. Nevertheless, there have been sporadic demonstrations. In August, a seemingly small altercation between a student and a soldier on the campus of Dhaka University led to a rally and calls for an apology from the army and the government and for the army’s temporary camp to be removed from the university campus. The army quickly dismantled the camp and an apology was issued, but the students did not stop there. Rather, they began to demand the withdrawal of the state of emergency and for early elections. The demonstration spread to other university campuses throughout the country. Other groups, disaffected with the government’s policies – street hawkers and factory workers – joined the protests. The government responded with repression. Following three days of protest, it declared an indefinite, nationwide curfew. The media, already under pressure not to be critical of the authorities, was explicitly told not to broadcast ‘anti-government’ news. Television news channels were taken off the air, mobile phone signals were cut and, at the same time, it was not possible to access the internet. The authorities filed cases against 82,000 unnamed protesters. Students and university teachers were arrested and charged with breaching provisions of the Emergency Powers Rules 2007. Some remain in detention having been arrested, without warrants, from their homes in mid-night raids.

In such an environment concerns have been growing about who is controlling the levers of power within the administration. There are increasing reports of the military intelligence agency playing a progressively more influential role in decision making and policy implementation.

The one national institution that the military-government has not attempted to reform, an institution critical to good democracy, is the parliament – which has remained suspended since October 2006. Rather than investing time and resources to strengthen the parliament and parliamentarians, so that the representatives of the people can work towards a corruption-free society in the long term, the government has converted buildings within the parliamentary compound into sub-jails to hold high-profile, political corruption suspects.

The role of holding the government to account during this difficult time may then have been legitimately expected to fall to journalists. However, as mentioned, the government has tightened restrictions on news and journalists work in a climate of fear – constantly walking the tightrope between professional reporting and facing the wrath of the authorities. Intimidating telephone calls from intelligence agencies especially after controversial events mean that self-censorship is rife.

Civil society has divided into two broad camps. One group typically composed of people working in development organisations and backed by much of the international community, support this regime as they feel that, despite its faults, the military-backed government will deliver on promises to hold an election and ultimately bring good results for the country. The other group includes people from the human rights movement, academics and some journalists. They feel that the present government has gone beyond its constitutional mandate and is acting illegally – suppressing the fundamental rights of the people, pressurising the judiciary and controlling the media.

The risk remains that the government will not be able to deliver on its promises. In tackling corruption by punishing a small number of high-profile political suspects, the work to eradicate corrupt practices in Bangladesh may prove unsustainable in the medium and long term. The government has often approached institutional improvements by replacing the head of some organisations and branding that as ‘reforms.’ At times, such as in the case of reforms in the Dhaka City Corporation, this has been imposed by sending in soldiers. Short of arresting local government chairmen and mayors suspected of corruption, the administration has not invested in improvements at the local democratic level. As changes have been enforced by a military-backed government without engaging people in debate, discussion or decision making, it seems likely that the reforms are bound to fail when the state of emergency is removed.

Lifting the state of emergency itself will, therefore, prove to be a significant challenge to this regime. It will depend on two keys things: holding free, fair, participatory elections and ensuring that the elected government that follows will affirm the decisions of the current regime. The first of these is under threat on two fronts.

Preparing a new voter roll is a massive task that may not be achievable within the timeframe that the government has set for itself; without the new voter list credible elections are unlikely. Secondly, if the political parties believe they are not being genuinely represented in the elections – either because their leadership is in jail or because the Election Commission has been negotiating with a party faction that does not speak for the mainstream – they may choose to boycott elections, returning the country to a position similar to the one that the army stepped in to manage in January 2007.

As for affirming decisions taken by the government, especially decisions taken under emergency powers legislation, the ruling administration has a vested interest to ensure a group sympathetic to their actions takes over the reigns of power. The environment is, therefore, ripe for democratic rights to be further undermined.

Bangladesh is at a critical crossroads in its democratic journey. Top-down reforms imposed, without the participation of the people or their elected representatives, by a government, which uses fear to intimidate those it deems to be contrary to the national interest and has scant respect for the due process of law, are unlikely to deliver an improved democracy.

The government should lift the state of emergency and begin engaging the people in the changes that will be required to move beyond a political system characterised by corruption. The Election Commission should seek permission from the Supreme Court to hold elections after ninety days under article 106 of the constitution of Bangladesh, to hold parliamentary elections for the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh.

*Adilur Rahman Khan is secretary of the human rights coalition Odhikar.

