Archive for July, 2008

The cat is out of the bag

July 27, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, July 27, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

For the over 18 months that it has been in power, the military-controlled interim government has insisted that it does not have a political agenda and has not been engaged in political engineering. Even when it was clear, in March and April of last year, that the regime was actively trying to exile our country’s two top political leaders as part of a plan to neutralise them politically, the regime denied having any such agenda and has continued to deny since the very existence of a ‘minus-two’ programme even though it has perceivably carried on its efforts to implement that programme in different ways and through different means. Against that backdrop, the statements made by the communications adviser Golam Quader, on Thursday, regarding the regime’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering with Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, proves that this regime has been disingenuous with the people of this country.
   

Through his admission that the regime has been trying to strike a deal with Khaleda similar to a deal that was apparently reached with Awami League president Sheikh Hasina that resulted in her temporary release, the communications adviser has confirmed our worst fears as expressed in these columns on countless occasions – that the military-controlled government has been almost singularly focused on political engineering through its direct interference in the political process rather than on its primary duty of creating a level playing field for the existing political parties to contest parliamentary elections. 
   

Although we are not sure about the contents of the deals that are under discussion or ones that may already have been struck, speculation has it that the regime has been trying to get both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina to commit to leaving the country on the pretext of seeking medical treatment, or to retire from active politics in exchange for their release from jail. It is extremely unfortunate that a regime that announced immediately after it seized power that it would strengthen democracy is undermining the very ideal of democracy by imposing such deals on the political parties for its self-preservation. Had the government worked sincerely towards the holding of elections rather than getting itself embroiled in the political process and trying to advance its self-serving political agenda, it would not have needed to impose deals on the political parties.
   

Moreover, the fact that the regime is deal-making with political leaders who were earlier arrested on charges of corruption and while they are under trial further erodes the credibility of the incumbents’ entire anti-corruption campaign and betrays its lack of commitment to the rule of law. Had the regime ensured that due process was strictly adhered to in the investigations, arrests, interrogations and prosecutions of those suspected of corruption, it would have been able to have greater faith in the legal system and not feel it necessary to have to bypass it by deal-making with allegedly corrupt political leaders to keep them out of politics. The extent to which this regime has botched both its anti-corruption campaign and its attempts to change the nature of politics is almost beyond comprehension. 
   

The military-controlled government must by now realise that it does not have the mandate, the authority or the know-how to try to positively impact politics or strengthen democracy by engaging in political engineering. It is high time, therefore, that it abandons its political agenda and focuses on its main responsibility of aiding the Election Commission in holding parliamentary elections and overseeing the peaceful transition to an elected government.

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Election Commission continues 
with its dithering ways

July 27, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, July 26, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

That the Election Commission on July 24 revoked its decision to replace the Representation of People Order 1972 and ordered translation of the amendment proposals into English for incorporation into the law raises a few questions about the ability, if not intent, of the commission to bring about positive changes in the country’s electoral and political process in time for elections to the ninth Jatiya Sangsad scheduled for the third week of December. First of all, the commission went beyond its jurisdiction by initiating the process of repealing the RPO 1972 in the first place. It is not that the commission was not told about the jurisdictional trespass its plan represented. The political parties have repeatedly urged the commission to not to go for the repeal of the original law. It now appears that the law ministry also raised the question when the commission sent its package of political and electoral reforms proposals for vetting. Still, the commission persisted with its plan and reasoned that there would be a number of amendments and the new law would be drafted in Bangla, and that an amended version of the old law would not be user friendly. Eventually, it had the reforms proposal approved by the council of advisers on July 13.
   

The commission’s obstinacy, if not audacity, has now given rise to the prospect of a further delay in the electoral laws reforms and registration of political parties. All electoral reforms, including the finalisation of the conditions for registration of the political parties and the RPO, should have been completed by February 27 according to its own electoral roadmap. The commission has already missed the June deadline for registration of the political parties and extended it up to the announcement of the election schedule, which is expected to come in October. One may very well suspect that the delay has been deliberate and part of some hidden agenda.
   

However it may be, now that it has been somewhat forced to revoke its decision to repeal the RPO 1972 and incorporate its proposals into the law as amendments, it could easily have struck out certain proposals that are viewed as anti-constitution, anti-people and anti-progress. For example, as we have pointed out in a previous editorial comment, while the proposed criteria for recognition and registration of the political parties runs counter to the constitution, the proposal for ban on political ideals that contradict the country’s constitution is essentially an approach to stifle diversity of ideas and political thought.
   Overall, the commission’s handling of the electoral and political reforms, from the very beginning, has been lackadaisical, if not chaotic altogether, raising questions about the very content and intent of its reforms plan. The commission is already widely perceived to have been toeing the lines of a government whose constitutional validity is eminently questionable. Its refusal to be inclusive in the process of reforming the electoral and political process could only deepen such a perception.

