Archive for October, 2008

Lalon and Terror: Re-configuring the nation’s political map during emergency

October 29, 2008

NewAge, October 29, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact, Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats, writes Rahnuma Ahmed*

Drifting in cage and out again
   

Hark unknown bird does fly
   

Shackles of my heart
  

If my arms could entwine
   

With them I would thee bind
   

Fakir Lalon Shah, Khachar bhitor ochin pakhi
   Translation by Shahidul Alam
   
   

Baul sculpture and the nation’s most powerful man
   

‘NO DECISION is taken without the army chief’s consent, that’s why we informed him,’ said Maulana Noor Hossain Noorani, amir of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh and imam of the Fayedabad mosque, at a press conference. ‘He didn’t like the idea of setting up an idol either, right in front of the airport, so close to the Hajji camp. It was removed at his initiative’ (Prothom Alo, October 17).
   

The ‘it’ in question was a piece of sculpture, of five baul mystics and singers. Titled Unknown Bird in a Cage, it was being created in front of Zia International Airport, Dhaka. Madrassah students and masjid imams of adjoining areas were mobilised, the Bimanbondor Golchottor Murti Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Idols at Airport Roundabout) was formed. A 24-hour ultimatum was given. The art work, nearly seventy per cent complete, was removed by employees of the Roads and Highways Department and the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.
   

Artists, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers, teachers, students, and many others have since continuously protested against the removal of the sculpture, both in Dhaka, and other cities and towns of Bangladesh. They have demanded its restoration, have re-named the roundabout Lalon Chottor, and accused the military-backed caretaker government of capitulating, yet again, to the demands of Islamic extremists, and forces opposing the 1971 war of liberation.
   

Soon after its removal, Fazlul Haq Amini, chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote and amir of Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee said at a press conference, if an Islamic government comes to power, all statues built by Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001) will be demolished, since statues are ‘dangerously anti-Islamic’. Eternal flames, Shikha Chironton (Liberation War Museum), and Shikha Anirban (Dhaka Cantonment) will be extinguished. ‘Paying respect to fire is the same as worshipping fire.’ What about statues built during Khaleda Zia-led four-party alliance government (of which he had been a part)? ‘Where, which ones?’ Rajshahi University campus was the prompt reply. ‘Why didn’t you raise these questions when you were in power?’ ‘We did, personally, but they didn’t listen. We were used as stepping stones.’ Amini also demanded that the National Women Development Policy 2008, shelved this year after protests by a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties, should be scrapped (Prothom Alo, October 18).
   

Noorani and his followers demand that a hajj minar should be built instead, and the road should be re-named Hajj road. ‘Men from the administration and the intelligence agencies,’ he said at the press conference, ‘wore off their shoes, they kept coming to us.’ (Prothom Alo, October 17). Now where had I read of close contacts between Khatme Nabuwat and the intelligence agencies?
   

I remembered. A Human Rights Watch report, Bangladesh: Breach of Faith (2005), had stated that Khatme Nabuwat had close links to the ruling BNP through the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ, its coalition partners. I remembered other things too. It was the same Noor Hossain Noorani who had said Tarique Rahman, senior secretary general of the BNP, was their ‘amir and same-aged friend,’ and had threatened police officials saying Tarique would directly intervene if Khatme Nabuwat’s anti-Ahmadiyya campaign was obstructed. According to reports, high-up intelligence agency officials (DGFI, NSI) had mediated contacts between the ruling party and Khatme Nabuwat. He had met the DGFI chief in Dhaka cantonment thrice, Noorani had thus boasted to Satkhira reporters in 2005, a statement never publicly refuted by the intelligence agency (Tasneem Khalil, The Prince of Bogra, Forum, April 2007, issue withdrawn, article available on the internet).


What links does the present military-backed caretaker government, and more so, its intelligence agencies, have with these extremist groups? I cannot help but wonder. Is there more to what’s happening than meets the eye?
   

Other questions pop into my head. The baul sculpture was not advertised, as public art should be. No open competition, no short-listing, no selection panel. On the contrary, the contract seems to have been awarded as a personal dispensation. The only condition seems to have been that the sculptor must get hold of a sponsor. High regard for public art, for baul tradition, listed by the UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and for procedural matters. Particularly by a government whose raison d’etre is establishing the rule of law and rooting out corruption.
   
   

Simplifying the present: from ‘1971’ to the ‘Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh
   

British historian Eric Hobsbawm terms what he calls the ‘short twentieth century’, The Age of Extremes (1994). I can’t help but think, things seem to be getting more extreme in the twenty-first century.
   In his most recent book, On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy (2008), Hobsbawm traces the rise of American hegemony, the steadily increasing world disorder in the context of rapidly growing inequalities created by rampant free-market globalisation, the American government’s use of the threat of terrorism as an excuse for unilateral deployment of its global power, the launching of wars of aggression when it sees fit, and its absolute disregard of formerly accepted international conventions.
   