People’s reps should get oversight authority at every tier

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 14, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

We do believe that the primary responsibility of the members of parliament should be to enact, modify or repeal laws, as and when necessary, besides their active involvement in policymaking. However, since local government institutions remain weak and often dependent on the lawmakers’ whims and wishes in Bangladesh, as in most developing countries, the members of parliament have come to play significant roles in the development activities in their respective constituencies. Moreover, the role of the local government functionaries and the lawmakers has never been clearly demarcated in Bangladesh, thanks to the failure of successive governments to address the issue decisively. The authoritarian mindset of the lawmakers has also been responsible to a great extent. Consequently, the distinction of roles between the elected local government functionaries and the members of parliament has blurred to a point when the parliamentarians have become the main actors as far as development in their respective constituencies is concerned.

Their increased involvement in the affairs of their constituencies, which should have been ideally left to the local government, is also one of the causes that such a high number of lawmakers are currently being charged with financial corruption. The authority to disburse funds for development and public works has added to the lawmakers’ incentive to spend heavily on election campaigns because with election to the parliament comes the opportunity to acquire large allocations of development funds, which are typically vulnerable to mismanagement and misappropriation due to the lack of monitoring at the central or local level.

As such, the current initiative to restrict the lawmakers to their functions in the parliament stripping away their authority over initiatives that should be conducted solely by the local government institutions is a move in the right direction. But the formation of an inter-ministerial body to make recommendations was unnecessary since a commission on local government during the last Awami League regime had submitted a report recommending public representation in four tiers of the government fully explaining their roles and responsibilities, functions and jurisdictions. Also, such an arrangement is clearly defined in the constitution.

As we have stated before, we do desire a genuinely empowered local government structure that would be effective and meaningful for the people. But in order for that to happen, the elected public representatives must be given the authority to assess the performance of the civil servant heading the corresponding administrative unit. In other words, the public representatives must have the necessary authority and mechanism to command the obedience of the public servants.

Election Commission becomes party to a political crime

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 14, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

In reiterating that the Election Commission made the right decision in inviting the controversially appointed secretary general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, to its reforms dialogue with the political parties, the chief election commissioner, ATM Shamsul Huda, has surely mired himself in further controversy. There is little scope for debate that Hafiz’s appointment as the secretary general and Saifur Rahman’s as the acting chairman of the BNP came under dubious circumstances. That the ‘standing committee meeting’, which confirmed their appointments, was orchestrated by the military-driven interim government, was also evident, given media reports that many a committee members had been escorted to the meeting by members of the state’s intelligence agencies. One senior member of the committee even told the media that his presence at the meeting was sought under false pretences. All of this falls in line with the current administration’s agenda of political restructuring evidenced time and again by a series of actions to this effect since it took over in January this year.

Worryingly still, the Election Commission, which is supposed to be a quasi-judicial body, seems to have become complicit with the government’s agenda by rubberstamping the decision of the dubious standing committee meeting. It is a travesty not only of justice but also the promise the commission made that it would make the decision on who should represent the BNP at the dialogue upon a close scrutiny of the BNP constitution, which specifies that only the chairperson can convene a meeting of the standing committee and also appoint the party’s secretary general. While the commission may have been entitled to the benefit of doubt over its first mistake in choosing the Saifur-Hafiz faction as representative of the BNP mainstream, its attempt at justifying the decision certainly makes it guilty of committing a crime of political nature.

Moreover, the chief election commissioner has invoked the ‘doctrine of necessity’ to justify the commission’s decision. The question is: Whose necessity is the commission talking about? The ‘doctrine of necessity’ is historically associated with authoritarian rulers who would use ‘the well-being of the people’ as a convenient excuse to defend typically anti-people actions. Will it then be too far-fetched to conclude that the commission may well be serving the necessity of an unelected government that is attempting to impose a pliable leadership on a political party, replacing recalcitrant leaders who did not serve such necessities?

Our concern is that the chief election commissioner may have exposed himself and the commission to a serious political controversy, raising doubts about its neutrality, which it is constitutionally ordained to maintain. The efforts by the chief election commissioner to toe the government’s line will lead to a people’s movement demanding his resignation or removal for the sake of credible elections to the ninth Jatiya Sangsad as and when the state of emergency is withdrawn.

Lift restrictions on politics instead of tightening them

November 17, 2007

Editorial: NewAge, November 11, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

We note with concern the latest instruction of the military-driven interim government to the law enforcement agencies to ensure stricter adherence to the conditions on indoor politics under the state of emergency. The order, which came a day after activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party assaulted several ‘reformist’ leaders of the party including standing committee member and former army chief Mahbubur Rahman, was given at the twelfth meeting of the cabinet committee on law and order on Thursday.