HC once again reminds govt of its constitutional trespass

July 27, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, July 26, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The High Court on July 24 reminded the military-controlled interim government of Fakhruddin Ahmed – for the second time in less than two weeks – that it was beyond its constitutional jurisdiction to promulgate an ordinance not related directly to the elections. In declaring illegal and cancelling the Contempt of Courts Ordinance 2008, the High Court bench of Justice ABM Khairul Haque and Justice M Abu Tariq once again highlighted a legally obvious issue that the interim administration has attempted to obfuscate since it assumed office on the wings of a state of emergency in January 2007. The judgement is similar to the one the court delivered on July 13 in the case of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Ordinance 2008, pointing out, in no uncertain terms, that the incumbents do not have the authority to make any policy decisions as per article 58D of the constitution. The two verdicts essentially undercut the attempts the incumbents have made over the past 18 months or so to give the people the impression that the constitutional provisions for a caretaker government do not quite apply for them.
   

Ever since it came to power, the government has seemingly taken upon itself the right to invent and reinvent, interpret and reinterpret the constitution at its own caprice and convenience. While the constitution decrees that the interim government should limit its activities to creating a level playing field for contesting political camps in the run-up to the general elections within the 90-day timeframe and discharging the day-to-day affairs of the state, the incumbents have set themselves a flexible tenure and hardly hesitated to make decisions affecting the national interest. The High Court verdicts, therefore, tend to justify the conclusion of the thinking sections of society, whose political orientation is moulded by democratic constitutionalism, that the government may have been in breach of the constitution vis-à-vis many, if not most, of its actions, lawmaking and otherwise.
   

Hopefully, the High Court’s observation with regard to the interim government’s trespass beyond its constitutional jurisdiction would prompt the incumbents to gear its activities towards the twin tasks that they should have accomplished long time back, i.e. creating a level playing field for the contesting political camps in the lead-up to the general elections and assisting the Election Commission to hold all-contested and credible polls. As the court has pointed out, the ‘president and the caretaker government do not represent the people… The shorter the tenure of such an undemocratic government the better it is for all.’
   Finally, to iterate what we have said in these columns previously, the consequence of the High Court’s observations will depend on the action and reaction of the political parties to these as and when the next parliament comes into existence. It will be ultimately up to the members of the ninth Jatiya Sangsad to deal with the digression of the Fakhruddin government from its constitutional mandate.

EC drops plan to replace Representation of People Order (RPO) 1972, to make amendments to the law

July 25, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, July 25, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Election Commission on Thursday revoked its decision to replace the -1972 and ordered translation of the amendment proposals into English for incorporation in the law.
  The election commissioners led by the chief election commissioner, ATM Shamsul Huda, called on the chief adviser to the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, and took the decision to abandon the move to make a fresh law styled the Representation of People Order-2008 scrapping the RPO of 1972.
   

‘Instead of repealing RPO-1972, some amendments should be made and it has to be in English as the 1972 law was drafted in English. But the amendments we have proposed will be incorporated in the law’, election commissioner Muhammed Sohul Hussain told reporters after the meeting with the chief adviser. He said that the EC had changed its decision following demands from some quarters to do so.
   

The EC’s latest decision may further delay the electoral laws reforms and registration of political parties. In keeping with the electoral roadmap, all electoral reforms, including finalisation of the conditions for registration of political parties and the RPO, are to be completed by February 27.
   

The commission also missed its June deadline for registration of political parties for delay in finalising reforms of the electoral laws and is now extending the time up to the announcement of the election schedule which is expected in October.
   

On July 20, election commissioner M Sakhawat Hussain had rejected the political parities’ objections to the RPO-2008, saying that there was no need for amending the proposed law. ‘There is no further scope for amending the RPO-2008. It will take us another six months to go for amending the draft RPO. The government has no scope to discuss it’, Sakhawat told reporters on that occasion.
   

The military-backed government on July 13 approved the draft of RPO-2008 which was prepared by EC in Bangla for over a year. But most of the political parties rejected the draft and the Awami League and its allies said they would not accept repeal of the RPO-1972 and suggested that some amendments could be made to it.
   

Sohul, talking to reporters at his office on Thursday afternoon, said that they had already ordered translation of the draft of RPO-2008 into English and hoped that the entire task would be completed within 10 days.
   

EC sources said, besides the demand from political parties to drop the proposed RPO, the ministry of law had also questioned the commission’s authority to scrap the original law [RPO-1972].
   

The political parties had long been asking the EC not to go for repealing RPO-1972, but the commissioners defended the move on the pretext that there would be a slew of amendments and the new law would be drafted in Bangla and an amended version of the old law would not be user-friendly.
   

The commission proposes 114 sections instead of 95 in the existing Representation of People Order that came into being in 1972.
   

The draft ordinance proposes mandatory registration of political parties with the EC. For registration, a party must have a record of winning at least one seat in any of the parliamentary elections since the country’s independence or obtaining five per cent of the total votes cast or having active units in one-third of the districts or in 100 upazilas with minimum 200 members in each.
   