The US government’s role in not only contributing to the situation, but in constituting the conditions that have given rise to extremes, of being the extreme, is disregarded by many Bangladesh scholars, whether at home or abroad. Most of these writings are atrociously naïve, exhibiting a theoretical incapacity to deal with questions of global inequalities in power. Authors repeatedly portray American power – in whichever manifestation, whether economic or cultural, military or ideological – as being benign. Two images of Bangladesh are juxtaposed against each other, a secular Bangladesh of the early 1970s, the fruit of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle of 1971, and a Talibanised Bangladesh of recent years. ‘National particularities’ and ‘the dynamics of domestic policies’ are emphasised (undoubtedly important), but inevitably at the cost of leaving the policies of US empire-building efforts un-examined.
   

One instance is Maneeza Hossain, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who, in her 60-page study of the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh politics, tucks in a hurried mention of the US’ supply of weaponry to Afghan jihadists, and moves on to call on the US to shake off its ‘indifference’ to Bangladesh, to use its ‘good offices’ to help democratic forces within Bangladesh prevail (Broken Pendulum: Bangladesh’s Swing to Radicalism, 2007).
   

Ali Riaz, who teaches at Illinois State University, author of God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (2004), provides another instance. International reasons for the rise of militancy are the Afghan war, internationalisation of resistance to Soviet occupation, policies of so-called charitable organisations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and (last, it would also seem, the least) ‘American foreign policy’. A token mention showing utter disregard towards 1,273,378 Iraqi deaths, caused by the invasion and occupation. 1971 was genocidal, but so is the Iraq invasion. On a much larger scale. Unconcerned, he goes on, policy circles in the US are ‘apprehensive’ about militancy in Bangladesh. Even now. The solution? He advocates open debates, particularly between the intelligence agencies and the political parties (Prothom Alo, February 3).
   

And then one comes across Farooq Sobhan who claims that president Bush has ‘taken pains’ to convince Muslims that the war against terror is not a war against Islam or a clash of civilisations (no, it’s a crime against humanity). Rather petulantly, he asks, why has Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, not figured prominently on the US ‘list of countries to be wooed and cultivated.’ Further, he writes, ‘High on the US agenda has been the issue of Bangladesh sending troops to Iraq.’ Sending ‘troops’, like crates of banana, or tea? Surely, there are substantive issues – of death and destruction of Iraqis and Iraq, of war crimes – involved.
   
   

Re-configuring politics during emergency
   

Creating a level playing field so that free and fair national elections could be held, that’s what the military-backed caretaker government had promised. Twenty-two months later, after failed attempts at minusing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, with their respective parties in shambles, thousands of party workers in prison, constitutional rights suspended due to the state of emergency, economy in tatters, police crackdowns on protests of garments workers, jute mill workers, women’s organisations and activists, on human chains against increasing prices of essentials, the only two forces to have remained unscathed are the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Muslim clerics, Islamic parties and madrassah students, those who protested against the Women Development Policy, agitated for the removal of baul sculptures, recently caused havoc in the Dhaka University vice-chancellor’s office protesting against newly-enforced admission requirements. Are these accidental, or deliberate governmental moves? I cannot help but wonder.
   

Several western diplomats – members of the infamous Tuesday Club, particularly ambassadors from United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the EU representative – and also the UN resident coordinator actively intervened in Bangladesh politics prior to January 11, 2007, in events that led to the emergence of the present military-backed caretaker government. Renata Dessalien did so to unheard degrees, leading to recent demands that the UN resident coordinator be withdrawn.
   

In a week or so, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, arrives in Dhaka, to see for himself electoral preparations, and extend support for the government. A visit that has nothing to do with politics, we are told. In the eyes of many observers, Ban is one of the most pro-American secretaries general in its 62-year history. He has opposed calls for a swift US withdrawal from Iraq, and is committed to a beefed-up UN presence in Baghdad. The UN staff committee has protested against Ban’s decision saying it would ‘make the institution complicit in an intractable US-made crisis’ (Washington Post, September 24, 2007).
   

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact (‘democratic party’, Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state, 2006), Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats.
   

A beast in the guise of beauty? Time will tell.
   
   

On the flight path of American power
   

I borrow the title from British-Pakistani historian Tariq Ali’s coming event – ‘Pakistan/Afghanistan: on the Flight Path of American Power’ – to be held at Toronto, November 14.
   

Seven years after the US-led invasion, Pakistan, America’s strong military ally, is now ‘on the edge’ of ruin. Pakistani political analysts repeatedly warn Bangladeshis that they see similar political patterns at work here: minusing political leaders, militarisation, milbus, National Security Council, etc, etc. I do not think that an Obama win will make any difference to the American flight path for unilateral power. As astute political commentators point out, Obama and McCain differ on domestic policies, not substantively on US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, president Bush signed the highest defence budget since World War II.
   

Maybe there should be an open public debate in Bangladesh, as Ali Riaz proposes, but with a different agenda: Are we being set on America’s flight path to greater power by this unconstitutional, unrepresentative government, one which is more accountable to western forces, than to us?