We at New Age have repeatedly and unequivocally demanded, from the very beginning of this period of emergency, the full restoration of the fundamental rights of the people as well as the complete lifting of the ban on political activity, indoors and outdoors. While we certainly do not wish to see a return to the crude power struggle between the different groups of self-seeking political parties, we have held firm in our belief that the people of this country should not, even for a fleeting moment let alone for months on end, be deprived of their fundamental rights as citizens of a sovereign state. Similarly, while we have relentlessly opposed the bloody, confrontational politics of the past as had been practiced by our political parties and do not want to see our country being dragged down that tortuous route ever again, we do not believe and can never support the suspension of the democratic process and the ban on political activity, however temporary either may be. To put it simply, we do not subscribe to the idea that democracy can be strengthened through keeping it suspended, or that the nature of politics can be positively transformed through banning it altogether in an effort to remould the polity. In our opinion, the democratisation of the state and society requires an unfailing commitment to democratic values and ideals, which cannot and should not be compromised even under the most difficult of circumstances. After all, real democracy is dependent upon a political process that allows the people the opportunity and space to voice, demand, and fight for their individual and collective aspirations.

Therefore, we cannot help but feel alarmed by the fact that at a time when we had expected that the military-driven government would further relax the restrictions on political activity, it has asked the law enforcement agencies to step up their vigil and tighten their noose around the political parties. We are made increasingly anxious by the fact that instead of allowing the people their necessary democratic space, the government is persisting with the state of emergency that automatically suspends their democratic rights. We are disappointed that despite our repeated demands for the earliest return to a democratic dispensation, the government appears to be taking its sweet time to bring about necessary administrative and electoral reforms and are thereby delaying, without any good reason, elections to the ninth parliament, which have been stalled since January last.

We take this opportunity to remind the government that it is pledge-bound to the people of this country, as well as the international community, to restore the democratic process. Therefore, we urge it, once more, to immediately restore the fundamental rights of the citizens, lift completely the ban on politics and to bring about necessary electoral reforms to hold parliamentary elections without unnecessary delay.

162 extra-judicial deaths in last 300 days: Odhikar

November 17, 2007

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, November 9, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The number of extra-judicial killings in the country has risen to 162 in the 300 days since the declaration of the ongoing state of emergency on January 11 to November 7, said Odhikar, a human rights organisation, on Thursday.

In the last 30 days till Monday, nine people were killed extra-judicially by the law enforcers, according to the report released by Odhikar on the state of human rights in Bangladesh.

Of the 162 slain people, the Rapid Action Battalion killed 81, the police 57, RAB and the police jointly three, the army-led joint forces seven, the army seven, the navy three, the jail police one, the Department of Narcotics Control one, the Coast Guard one and the Bangladesh Rifles one, said the report.

Of the deceased, 111 people were killed in so-called crossfire, 26 were tortured to death, 14 were shot dead, and the remaining 11 were killed in other circumstances, the report added.

The report also mentioned that the police initiated an inquiry into the death of Morshed Rana, who died at Narsingdi model police station on October 28. This is the sole example of an inquiry into an extra-judicial death after emergency was imposed.

‘Disregard for the due process of law and the selective application of the laws are violations of the people’s human rights. There is serious and widespread cause for concern that the actions of this government in many aspects of policy — prosecution and judicial process, judicial inquiries and the impunity of law enforcement agencies — are dictated less and less by the law,’ said Odhikar in the report.

The report said the controversial decision of the Election Commission to send an invitation for dialogue to the Saifur Rahman-led BNP faction has led sections of the media to question its neutrality.

Odhikar urged the EC to work independently, without being unduly influenced by the government or any other quarter.

The print and electronic media, which have a reputation for freedom and impartiality, have been under significant pressure from the government to refrain from reporting news or comments that are critical of it, said the report.

In the 300 days of the emergency, the authorities have conducted several eviction drives against unauthorised constructions, buildings and habitations, without making provisions for the resettlement of the displaced poor people, said the report.

Arresting university teachers in August without warrants, holding them incommunicado for nearly 40 hours at an unknown location before being brought to a court, violating the constitution and detaining them in the Joint Interrogation Cell, have caused concern that their rights under national and international laws are not being respected by the authorities, and the due process of law is not being followed, the report mentioned.

Throughout the 300 days of the emergency, many workers of jute mills and garment factories have protested while demanding full payment of the wages to which they are entitled. Many of these workers have been arrested for violating the state of emergency, the report said.