Political parties intending to be registered would have to declare in their constitutions that they would not have front organisations of students, teachers and workers, and overseas units.
   

But the draft proposes that students, workers and teachers would have their rights to political activities as protected by the constitution.
   

To promote democracy within the parties, the draft proposes that the parties’ parliamentary boards will nominate candidates for Jatiya Sangsad elections from the panel of leaders chosen by ward or upazila level committees. The draft seeks to raise the ceiling for electoral expenditure for an individual candidate to Tk 15 lakh from Tk 5 lakh now.
   

Responding to a popular campaign spearheaded by various rights groups and individuals, the draft proposes introduction of ‘no vote’ system in the ballot for the first time in the country’s history. Defaulting on bank loans and rescheduling those six months before filing of nomination papers would continue to remain as disqualification as in the past. However, housing and agriculture loans have been exempted from this category.

HC strikes down Contempt of Courts Ordinance: Caretaker govt cannot make ordinance unless related to polls

July 25, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, July 25, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The High Court on Thursday declared illegal and cancelled the Contempt of Courts Ordinance 2008, observing the caretaker government had no authority to promulgate any ordinance making provisions not directly related to elections or indispensable for running routine government work.
   

The High Court bench of Justice ABM Khairul Haque and Justice M Abu Tariq delivered the verdict after hearing a writ petition filed by Supreme Court lawyers M Shamsul Haque and Tajul Islam and a rule issued suo moto by the court asking the government to explain the constitutionality of the ordinance.
   

With this, the High Court has so far declared illegal and void two ordinances, out of the total 84, promulgated by the president since January 12, 2007 when the military-controlled interim government assumed office after the declaration of the state of emergency the previous day.
   

The same bench on July 13 cancelled the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Ordinance 2008.
   

‘The caretaker government could promulgate no ordinance making provisions not directly related to elections… The president and the caretaker government do not represent the people… The shorter the tenure of such an undemocratic government, the better it is for all,’ the bench observed in the July 13 verdict.
   

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, however, on July 20 stayed for a month the July 13 verdict and ordered the government to file a regular appeal against the verdict in a month.
 The Appellate Division chamber judge, Justice MA Matin, passed the order after hearing a petition filed by the government on July 16 seeking a halt of the High Court verdict.
   

The government will also appeal against the Thursday verdict, deputy attorney general Idris Khan told reporters after the verdict.
   He also obtained a certificate from the court which said the case had involved a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the constitution, allowing the government to appeal against the judgement. It means the government will not need the Appellate Division permission to file the appeal.
   

The court had also issued a similar certificate in the July 13 verdict.
 The government promulgated the Contempt of Courts Ordinance 2008 on May 25 repealing the Contempt of Courts Act 1926.
   

The High Court bench of Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain and Justice Farid Ahmed on June 8 issued a rule asking the government to explain the constitutionality of the ordinance after hearing a public interest litigation writ petition filed by M Shamsul Haque and Tajul Islam.
   

The High Court bench of Justice ABM Khairul Haque and Justice M Abu Tariq also issued a rule suo moto on July 6 asking the government why the ordinance would not be declared illegal and void.
   

The court delivered the verdict after hearing arguments on both the rules.
   

In the verdict, the court once again said the president had no authority to promulgate ordinances which are not related to elections and are not urgent during the tenure of the caretaker government.
   

Observing that the promulgation of the new Contempt of Courts Ordinance was a policy decision of the government, the court said the caretaker government had no power to make any policy decision as Article 58(D) of the constitution stipulates, ‘…except in the case of necessity for the discharge of such [routine] functions it [caretaker government] shall not make any policy decision.’
   

The government failed to prove that the promulgation of the ordinance was related to holding free and fair national elections or an utmost necessity for the discharge of its routine functions, the court observed.
   

The bench further observed the ordinance had run counter to the fundamental spirit of the constitution, curbed the freedom of the judiciary and belittled the Supreme Court.
 As for provisions in the ordinance which gave the president the power to waive punishment for contempt of courts and exempt public servants from personal appearance during proceedings in such cases and from liability of trial after their retirement, the court observed the provisions had given special benefits to public servants and thus had violated the right to get equal protection of law as guaranteed by the constitution.
   

Terming the ordinance an attempt to hamper the inherent power of the judiciary, the court said it had jeopardised the rule of law.
   

Writ petitioners’ counsel Abdur Razzaq moved the petition and the attorney general, Salahuddin Ahmed, appeared for the government.
   Senior lawyers Rafique-ul Huq, M Amirul Islam, former attorney general Mahmudul Islam, Shahdeen Malik, AHM Shamsuddin Chowdhury and Azamalul Hossain argued in the case as amici curiae.

Truth and Accountability Commission to be formed within 10 days

July 24, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, July 24, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The interim government is going to form the ‘controversial’ Truth and Accountability Commission to let people voluntarily admit their corruption, submit their ill-gotten wealth to the exchequer and seek mercy within ten days.
   