Military dealing with case assignments in the Supreme Court and the systematic smothering of the judiciary

October 14, 2008

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

October 14, 2008 

The media reports alleging that it is in fact a military officer who decides the case lists in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh is a shocking revelation which sharply brings to light the militarised political context in the country. Barrister Rafique-ul Haque who is defending two former prime ministers of Bangladesh in graft cases revealed to the Bar and the media that an army major is occupying a room on the second floor of the Supreme Court Building and deciding which judge should decide what case in the country.

It has also been revealed that three senior lawyers, Barrister Rafique-ul Haque, Barrister Shafique Ahmed and Barrister M. Amir-Ul Islam have received letters from anonymous sources stating that they are national betrayers and threatening the lawyers and the members of the judiciary with cross fire, which in the local context means assassination.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and several other national and international civil society organisations have reported that the current administration in the country is trying to smother judicial independence in Bangladesh by all possible means. The incidents cited above are the latest in a series of revealing acts where the army has infiltrated the judiciary to an alarming level. The recent reconstitution of High Court judges at the behest of the army is yet another example of this increasing interference.

Interference of any nature, however minor it may be, with the administrative and adjudicating function of the judiciary is a major setback for any country. Bangladesh need not look anywhere else to find shocking examples of how bad such interference could be. Pakistan, Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka are immediate South Asian neighbours that have suffered severely from such interference with the function of their judiciaries. In Pakistan, however, the Bar was bold enough to challenge this interference when the independence of the judiciary and that of the lawyers was threatened by General Musharraf’s military regime.

The recent history of the administration of justice in these illustrates the fact that the judiciary is weak, subjected to executive control and sometimes even corrupt. The situation of Bangladesh in this regard is no different.

It is obvious that the judiciary in Bangladesh is fully aware of such interference by the executive and the military. In the context of the widespread fear psychosis in the country and the practice of impunity the judiciary may be unwilling to want to put up resistance against such interference. However, there is a widespread feeling among the lawyers and the people that executive and military interference must be resisted.

Threats received by lawyers and senior judges and even the recovery of explosives and explosions in the residences of sitting judges who challenge the current administration is proof that the current administration is bent upon silencing all opposing voices. Even the Bangladeshi media has fallen victim to this tragedy. Unfortunately some senior jurists within Bangladesh rally along with the administration, condemning anyone who opposes the current government and even directly and indirectly support the administration.

It appears that as of now the armed forces of Bangladesh is in absolute control of the government. The armed forces have literally transformed the administration into a puppet that dances to their tune.

So many of the important government posts are occupied by members of the armed forces that demilitarizing the country’s administration will take years. It is unfortunate that most of the country’s politicians are facing graft charges or have such tainted backgrounds that none of them dare to challenge this new status quo that is pulling the country into deeper corruption and nepotism. The support given by the World Bank and some other European countries to the military regime strengthens the militarization process in the country and makes the transformation into democracy and rule of law even more difficult.

The present situation can easily degenerate and the whole country may come under the grip of the military as has happened in countries such as Burma. It is the duty of all to prevent such a situation and it is particularly the duty of all civil society organisations and the international community to ensure that the militarization process should be brought to an end. In this context it is most important that the military presence in the Supreme Court office and other offices such as Sessions judges office, the Special Tribunal on Anti Corruption and the Judicial Magistrate’s Court should be brought to an end immediately.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Emergency not conducive to proper electoral atmosphere

October 13, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, October 13, 2008

The next general elections, slated for December 18, cannot be held under the state of emergency as such a situation is not conducive to a congenial voting atmosphere owing to curtailment of some fundamental rights of the people, said Odhikar on Sunday.
   

Despite repeated assurances by the military-controlled interim government, the human rights body felt that doubts still persist about the holding of elections since the state of emergency has lost its justification, legal and otherwise, and continues to pose a serious threat to basic human rights.
   

Odhikar demanded immediate lifting of emergency in its monitoring report on the state of human rights in the 21 months under the state of emergency.
   

‘The Parliament that will be elected through free and fair elections should not extend blanket immunity to this government,’ said Odhikar.
   

Reiterating its criticism of the current state of emergency, the human rights watchdog said that emergency has suspended basic human rights enshrined in the Constitution and has essentially encroached on the space that the people need to make choices through election.
   

‘Odhikar strongly believes that the state of emergency should be lifted in its entirety and in the whole territory of Bangladesh in order to create a climate conducive to free and fair elections,’ said the report.
   

‘Odhikar also maintains that human rights are indivisible and it is neither possible nor permissible to restore some rights while others are still being denied. Human rights should be upheld and respected under all circumstances. Therefore, attempts to hold a general election under the emergency cannot offer a congenial atmosphere for a credible polls and transition to an elected government,’ said the rights body.
   

Stressing the need for the formation of a government through electoral democracy, Odhikar said that a free, fair and participatory popular election was the only legitimate way to fulfil this goal.
   

‘Odhikar believes that only through a widely participatory, credible general election can the nation make a transition to representative governance from the current extra-constitutional administration,’ said the watchdog.
   

It demanded that nothing should be done by the government to jeopardise the holding of the general elections on the set date.
   