Good governance cannot be without due process

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 8, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Fakhruddin Ahmed, the chief adviser to the military-driven interim government, told senior bureaucrats on Tuesday that they should focus on the outcome and result of their actions rather than the input or process. Simply put, he told the bureaucracy that bending rules and regulations was acceptable as long as it got the results, although one of the fundamental reasons of having a bureaucracy is that it would ensure adherence to a set of rules, that there is an inherent mechanism of checks and balances.

Asking the bureaucracy to disregard those processes also implies empowering public servants with the authority to decide by themselves which rules to flout for which purpose. It also means that the bureaucrats have the liberty to decide violation of which rules might justify what end. While shocking, it is hardly surprising, as the interim government has, on more occasions than one, bypassed the due process and adopted ad hoc measures for expeditious outcome. Such a propensity for quick fix, so to speak, inevitably leads to detrimental consequences, as is evident in the case of its anti-corruption drive, because not only debilitates the institutional mechanism but also yields little or no result. It appears that the chief adviser is intent on applying the same quick-fix formula on the bureaucracy.

The bureaucrats, on the other hand, used the meeting to relate their woes and hardship to the chief adviser and requested a dearness allowance for civil servants. Of all people, the jute and textiles secretary asked for dearness allowance apparently to help him cope with the rising prices of essentials while literally thousands of jute mill workers are not being paid their pending wages and retirement benefits. Especially at a time like the present when there is no representative government at the helm of the country’s affairs, the bureaucracy is expected to be the one institution that would put the interest of the people, whom they serve, above everything else and recommend measures to lessen hardship of those teeming millions. It is expected that the bureaucrats would take this opportunity and impress upon the chief adviser the problems that the people face every day in their lives instead of giving in to their selfish interests such as increase of salaries and facilities.

It is all the more expected that the bureaucrats would act with responsibility and good sense since the current state of affairs in this country is partially a result of their doing and willingness to please the previous political establishment and do its bidding.

CEC digging himself a deeper hole

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 8, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The invocation of the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’ by the chief election commissioner, ATM Shamsul Huda, as the basis on which the Saifur Rahman-led faction of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was invited to sit for dialogue with the Election Commission, while altogether absurd, exposes the extent to which the commission is collaborating with the military-driven interim government in political engineering and the restructuring of the polity. It is absurd because the doctrine of necessity would only apply if the commission was left with no other apparent option but to send its letter of invitation to Hafizuddin Ahmed, ‘acting’ secretary general of the Saifur-led faction. However, such a stark scenario was not even close to being the case, as Khandaker Delwar Hossain had been legally appointed as the party’s secretary general by Khaleda Zia through the powers vested in her as chairperson by the BNP constitution.

Huda’s reference to the doctrine of necessity, however, does suggest to us that an intricate plan had been set in motion by the military-driven regime in conjunction with the Election Commission to subtract Khaleda Zia from the political equation and to sideline her followers. Last week, a so-called meeting of the BNP standing committee was orchestrated at the residence of former finance minister M Saifur Rahman, even though only the chairperson can call a meeting of the party’s standing committee, according to the BNP constitution. At that gathering, Saifur was appointed acting chairperson of the party and Hafiz acting secretary general replacing Delwar, also in total disregard for the party’s constitution. This week, through sending its letter to Hafiz, the commission has given credence to what many had already suspected: The standing committee members, many of whom were reportedly accompanied to the gathering by members of intelligence agencies, were hurriedly brought together last week only so that the commission could send its letter to the ‘reformist’ faction of the BNP which is opposed to Khaleda, rather than those loyal to her leadership. The doctrine of necessity, from the point of view of the military-driven government and the Election Commission, might, therefore, refer to the whole set of events in the past week or so leading to the sending of the commission’s letter, given that the perceived attempts to liquidate the political career of Khaleda Zia and to promote alternative leadership within the BNP which will be loyal to this government appear to be on at full steam.

The invocation of the doctrine of necessity, notably, has been a common practice, from the time of the Romans emperors, by authoritarian rulers and regimes in order to explain actions and decisions that typically contradict the general will and in many cases are against the interests of the people. Most infamously, the doctrine was widely invoked by the autocratic regime of Ayub Khan in the fifties. The chief election commissioner, by referring to it in the present case, has expressly signed up to that authoritarian legacy of the doctrine. Also, by attempting to give judgement on the inner workings and processes of the BNP and by trying to define the party’s conventions, which Huda unashamedly did on Tuesday, he has done tremendous harm to his own credibility and reputation. The onus, therefore, is squarely on the Election Commission in general, and the chief election commissioner in particular, to dispel the ever-growing public suspicion that they are working neither independently of government control nor impartially to hold credible parliamentary elections.