‘The commission will be formed within seven to 10 days…It will begin functioning immediately after its birth,’ law adviser AF Hassan Ariff told reporters at the secretariat on Wednesday.
   

A retired judge of the High Court Division, Justice Habibur Rahman Khan, may be appointed chairman of the commission, said sources.
   

The law adviser, however, refused to give details of the persons to be included in the commission.
   

On May 25 the council of advisers at a meeting approved the proposal for setting up a body called ‘Truth and Accountability Commission’ under the Voluntary Disclosure Ordinance 2008 to deal with corruption.
   

Politicians have termed the move a ‘travesty of justice’, saying it proves that the government has bowed its head to high-profile corruption suspects. But the government defends the decision and says that it wants to eradicate corruption.
   

Besides launching the anti-graft drive, targeting mainly the politicians, the government has been considering formation of the commission, hoping that many people with ill-gotten wealth will confess to their crimes to take the advantage of the provision that they will not be punished.
   

According to the ordinance, the commission will exist for only five months but the proceedings it initiates during its tenure will continue until disposal of the cases, said one of the framers of the ordinance.
   

The proposed commission will be composed of a chairman, preferably a retired judge of the Supreme Court, and the two other members will be selected from persons not below the status of a retired major general of the armed forces or a retired secretary to the government, or someone who is widely acknowledged to be an eminent citizen.
   

Persons willing to voluntarily disclose their ill-gotten wealth will be exempted from prosecution and imprisonment, subject to surrendering the property or the corresponding amount of money to the state exchequer, according to the proposed law.
   

The person must apply to the commission for mercy in a prescribed form, giving details of his/her moveable and immovable properties and other information.
   

A person already charged with corruption, or convicted in a case, will not enjoy the benefit of the provision, according to the draft.
   The commission will have the authority to summon any persons believed or found to be involved in corruption on the basis of such disclosures. It will also have the authority to confiscate their ill-gotten wealth.
   

The commission will not generally sentence anyone after disclosure of his/her corruption to any prison term. But violation of the commission’s directives will constitute an offence punishable with imprisonment for a maximum period of five years.
   

Persons disclosing their corruption will be debarred from national or local elections, holding any public office or executive positions in any collective bargaining agencies, associations or banks or financial institutions for five years.
   

The ordinance makes a provision for giving information about others involved in corruption, and the commission can launch an investigation on the basis of the information.
   

The government launched a crackdown on serious crimes and corruption in February 2007 and detained more than 200 high-profile suspects, mostly politicians from the two major parties — the Awami and League Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

HC asks govt to explain legality of emergency

July 21, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, July 21, 2008

The High Court on Sunday issued a rule on the military-controlled interim government to explain in four weeks the legality of the state of emergency, declared on January 11, 2007.
   

The High Court bench of Justice Khademul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Mashuq Hossain Ahmed ordered the government to explain why the proclamation of the state of emergency, two emergency powers orders suspending fundamental rights, Emergency Powers Ordinance and the Emergency Powers Rules would not be declared ultra vires of the constitution.
   

The government will also need to detail in affidavit in four weeks when the national elections would be held and how it would hand over power to the elected representatives.
   

Issuing the directive on the government, the court also observed the government’s plan for power handover must be transparent.
   

The court passed the orders after hearing in four working days a public interest litigation writ petition filed by Supreme Court lawyers M Saleem Ullah, Mohsen Rashid, Nahid Sultana Juthi and Abdul Mannan Khan on July 14.
   

The petitioners’ counsel, Ruhul Quddus Babu, told reporters, ‘The court issued the rule being satisfied at the grounds mentioned in the petition.’
   

Deputy attorney general Naima Haider, who appeared for the government, told reporters, ‘The court asked the government to detail its plan on when the national elections would be held and how power would be handed over to the elected government… The court will also examine the legality of the state of emergency.’
   

The president proclaimed the state of emergency on January 11, 2007, stalling the elections to the ninth Jatiya Sangsad scheduled for January 22, 2007 and the present interim government came to power with military backing on January 12, 2007.
   

During Sunday’s hearing, the court asked the petitioners’ chief counsel MI Farooqui to explain the constitutional provisions on the declaration of emergency.
  The constitution empowers the president to issue a proclamation of emergency, but the power is not absolute, but conditional, Farooqui replied. ‘In order to declare emergency, the president must be objectively satisfied that “a grave emergency exists in which the security or economic life of Bangladesh is threatened by war or external aggression or internal disturbance”.’
   ‘But, in the proclamation, issued on January 11, 2007 declaring the emergency, no reasons were cited establishing the “objective satisfaction” of the president for the declaration of the emergency,’ the counsel said.
   

Opposing the petition, Naima argued the president had declared the emergency in accordance with the constitution.
   Referring to the arguments of the petitioners’ counsel, the court asked the state attorney whether the emergency powers orders issued on January 11, 2007 had specified any specific fundamental rights to be suspended.
   

As Naima answered in the negative, the court said, ‘You cannot, according to the constitution, suspend all the fundamental rights… There are some rights which cannot be suspended under any circumstances.’
   