‘Odhikar feels it is time to think about the post-election situation too, and this gives rise to the question of the ratification by the next elected Parliament of the deeds of the present regime that, instead of acting as a caretaker government, exceeded its constitutional authority and acted as a regular government.’ said the human rights body.
   

It said that the question of ratification or legalisation of the activities of the government would arise soon after the election is held.
   

‘In this general election the electorate will vote for an elected government, but not necessarily to ratify or otherwise legitimise the actions and measures of the current government,’ Odhikar maintained.
   

The rights watchdog said that there has not been any improvement in the safeguarding of the people’s basic rights and the formation of the National Human Rights Commission would not make any difference to this end as it will be manned by persons chosen by the incumbents and will be political appointees and bureaucrats.
   

‘It is highly paradoxical that the government has proceeded to establish the National Human Rights Commission while keeping all basic rights suspended and denied!’ quipped Odhikar.
   

The report also stated that the Right to Information Ordinance, approved by the interim Cabinet, would not ensure the people’s right to know.

Against surveillance: more on the national ID card

October 13, 2008

Dy Shahidul Alam and Rahnuma Ahmed, NewAge, October 13, 2008

 Rahnuma Ahmed writes

My last column had ended with these words: ‘The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh’ (‘National ID Cards: In the Interest of Surveillance?’; New Age, September 29).
   

Little did I know when I wrote it that Bangladeshi bloggers had intensely debated the pros and cons of national ID cards four weeks earlier (see http://amarblog.com/ashique-hasan/6501#comments). The discussion in amarblog.com had been generated by Ashiq’s Amra O Pari post, eulogising the electronic registration of voters, a feat that was termed a ‘silent revolution’. Ashiq wrote, at first, no organisation had expressed its willingness to complete the task within the period stipulated by the government, not even foreign companies. Sky-high figures had been quoted. But fortunately, the Bangladesh army had submitted its own proposal to the government, just like any other organisation. Its budget was also the lowest.
   

A person who writes under the name of Incidental Blogger had raised these questions:
   The Bangladesh army’s budget was the lowest – what is your source of information? Do you know who were the second and third bidders? Do you know why the latter failed to secure the contract?
   Who was in charge of the selection process? Who were the committee members? Could you tell us how much freedom they had in reaching their decision, and your source of information? Was any internationally-recognised independent evaluator assigned?
   What were the criteria for selection?
   

Chor, another blogger, commented further down, the national ID card project is the task of the Election Commission. Of course, the EC can request the help of the army, this is not the problem. The problem is when public money is used to charge the public for services rendered.
   Incidental Blogger further wrote, the ID card issue is linked to the issue of individual freedom, privacy, etc, this is why western governments are finding it difficult to get their own electorates to agree. Not mincing words, he wrote, does the caretaker government in Bangladesh have the right to make a decision on something as fundamental as the national ID card, something that is a matter of state policy? Did it not happen very conveniently, almost too easily? Are you sure this information will not be shared with western intelligence agencies? He went on, you may look at it positively, but I look at it as the first step in Bangladesh turning into a fascist state. 
   

I read and re-read the blog. It is good to know that my fears are shared by others. 
   

While researching for my previous article, I had surfed the internet for information, and learnt that the voter roll project in Bangladesh was a ‘co-operative venture’ between BIO-Key in the US, TigerIT in Bangladesh (their ‘systems integrator on the ground’), and the Bangladesh army. 
   

I had asked Shahidul when he came home whether he knew of TigerIT Bangladesh. No, never heard of them, he said. Hmmm, I said, their webpage says, the cofounder and chairman is Ziaur Rahman, it lists a Joseph Fuisz, as the cofounder. And guess what, a Daily Star Weekend magazine article on Info-Tech says, `TigerIT Bangladesh Limited is an offshore technology campus of TigerIT, USA, with its corporate headquarters located in Northern Virginia’ (March 2, 2007), but this is not mentioned in their website. 
   

Shahidul became curious. Read what happened next, in his words.
   
   

Shahidul Alam writes
  

 I knew about Tigers. There were the Bengal Tigers, our cricket team, even Tiger Beer. TigerIT was new. Having initiated DrikTap, the pioneering email network in Bangladesh in the early nineties, I thought I knew about the IT scene in the country. So when Rahnuma told me about this ‘cutting edge’ Bangladeshi company, I asked around amongst IT savvy peers. No one had heard of TigerIT. A quick search of the ‘who is’ database revealed that the domain tigeritbd.com had only been registered on 21st August 2007. So when on the 1st May 2007, the chief election commissioner had said the ‘countdown of the 18-month timeframe starts from today,’ the domain http://www.tigeritbd.com did not even exist! 
   

A quick search on Joseph Fuisz, the cofounder of the company, revealed that he was based in Washington DC. Since I was scheduled to give a presentation at the National Geographic in DC, I dropped Mr Fuisz a line asking if I could interview him. The ‘out of office’ response was followed by a mail saying he was away on a family holiday in Miami. It just so turned out, that I was presenting at Miami University on 30th September. I suggested we meet in Miami and provided my itinerary. Upon arrival at Miami, I received the following mail, ‘Unfortunately, I have been tied up in meetings all day today. Thus, I am sorry that it does not appear I will get to see you in Miami.’ This was the man who was away on a family holiday for a week. I offered to meet papa Fuisz (Richard C Fuisz, MD), in Washington DC. I should have anticipated the response: ‘I am so sorry — your prior email did not come through (I just found it) and so I did not forward it to my Dad’s assistant. I think it is too late to schedule now. Please accept my apologies. I will email you some things about Tiger and hope to meet in you Bangladesh some day – very best, Joe Fuisz.’ 
   

I’ve had no further correspondence from Fuisz.
   
   

Rahnuma Ahmed writes
   

If you had met him, what would you have wanted to know, I ask Shahidul. His list of questions was ready: 


(1) What were the factors leading to a newly formed company, TigerIT BD, being able to obtain such a prestigious and lucrative contract? 
   

(2) What are the implications of having a biometric database for Bangladesh? Who might benefit from this data, nationally and internationally? 
   

(3) Does your company TigerIT (the parent company of TigerIT BD) have any previous experience of working in Bangladesh or the region? 
   

(4) Why did you choose to work with relatively inexperienced people in Bangladesh and set up a new company rather than teaming up with existing IT companies with a track record? 
   

(5) Who are the main clients of your company TigerIT (the parent company)? 
   

(6) What is your equity in TigerIT BD?
   He grinned and added, but of course, I sent him a very general note saying we were fascinated by the news of what they had done and wanted to do a feature on the company for DrikNews.
   

So, why are western citizens concerned? As Peter Boyle asks, what’s the fuss behind another little piece of plastic? What is dangerous is not the card itself, he says, but ‘the mother of all databases that is behind a compulsory national ID card system.’ Chris Puplick, a former Liberal Senator who was a member of the joint select committee on the Australia Card, speaking of his ‘fear’ of national ID card systems wrote, ‘Should 20 million Australians have their liberties trashed so that we might – I repeat might – detect the two or three mad jihadists in our midst? Will files now be created on the basis that people belong to a certain religion, attend particular places of worship or hold specific political opinions?’
   

Does the national ID card system help to combat terrorism? Privacy International (PI), a global human rights group, in a 2004 study on the relationship between national ID cards and the prevention of terrorism was unable to ‘uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system’ was a significant deterrent to terrorist activity. I remember coming across a blog comment somewhere: ‘Want to be rid of terrorism? Pull troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Another blogger had said, ‘Governments quite often frighten me more than terrorists.’
   

Some Bangladeshis – still carried away by the present military-backed caretaker government’s drive against corruption – may think that it will help clean up corruption. As a blogger had commented in drishtipat: ‘Like driver’s license renewal or getting cars inspection every year, the national ID card… will have huge impact on and spectacular change in the society.’ Those pro-ID cards probably don’t know that computer disks containing detailed personal information on 25 million individuals, and 7.25 million families in Britain, went missing last year. Personal information included names, addresses, national insurance numbers, and data on almost every child under 16. According to experts, the information ‘could allow crimes beyond identity theft,’ since some people use a child’s name or part of their address as password on their bank account. In other words, a combination of these details could allow criminals to break their code. Another critic says, if a government or criminal wanted to frame someone, amending, erasing, or adding to the details on one’s medical records, employment history, could be easily done, since all information would be stored on a single device.
   

Khushi Kabir had left a comment on my column at Shahidul’s blog, speaking of her own disturbing experiences: ‘What was also worrying was the religious and other profiling done, albeit arbitrarily in majority of cases, despite that this information was not asked for in the form filled up prior to getting photographed or finger printed. My big teep must have confused them, so they asked for my religion, which I did not find necessary to provide them, or any other information that was not on the form. Others were not asked but religion was put on the basis of their “assumption”. When challenged as to why they needed my religion or to keep it blank they stated that they were required by the “authorities” to profile it. Shireen Huq had a similar experience. They informed her there was only space for four religions in the database, i.e. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. No scope for others. This kind of information can be potentially frightening.’
   

Of course yes, Khushi. As Jim Fussell of Prevent Genocide International points out, ethnic classification on ID cards in Rwanda, instituted by the Belgian colonial government and retained after independence, spelled a death sentence for Tutsis at any roadblock. No other factor, says Fussell, was more significant in facilitating the speed and magnitude of the 100 days of mass killing in Rwanda that left 800,000 dead. 
   

The near-deafening silence of Bangladeshi human rights organisations and activists on the national ID card issue is remarkable. I wonder why? Are their campaigns waged against ‘locals’ only – the neighbourhood bully, the local rapist, the village acid-thrower? Do they shy away when human rights violations are caused by ‘big’ actors? Does speaking out against Big Brother’s ‘war on terror’ fall outside the prescribed terms of reference? 
   

Do not misunderstand me, fighting against local power structures has not always been easy or convenient, as their own records of struggle show. But it is a global world, and we should learn from the African feminist who had said, I am oppressed not only by my patriarchal village headman, but equally so by the IMF and the World Bank. And I add, by western regimes who are waging terrorist wars against the world’s peoples.