The court further said, ‘The suspension of fundamental rights without specifying them has made it difficult to examine whether you [government] have the power to make the ordinances you are making… The Supreme Court has the power to examine that.’
   

Naima also argued the emergency had been declared in the wake of a political turmoil and there had been a a situation in the days which warranted a state of emergency.
   

Opposing her contention, Farooqui argued there were democratic, political movements to uphold the people’s rights to vote. ‘A democratic, political movement cannot be considered an internal disturbance to invoke an emergency.’
   

Naima questioned the delay in filing the writ petition, saying, ‘It is too late… We have already headed towards elections and carried out a number of reforms.’
   

Elections to four city corporations and nine municipalities will be held on August 4 and the national polls in December, Naima contended. ‘Now one should not file such a petition which might hamper the process of the elections and reforms.’
  

The court said, ‘But the emergency continue for an indefinite period. There must be an end to it.’
   

Naima said, ‘The proclamation of emergency along with the orders, ordinance and the rules will be placed before the next parliament in accordance with the constitution.’
   

‘But the spirit of the constitution does not allow an emergency for indefinite period,’ the court said. The government’s plan to hold the national elections, the deadline for the elections and the process and timeframe for power handover to the elected government must be transparent to the people, the court said. ‘We want rule of law to be established and the constitution and democracy to be sustained.’

Jamaat’s farce unravels

July 21, 2008

Rahnuma Ahmed*, NewAge, July 21, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation. The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat’s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat’s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth. 

Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

The Duchess, in Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

IT WAS to be a convention of freedom fighters, his neighbour had told him. They had both fought against the genocidal onslaught unleashed by the Pakistan army in 1971.

On Friday, a weekly holiday morning, veteran freedom fighter Sheikh Mohammad Ali Aman had gone to the Diploma Engineers Institute in Dhaka. He had peeked into the auditorium. He had expected to see familiar faces, to hear cherished stories of loss and courage. Of a victory achieved, of justice denied. Of betrayals. Of trying the collaborators – the local accomplices of Pakistan army’s genocidal campaign – to right the wrongs, at least some. There were collaborators thought to be guilty of committing war crimes, but they had gone scot-free. Their political rehabilitation and brazenness in the last three and a half decades was like a wound that festers. Yet another brazen act, yet another shameless lie brings the pus to the surface. It keeps oozing out. Again, and again.

He was puzzled at the faces that he saw. None of the Sector Commanders were present. No familiar faces, faces that symbolise for him the spirit of the struggle, the spirit of the nine-month long people’s war. Mohammad Ali is a man of modest means, he earns a living by painting houses and buildings in Badda, Dhaka. Unable to recognise any of the imposing figures present inside the auditorium – ex-chief justice Syed JR Mudassir Hossain who was chief guest, energy adviser to the previous government Mahmudur Rahman, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Rifles Major General (retd) Fazlur Rahman, Wing Commander (retd) Hamidullah Khan, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Press Institute Rezwan Siddiqui, who was the special guest, New Nation editor Mostofa Kamal Mojumdar, general secretary of the Federal Union of Journalists Ruhul Amin Gazi, journalist Amanullah Kabir – he felt alarmed. And left. One can hardly blame him.

`So I went and sat on the lawn,’ Mohammad Ali said in an interview given later. ‘I saw some people come out, I heard them say, we don’t want to be part of a meeting that demands the trial of Sector Commanders. An ETV reporter came up to me and asked, are you a freedom fighter? Yes, I replied. I belonged to Sector 11, First Bengal Regiment, D Company, led by Colonel Taher. What about the trial of war criminals, what do you think? I said, I think that those who had opposed the birth of the nation, those who had committed rape, razed localities to the ground, murdered intellectuals, they are war criminals. They should be tried. Those who were chairman and members of the Peace Committees, they belong to Jamaat, and to the present Progressive Democratic Party. They should be tried, they should be hung. I think this is something that can be done only by the present government, a non-party government’ (Samakal, July 13).

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her…

They swooped down on Mohammad Ali. He was kicked and locked in a room for three hours. Before his release, his voter ID card was photocopied. ‘I do not wish to say what they did to me. It will bring dishonour to the freedom fighters,’ was all he said of his ordeal. ETV reporter Sajed Romel, also made captive, was released an hour later, after his colleagues rushed to his rescue. The camera crew, fortunately, had escaped earlier, with its recorded film intact.

Engineer Abdur Rob, a vice-president of Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad – the organisers of this farce – was asked why a veteran freedom fighter and an electronic media journalist had been locked up. He replied, ‘Impossible. Such a thing could not have happened.’ Prothom Alo’s reporter was persistent, it was filmed. We have it. ‘Well then,’ came the immediate reply, ‘it was an act of sabotage. Our people could never have done such a thing.’