Human Rights Watch letter to Bangladesh: Stop Denying Killings and Torture, Address Rights Abuses and Hold Security Forces to Account

October 7, 2008

Human Rights Watch (HRW), New York, October 6, 2008 – The Bangladesh interim government should use its last months in office to seriously address persistent rights abuses rather than deny that they are happening, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the government. Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned about continuing reports of torture and extrajudicial killings by state security forces and the government’s failure to hold those responsible to account.

On August 8, 2008, the Bangladesh government sent Human Rights Watch a three-page response by the Ministry of Home Affairs to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2008. The ministry denied all allegations that torture has been carried out by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the country’s most important military intelligence agency, and claimed that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), its elite law enforcement agency, has not committed extrajudicial executions but only killed armed criminals in self defense and to protect government property.  
 
“The Bangladesh government is well aware that the security forces have killed and tortured people in custody,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “It is a tragedy for Bangladesh that the government is burying its head in the sand rather than taking action to protect its citizens.”  
 
Human Rights Watch said it is also critically important for the political parties to begin to think about how to address these issues, with Parliamentary elections scheduled for December 18.  
 
Since the release of a Human Rights Watch report describing the arbitrary detention and torture of a journalist and human rights worker, Tasneem Khalil, by the DGFI in May 2007, Human Rights Watch has collected detailed and consistent independent accounts from witnesses of the torture of businesspeople, politicians and others at the DGFI offices in the military cantonment in Dhaka, the capital.  
 
RAB’s involvement in extrajudicial executions, since the agency was established in 2004, has been well documented by Human Rights Watch, other human rights groups and journalists. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ claim that all of the 93 killings by RAB during 2007 that the ministry acknowledges were carried out in self defense or to protect government property is contradicted by the accounts of witnesses, evidence of torture on the victims’ bodies and the fact that many victims were killed after being taken into RAB custody.  
 
In January 2008, the Home Affairs Adviser, Major General (ret.) MA Matin, acknowledged the problem of deaths in custody and instructed the security forces to ensure that such incidents would stop. While reported cases of RAB killings initially decreased, the numbers have recently increased, and the government has not acted to hold any members of RAB or any other security force criminally responsible.  
 
“The government’s offhand rejection of documented reports of abuse is not only a slap in the face to those whose lives have been shattered by the actions of the security forces, but it also shows that its talk about restoring the rule of law is little more than empty rhetoric,” said Adams.  
 
In its response to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Home Affairs also stated that “the government and its law enforcing agencies and security forces are always respectful to the Court’s verdicts and orders.…” Human Rights Watch’s research has found, to the contrary, that in many instances when the courts ordered that an inmate be released on bail, the release was delayed because prison authorities had not been granted the “required“ DGFI permission.  
 
Human Rights Watch said that there are also numerous due process violations reported from the special anti-corruption courts, and several lawyers representing high-profile prisoners have been harassed by DGFI. Human Rights Watch has also interviewed businesspeople who say that members of the armed forces extorted substantial sums of money from them, threatening them with arrest or imprisonment.  
 
“The government and DGFI have engaged in rampant interference in judicial processes,” said Adams. “Even in anti-corruption cases, extortion has been common and violations of due process appear to have been the norm.”  
 
Regarding the media, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that they are “free and working without hindrance,” but Human Rights Watch said that assessment is not shared by many in the media. On several occasions, newspaper editors and senior journalists have publicly expressed concern about the interference of the security forces in their work. Journalists have also spoken about a climate of fear and self censorship, particularly if they consider taking on the powerful military and its agencies.  
 
“Bangladesh needs a government that acknowledges that serious human rights problems exist and is ready to act to address them,” said Adams. “As elections loom, it is important for the major political parties, which had poor human rights records when in office, to show that they are prepared to take on this challenge by developing and presenting their own human rights action plans.”

Extrajudicial killings being carried out with absolute impunity: Odhikar report

October 5, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, October 5, 2008

A human rights watchdog has recorded 116 ‘extrajudicial killings’ by law enforcers in the first nine months of this year.
   The rights coalition, Odhikar, in a report on Saturday said the extrajudicial killings were carried out ‘with absolute impunity’.
 In its nine months’ human rights report, Odhikar also noted with concern that the government continued to curtail freedom of expression by means of pressure and intimidation of journalists.

The report said in January 2008 eight people were reported killed, while in September, the last month of the period surveyed, the number was 19.
 In total, 116 people were killed reportedly by law enforcement agencies like RAB, police, BDR, joint forces and coast guards in crossfire, or encounter, or shootout while ten people were allegedly tortured to death in custody during the period.
   

‘Agencies responsible for protecting the law and only carrying out lawful orders, committed extrajudicial killings with absolute impunity. In the period under review, there was no report of any person involved in such crimes brought to book’, it said.
   

‘Extrajudicial killings are not only a flagrant violation of the right to life, liberty and security of a person, granted under international laws but equally, the rights guaranteed under the constitution of Bangladesh and other laws’, the report observed.
   