New lies, emergency lies

Soon enough, press releases were handed out by Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad detailing the sabotage story: Prothom Alo, Samakal, Jugantor, Inquilab, and Daily Star were guilty of spreading lies. Some persons had come to the national convention without any delegate cards, they had tried to barge in, JMP volunteers had wanted to see their invitation cards, their responses had been unsatisfactory. Instead of covering the main event, the ETV news crew had shot something else, it was staged by hired people and instigated by yellow journalists. These acts, deliberate and pre-planned, were aimed at wrecking the convention. They had failed. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad is an authentic organisation of freedom fighters. It is not affiliated to any political party. The liberation struggle is above party affiliation. Journalists are demeaning the honour of freedom fighters by propagating lies. They are creating disunity.

A later press release added more details: no one by the name of Mohammad Ali had been invited to the national convention of Freedom Fighters. The ETV’s interest in interviewing him proves that it was staged, it was a conspiracy aimed at foiling the convention. Politicians are attempting to capitalise on the incident. The JMP calls on all freedom fighters to stay united (Naya Diganta, 13, 15 July).

Newspaper reports, however, provide concrete details. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad was formed on January 26 this year. After the Sector Commanders Forum had demanded the trial of war criminals. The JMP’s office is located in a room rented out by an organisation headed by ATM Sirajul Huq, ex-amir, Paltan thana, Jamaat. It is not registered with the liberation war ministry. This, according to legal experts, makes it illegal. Three high-ranking members of the Parishad claim that they had fought in 1971. These claims are false. Muktijoddha commanders of the respective areas do not know them. Executive committee members of the Parishad include men who contested parliamentary elections on behalf of Jamaat-e-Islami. Vice-president Engineer Abdur Rob had admitted to journalists, yes, the Parishad did receive ‘donations’ from Jamaat-e-Islami.

The story about Jamaat’s role in the liberation struggle, the liberation struggle itself, whether it was genocidal or not, whether war crimes should be tried or not, who was on which side, is an evolving one. What interests me particularly is how Emergency rule, and its raison d’etre of removing corruption and corrupt political practices for good, has impacted on Jamaat’s story. On its warped sense of history. Last October, as Jamaat’s secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid was leaving the Election Commission after talks on electoral reforms, he was asked about the growing demand for declaring anti-liberation forces, and war criminals, disqualified from contesting in the national elections. He had replied, the charges against Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh are ‘false’, and ‘ill-motivated’. There are no war criminals in the country. He had added, ‘In fact, anti-liberation forces never even existed.’ A day later, in an ETV talk show (26.10.2007) Jamaat-sympathiser and former Islami Bank chairman Shah Abdul Hannan had said, there was no genocide in 1971. Only a civil war.

And now this. A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation.

The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat’s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat’s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth.

Old truths

Historical research which includes newspaper reports, speeches and statements made by those accused of war crimes, attests to the fact that Mujahid, as president of East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Sangha, and as chief of the Al-Badr Bahini, collaborated with the Pakistan army in conducting massacres, looting and rape. Also, that he had led the killings of renowned academics, writers and poets, doctors, engineers, and journalists, which occurred two days before victory was declared on December 16. Senior Jamaat leaders Abdus Sobhan, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Abdul Kader Molla and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, who accompanied Jamaat’s secretary general to the Election Commission for talks on electoral reforms last October, are also alleged to have committed war crimes. According to the People’s Enquiry Commission formed in 1993, Jamaat’s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami, as commander-in-chief of Al-Badr, is also guilty of having committed war crimes.

Who needs Jamaat?

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had accepted Jamaat as an ally during the anti-Ershad movement. After the national elections of 1990, Jamaat support had ensured the BNP its majority in the fifth parliament. The Awami League, which claims to have led the liberation struggle, joined forces with Jamaat to help oppose and oust the sixth parliament. In the seventh parliament, the Awami League inducted at least one identified war collaborator in the cabinet. And, in the eighth parliament, the BNP paid the ultimate tribute by forming government with Jamaat as a coalition partner.

But what about now? That this government, the Fakhruddin-led, military-controlled government, is giving Jamaat-e-Islami a kid gloves treatment has not escaped unnoticed. Jamaat’s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami was one of the last top-ranking leaders to be arrested. He was also one of the earliest to be released, that too, on bail. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of party supporters were allowed to gather on the road to cheer his release last week, while the banner of Amra Muktijuddher Shontan activists, who had formed a human chain the next day, to protest against the assault on Muhammad Ali, was seized by the police. The Bangla blogging platform Sachalayatan could no longer be accessed after a strongly worded article on the assault of Muhammad Ali was posted. Was it a coincidence? Or, are the two incidents related? When asked, ABM Habibur Rahman, head of BTCAL internet division, refused to comment. One of the founders, who lives in Malaysia, has confirmed that the blog can be accessed from all other parts of the world.