Odhikar called for an immediate end to the culture of crossfire, absolute impunity and extrajudicial killings. ‘Odhikar further demands that every incident of ‘crossfire’ or similar incidents must be investigated independently and those found responsible should be brought before the law to account for their actions. Commanders and superiors, if involved in either approving or allowing such killings, should also face the law. Officials who failed to stop the practice must also be held responsible.’
   

The report observed that the fundamental right of freedom of expression had been severely curtailed since the imposition of the state of emergency on January 11, 2007.
  

 It recorded 90 incidents of violence against journalists and pressure on the media in the last nine months. During the period 35 journalists were injured, 15 assaulted, three arrested, 28 journalists were threatened and two cases were filed against journalists, the report said.
   

Citing different incidents of intimidation on print and electronic media like bar on television channels hold talk shows, it said, ‘the incidents of covert restrictions and harassment on print and electronic media much higher than reported’.
   

It demanded that the government must respect and ensure freedom of expression and refrain from interfering in the people’s right to know and stop harassing or intimidating members of the press.
   

On violation of workers rights, the report said, ‘In the face of the rise in the food prices and other subsistence needs and denial of the right of association under emergency – the cumulative effects of human rights violations of the workers are alarming.’
   

It demanded that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association should cancel the membership of those business houses who failed to comply with good practice in respecting workers’ rights and their legal contractual obligations as employers.
   

The report said at least 385 women and girls became victims of rape in the last nine months. Of the victims 164 were women and 221 children aged below 16. A total of 219 women reportedly became victims of dowry demands and of them 154 were killed while a total of 113 persons became victims of acid violence.
   

The report said that Indian Border Security Force reportedly killed 49 Bangladeshis, injured 29 and 53 were abducted in the last nine months. In some cases, according to reports, BSF intruded into Bangladesh territory and killed Bangladeshi nationals without provocation.

National ID Cards: In the Interest of Surveillance?

October 2, 2008

By rahnuma ahmed*

Official: “You ought to have some papers to show who you are.”
Protagonist: “I do not need any papers. I know who I am.”
Official: “Maybe so. But others are also interested in who you are.”

– Kafkaesque journey of American sailor who has lost his identity papers, B. Traven, The Death Ship (tr. 1934)

Photo: NewAge

A non-fraudulent voter list, `a priceless gift to the nation’

Praise was due. And it was given.

Ms Renata Dessallien, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, at a function marking the celebration of the successful completion of voter registration, organised by the Election Commission on July 22, spoke of it in glowing terms. It was “a truly historic achievement,” because never before “have so many people been electronically registered in such a short time” in any other country in the world. What was impressive was the immense scale of the undertaking, the accuracy of the list, the elimination of duplicate and fraudulent entries. “If there were a Nobel Prize for voter lists, Bangladesh would be the clear winner!”

The Chief Advisor Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed termed it a “milestone,” one that would enable not only the upcoming elections to be “free, fair and credible” but also, future ones, by setting high standards. The Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, called it a “memorable event in the annals of country’s history.” At an earlier event, “Celebrating the Halfway Mark of Voter Registration” held in early March, the Chief of Army Staff General Moen U Ahmed had voiced hopes that it would “lay the foundation for building a meaningful democracy.”

A similar nationwide voter registration venture had failed in 1997 because the names and pictures of most people did not match, and many had failed to turn up to register at the appointed time. The nation, as a result, had been Tk 115 crore poorer. A proposed integrated project of Machine Readable Passports (MRP) and National Identity Cards (NID) in 2005 had been budgeted at Tk 1,400 crore. Its completion would take 5 years, the first year would be a “test” period. The 2006 voter list, prepared by the past EEC Justice MA Aziz for the 2007 elections had been faulty, it had registered an excess of 1.2 crore voters, leading to a political impasse that helped usher in the current military-backed Fakhruddin government.

In comparison to all previous efforts, the current effort has yielded a faultless voter list, one that is computerised, consisting of a data-base of 80 million 500 thousand 723 voters with photographs and fingerprints. It has cost only Tk 424 crore, one-third of the 2005 estimate, and has been successfully completed in a mere 11 months. The Election Commission was the sponsor and the coordinating agency, the Bangladesh army was the operational agency. Together they coordinated the huge logistics in a “very tight time frame”, as Major General Shafiqul Islam, Military Secretary, Bangladesh Army, said in an interview to find Biometrics, `we required 12,000 laptops to be deployed throughout the country, 8,000 printers, paper, toner, train a staff of 18,000 computer and enrollment personnel, in a situation where on an average data was collected on 300,000 to 400,000 people daily.’ The resulting electoral rolls, perhaps one of the largest electronic databases in the world, will definitely be the largest among developing countries.

A survey of the voter registration process funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced it to be of international standard, in the words of one of the consultants, “a list of quality no less than that of America or England.” The UN is said to be considering replicating this model in other developing countries.

The current voter list, as one of the national English dailies commented in its editorial, is “a priceless gift to the nation.”

The National ID Card, `an offshoot’

The EC project was titled the Preparation of Electoral Roll with Photographs and Facilitating the Issuance of National Identity (ID) Card. In the words of Mike DePasquale, Chief Executive Officer of BIO-Key International Inc, a US-based company which is a leader in finger-based biometric identification and wireless public safety, the NID was “an offshoot” of the voter registration project — a “co-operative venture” between BIO-Key in the US, Tiger IT in Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh army.

Brigadier General (Retired) Shahedul Anam Khan, a defence analyst, thinks the government did well to undertake both projects simultaneously. Up to a stage, “the modalities involved for the preparation of both” like basic data collection and cross checking, are similar. The ID Card was a “spin-off,” which, if it had been put off for later, would have cost more.

But, for people on the ground, the two were not as separable. M Sakhawat Hussain, one of the Election Commissioners, puts it in words closer to how we, as potential voters, experienced it, “No one will be listed as a voter without the registration of the name on the electoral roll and no one will get the national ID card.”

Advocates of e-government are also advocates of national ID cards, for instance Farooq Sobhan, M. Shafiullah and others write in a Study of eGovernment in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, April 2004), “Bangladesh should take active steps to initiate a project for national ID” because it will provide an important base for the provision of eGovernment services “efficiently and in a personalized way,” to citizens who will have unique ID numbers. I came across several Bangladeshi bloggers who seemed to hold similar views. According to one, it would be “a solution to many problems,” a national database would hold information from voter lists to tax records, it would make easier many tasks from machine-readable passports to criminal investigations. According to another, the digitisation of national-level information would make governance procedures “more scientific.”

The EC has drafted an ordinance making national ID cards mandatory for citizens, ‘for getting any services from the government, its departments and institutions or from any statutory government offices.’ Twenty two services are listed, these include the issuance and renewal of passport, driving licence, trade licence, tax identification number, business identification number and bank account. It also states that nobody will get government subsidy facilities, allowance and relief if they do not have identity cards. Very recently, the council of advisors approved the formation of the National Identity Registration Authority Ordinance 2008. It authorises the home ministry to provide national ID cards. Under the proposed ordinance, the EC will hand over all information that has been collected — data and biometric features of the citizens — to NIRA, a statutory body. The ordinance declares false information, forgery, having more than one ID card a criminal offence, punishable by three months to seven years rigorous imprisonment, along with monetary fines.
That confusion exists among people in general — the beneficiaries of the national ID card — was revealed during the four city corporation and nine pouroshobha elections held recently. Voters had come to the polling centres with their national ID cards, and were confused over why the serial number of their ID cards did not tally with the voter serial numbers. This resulted in delays in vote casting, and in long queues. Voter identity cards had been given in the 90s, or torn-off slips containing registration numbers, and as a newspaper report states, during the recently-held local-level elections, the common perception had been that the `ID card was to be used for voting purposes.’ Reports say, polling officers had been similarly confused. M Shakhawat Hossain, Election Commissioner, blamed the media for publicising what in effect was a `national ID card’, as a `voter ID card’, even though, according to him, the EC had carried out a huge campaign to clarify the differences between the two.

The ‘largest biometric database in the world’

What is less public knowledge is that the four fingerprints of each voter that was captured with BIO-key’s fingerprint ID software, and FBI-certified fingerprint readers, has already generated over 300 Million ISO fingerprint templates. Combined with the 400 million projected to be generated, it will become by far the largest biometric deployment in the world.

Duplicate registrations are being accurately identified says Ziaur Rahman, Managing Director of Tiger IT BD Ltd. (Tiger IT), a company that is a leader in both prepackaged and customized software solutions and was BIO-Key’s “systems integrator on the ground,” at a speed of “one million matches per second on a single processor.” Tiger IT Bangladesh’s website provides further information on the national ID card (by the way, the domain tigeritbd.com was registered as recently as August 2007). The card includes a standard barcode which is encoded with ISO fingerprint templates, and PKI digital hash. These can be used to quickly verify the identity of the cardholder while ensuring the integrity and authenticity of the ID card. The Cognitec Facial Recognition Software has been used to capture facial images.

While Renata Dessallien enthuses over how “modern technology” enables the prevention of vote theft, and DePasquale prides on how BIO-Key’s patented technology is “performing better than anything else in the market for finger matching,” I have simple questions to ask: who owns my fingerprints? how will it be used? can NIRA transfer it to government departments within Bangladesh without my knowledge? or, maybe even outside the country’s borders? As the British government did when it passed more than 500 samples of DNA to foreign agencies, but when asked “no one seemed to know” to which countries.

The European Comission recently proposed the harmonisation of security features on passports across the European Union. The proposal, introduced in October 2007, requires Member States to take measures to introduce biometric features, including fingerprinting, on passports and travel documents. The fingerprints would be stored in a centralised database. The European Union Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx, who is in charge of safeguarding the personal data and the right to privacy of EU citizens, has expressed his concern since it fails to “adequately safeguard the right to privacy of EU citizens.” He says, the Commission failed to consult with his office prior to submitting the proposal, as required by EU law.

The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh.

First published in New Age on Monday the 29th September 2009

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