As the US expands its war on terror, its venomous civilisational crusade of establishing democracies in the Middle East, one notices how Bangladesh has gradually been re-fashioned as a ‘moderately’ Muslim country, in an area considered to be ‘vital to US interests’. Jamaat-e-Islami, in the words of Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a ‘democratic party’. James F Moriarty, US ambassador to Bangladesh, in his congressional testimony (February 6, 2008), said US interest in Bangladesh revolved around the latter denying space to ‘terrorism’ (mind you, Islamic, not US, not state-sponsored).

Moriarty’s ideas echo Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami’s. In an interview given last year, Nizami said, Jamaat was important to keep Bangladesh free of militancy and terrorism (Probe, June 27-July 3, 2007). Interesting words coming from a person who had, three years earlier, as amir of the then ruling coalition partner and industries minister, denied the existence of militancy in Bangladesh. Bangla Bhai was the ‘creation of newspapers’, it was ‘Awami League propaganda’.

The US and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh fashioning a new partnership on war on terror? chorer shakkhi matal, many Bengalis would say. The drunkard provides testimony for the thief.

*Rahnuma Ahmed is an Anthropologist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact: rahnuma@drik.net

With subjects like these, the emperor needs no gunboats

July 19, 2008

NewAge, 18, 2008

Does the exercise of dwelling so long and hard on Moriarty’s Tuesday tea party risk becoming a storm in a teacup? Not quite, especially since we are currently living through a high noon of one of the most ambitious Anglo-American projects in Bangladesh’s history, writes Mahtab Haider*

 NOT to put too fine a point on it, US foreign policy, especially since its emergence as a military superpower, has rarely relied on sophisticated coercion — better known as diplomacy — to drive its security and trade interests home to foreign governments.
   

From the good old days of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ to ‘big stick diplomacy’ and eventually ‘dollar diplomacy’, the US has mostly preferred to exercise its hegemonic privilege of telling foreign governments what it wants in the crudest possible terms, acting ‘multilaterally when it can, and unilaterally when it must’, as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright once said. Given, then, that it has been a series of diplomatic tea parties which seem to have adequately served US interests in Bangladesh over the past three years, and that neither gunboats, nor big sticks, nor even dollars were needed (US aid to Bangladesh declined by 90 per cent between 2001 and 2006) perhaps says more about our politics than it does about their diplomacy.
   

The latest in the series of tea parties that have evidently determined the course of Bangladesh’s democratic future took place on Tuesday evening, with some of the top leaders from the country’s major political parties seeming to fall over each other to attend. Newly appointed US ambassador James Moriarty had reportedly invited this cross section of politicians to his residence for tea, to hear their views on the current state of emergency, the promised national elections in December, and the local government polls scheduled for the intervening period. As the politicians who attended found out, carrying as they were pocketfuls of grievances against each other as well as against the military-controlled interim government, the top US diplomat in Dhaka was less keen to hear their views than offer some of his own.
  

So it was that when the politicians from all the major parties expressed a unanimous view that the state of emergency must be lifted before the national elections, the US ambassador appeared to agree, and yet disagreed, saying many ordinary Bangladeshis feared that the government would lose control of law and order if the emergency was lifted. It is a precious irony that the US ambassador assumed to voice the fears of ordinary Bangladeshis while advising our public representatives, many of whom have been elected to the national parliament multiple times, on how the country should be governed. And once again, when the politicians emphasised the need for national elections in the shortest possible time, according to the Bangla daily Prothom Alo, the US ambassador reportedly told them that it had taken his country 100 years to establish democracy, so they best not expect everything to happen so fast. And then, some of our oafish politicians, seeking to explain their urgency to see democracy restored ‘so fast’, reportedly told the US ambassador that in the age of ‘information technology’ things that took 100 years to happen in the past can now happen in less than a decade. Never mind representative governance, if the microchip weren’t invented, these worthless and silly politicians would have been happy to wait a century before an unelected military-backed regime relinquished power.
   

Does the exercise of dwelling so long and hard on Moriarty’s Tuesday tea party risk becoming a storm in a teacup? Not quite, especially since we are currently living through a high noon of one of the most ambitious Anglo-American ambassadorial projects in Bangladesh’s history. In the past 18 months since the military-controlled interim government assumed power, the European, British and US embassies and visiting dignitaries from their governments, have literally strutted and gloated over their collective role in bringing this regime to the helm. Neither former US ambassador Patricia Butenis nor her British counterpart Anwar Chowdhury ever took great pains to deny their instrumental role in seeing the January 22 elections suspended and a state of emergency declared by the president presumably at the behest of a band of army-backed technocrats. It is a telling fact that in 2007, US aid to Bangladesh surged to almost 200 per cent of its highest levels since 2001.
   

In the past 18 months, even while the use of torture and illegal detentions, not to mention encounter killings by a spectrum of security agencies, have increased, eliciting criticism from international human rights groups, these embassies have been uncharacteristically quiet. And why wouldn’t they be? Earlier this month, largely at the behest of the US and UK governments, the incumbents approved an anti-terrorism ordinance that now provides sweeping and draconian powers to the state security agencies in tackling ‘terrorism’ on the basis of ‘allegations’ and ‘suspicions’. ‘The Bangladesh government has been under pressure by its international supporters to adopt counterterror legislation. [We] urged the United Kingdom and United States and others not to push Bangladesh into adopting laws that violate basic rights or to adopt them without adequate public consultation,’ said a recent press release by the US-based Human Rights Watch.
  

Over the past decade, European and US diplomats stationed in Dhaka have become increasingly vocal and hands-on regarding the way successive governments have handled state affairs. The level of interference has gone from the traditional set of soft backroom tactics to more blatant public announcements at press conferences and dinners. So brazen is this new brand of diplomacy that only a day after Moriarty’s tea party elicited a rising crescendo of criticism from eminent citizens, mostly lambasting the politicians for allowing an ambassador to interfere in the country’s internal affairs, neither Moriarty nor most of the politicians hesitated in getting together for a Wednesday dinner, apparently for the diplomat to get an even more nuanced understanding of the current political scenario. It seems there might yet be a tea-party trilogy, with the US ambassador scheduled to return to the US on a short visit very soon and likely to return with a specific set of instructions on how Bangladesh will achieve its restoration of democracy, maybe by the turn of the century.
   

But perhaps I am too happily shooting the messenger. At the heart of this undiplomatic free-for-all that Bangladesh is experiencing is the subservient nature of our own public representatives. As one civil-society leader has rightly pointed out, our politicians seem to not know that it is the Bangladeshi people who elect them to public office, look, as they do continuously, for backdoor entrances into the corridors of power. How long have we, the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh, hoped that the two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, would sit down in civil terms and sort out their major differences ahead of an election? There is little that separates the two parties on ideological terrain, so their differences are mostly technicalities. And yet, when it is the British or the US ambassador who invites them for tea or dinner, their zeal to be seated together and discuss their differences seems to know no end. Is it the US state department’s fault that it neither needs gunboats nor dollars to see its interests served in Bangladesh, by a subservient cabal of its ‘subjects’? What a tragic present for a people with a glorious past of asserting self-rule and resisting the economic and political machinations of empire through the ages.
   

Needless to say, the actions and advice offered by the diplomats in question are far aground of the international norms defined by the Geneva Convention. How would the US president George W Bush appreciate it if a Bangladeshi ambassador visited the Oval Office to offer advice on a viable but much needed exit strategy in Iraq? Perhaps thinking themselves as legitimate players in the crude power politics that Bangladesh has witnessed in the past 18 years, these diplomats have abandoned the ‘diplomatic custom’ of keeping their views on the country’s internal affairs private. And what better co-hosts for this prolonged tea party than an unelected regime which too assumes to speak for the people without a legitimate claim to popular favour, and tea-party guests who will so readily insult and squander the popular favour the people bestowed on them?
   

Contact: mahtabhaider@gmail.com

Attorney general’s resignation hugely significant

July 19, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, July 18, 2008

FIDA M Kamal’s resignation as the attorney general on Wednesday, while not a surprise given his reportedly difficult relationship with the government, is nevertheless hugely significant. Although he initially cited ‘personal grounds’ for his resignation, he later made it clear that he felt that his continuation in the role was putting his honour and dignity at stake. In our country, where public officials typically forfeit their dignity and stoop to unspeakable lows in order to get to, or stay in, positions of power and authority, this is indeed a rare example of a high-ranking public official resigning in order to preserve his honour and dignity. Fida Kamal, therefore, deserves credit for his courageous decision.
   

More importantly, however, the resignation and the apparent grounds behind it highlight once again the seemingly dubious role the interim government has played with regard to the law and the judiciary. The introduction of the Emergency Powers Rules by this regime has made normally bailable offences unbailable, thereby taking the power away from the judiciary to even hear bail petitions. The government has also prosecuted many arrested on charges of corruption by submitting as evidence testimony allegedly extracted through the use of torture, which would normally make such testimony inadmissible. Yet, the special courts made up by the government to hear corruption cases have neither taken these allegations seriously nor tried to ensure that evidence produced before it are indeed admissible. Moreover, when a bench of the High Court appeared to defy the government by giving important judgements that, in our view, upheld constitutionalism, the bench itself was reassigned by the immediate-past chief justice. We have said this on several occasions in the past that our judges and lawyers would do well to follow the example set by their counterparts in Pakistan by staying true to their profession and upholding their integrity instead of giving in to government pressure. However, we have not seen much evidence of that here.
   

Presumably, Fida Kamal found this regime’s seeming indifference towards the constitution and laws and its apparent lack of regard for the judiciary incompatible with his intellectual honesty and professional integrity. That is probably why he refused to appear in person in several high-profile cases and why he ultimately felt that his continued association with this regime was putting his dignity at stake. If so, he was absolutely right in resigning from his position as attorney general and we commend him for having the courage to do what is right. At the same time, we urge the regime once again to follow due process and show a commitment to the rule of law instead of perceivably trying to manipulate the law and the judiciary to further its own agenda.