Archive for the ‘Ban on Politics’ Category

Ban on trade unionism relaxed with conditions

September 9, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, September 8, 2008

The military-controlled interim government has conditionally relaxed ban on trade unionism across the country about 19 months inside the declaration of the state of emergency amid pressure from various quarters at home and abroad.

The home affairs ministry has issued a gazette notification with immediate effect setting the conditions for trade union activities indoors including elections to collective bargaining agents in industrial units, commercial organisations and other institutes under the Emergency Powers Rules 2007.

The gazette notification, issued on September 4, was made available on Sunday.
   Labour leaders, however, rejected the conditional, partial withdrawal of the ban.
 Demanding a complete withdrawal of the ban, they said conditional or partial trade unionism would not be of much help to protect labourer’s rights by ensuring healthy industrial relations.

According to the gazette notification, trade union activities will be allowed indoors on a limited scale and elections to collective bargaining agents can be conducted with permission from the metropolitan police commissioner or the district magistrate concerned.

‘The police commissioner, district magistrate or upazila nirbahi officer depending as applicable must be informed 48 hours before holding any trade union meetings where not more than 100 persons can participate,’ the home ministry order said. ‘For participation of more than 100 persons, the trade bodies concerned must take permission 72 hours before the meetings from the authorities concerned who can allow maximum 500 people to attend.’

‘The unions would not be allowed to hold meetings in open space. The meetings will only discuss and make decisions on matters related to organisations and workers’ interests. Discussions on politics or other matters would not be allowed,’ said the order, adding live broadcast or telecast of trade union meetings on electronic media has been prohibited. But news items in this regard can be aired as part of regular news bulletins.

Use of PA system to make meeting activities reach outside the venue would not be allowed, according to the home ministry gazette, published on September 3, but made public on September 7.
 The government of Fakhruddin Ahmed enforced the Emergency Powers Rules on January 25, 2007 restricting political and civil rights, including trade unionism, with effect from January 11, 2007 against the backdrop of political violence.

The ban on political activities was conditionally relaxed for Dhaka in September 2007 and for other areas of the country in May.

Labour leader Abul Basher, also the convener of the Jute, Yarn and Textile Mills Workers and Employees’ Action Council, said they did not want trade unionism on a limited scale. It would not hep the workers to establish their rights.

‘We want full-scale trade unionism and it is our basic rights. We do not want mercy,’ he said. ‘We have enjoyed trade union rights under the martial law of Ayub Khan and now the rights have been seized under the state of emergency.’

The Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad coordinator, Wazedul Islam Khan, also the general secretary of the Trade Union Centre, said it was nothing but effort to make people believe that the government was doing something. ‘Trade union rights can not be given partially.’

Labourers will not be able to establish their rights with a limited-scale trade unionism, he said.

The Sramik League president, Abdul Matin Master, said they would first observe how much of labour rights could be ensured with a limited-scale trade unionism.


More reasons to doubt freeness, fairness of local govt polls than not

August 6, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, August 6, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The claim of the chief election commissioner and a couple of advisers to the military-controlled interim government that the elections on Monday to four city corporations and nine municipal corporations were ‘free’ and ‘fair’ and provided justification for holding the parliamentary polls under a state of emergency is only predictable. Their claim only lends credence to the suspicion that the incumbents went ahead with the local government elections to bolster their arguments that withdrawal of emergency is not a precondition for free and fair parliamentary polls. What was rather disappointing, albeit not quite surprising, was the overzealousness of a section of the so-called civil society, including some media organisations, to project the ‘freeness’ and ‘fairness’ of the city corporation and municipality polls. Such overzealousness may have been prompted by the absence of violence and the reasonable turnout of voters, but was, we are afraid, misplaced.

There are, we believe, more reasons than one to believe the elections were neither free nor fair. First, election and the state of emergency are mutually exclusive; while the former is a manifestation of free thinking and freedom of expression, the latter officially restricts the people’s fundamental rights to freedom of thought and expression. The state of emergency, restrictive and repressive as it is, also generates a pervasive sense of fear. In all likelihood, such fears have played on the people’s mind, at least at the subconscious level, when they exercised their right to adult franchise.
   Second, the fairness of the elections is also questionable. In the absence of one of the two major political camps, the city corporation and municipality elections degenerated into virtually a one-horse race and were hardly representative in nature. Participation by all competing political camps not only enhances the credibility of the elections but also guarantees fairness of the electoral process. Besides, the Election Commission lamented, three weeks or so prior to the elections, that its endeavours to free the elections from all sorts of irregularities and influence might go in vain because of shady activities of some field-level officials of the civil administration.

Third, while the commission and the government have used the ‘clean chit’ given by the elections observers to substantiate their claim that the city corporation and municipal elections were ‘free’ and ‘fair’, it has emerged that the election monitoring exercise was itself questionable. There are allegations that credible election monitors were given a cold shoulder by the field-level election officials and, in many cases, not afforded adequate access to the polling centres.
   Added to these, lengthy process of checking, flawed electoral roll and confusion over the use of national identity cards tested the voters’ patience at some places, indicating that the commission’s preparation, in terms of personnel and logistics, may not have been foolproof. 

Overall, there are very few reasons for the Election Commission and the government to think that Monday’s elections were ‘free’ and ‘fair’ or that the elections were conducted efficiently. There are even fewer reasons for them to think that the city corporation and municipal polls provided a justification for the general elections to be held under a state of emergency. Of course, they may try to hold the general elections with the state of emergency in force; however, such elections would be far from credible and, most importantly, may not facilitate the democratic transition the people aspire for.

Time for govt, Election Commission to pause and ponder

November 17, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lift restrictions on politics instead of tightening them

November 17, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Govt back on ‘minus-two’ track

November 1, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 1, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Several members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s standing committee, including expelled former secretary general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, met late Monday night and elected former finance minister M Saifur Rahman the party’s acting chairperson and former commerce minister Hafiz Uddin Ahmed the acting secretary general. Khandaker Delwar Hossain, who did not attend the meeting, was relieved of his responsibilities as secretary general considering ‘the existing political situation and his health condition,’ according to Saifur. Although the committee did not reinstate Mannan Bhuiyan as secretary general, it did not approve his expulsion either. That the meeting was orchestrated is made obvious by reports that several members of the committee, who had until Monday night intentionally kept their distance from the ‘reformist’ faction of the party, were accompanied to the meeting by members of the intelligence agencies. Also, Delwar’s statement on Tuesday that he had received death threats from a certain quarter trying to force him to attend the meeting suggests that not all had attended the meeting on their own volition and that the decisions taken may not reflect the true will of the majority of the BNP’s highest policymaking body.

It is also curious that Delwar was relieved of his duties on grounds of ill health when Saifur’s health has been much worse of late and prompted him, only some weeks ago, to announce his retirement from politics. While Saifur and Hafiz have both claimed that the decisions taken by the committee are aimed at keeping the party united, the meeting itself came in the backdrop of separate attempts by different factions of the BNP to unite, which reportedly enjoyed the consent of the party’s chairperson. It seems, therefore, that the meeting on Monday was hurriedly organised and carried out by certain quarters to subvert the attempts by the opposing factions of the party to unite under the leadership of Khaleda Zia.

While we are for an end to the iconoclastic politics practised in the subcontinent, we must nevertheless point out that this will remain a reality in our country until society is further enlightened, both politically and culturally. Therefore, the decisions taken at the meeting will only be acceptable and the committee itself under the new acting chairperson and secretary general will only be considered as the mainstream BNP by the party’s rank and file if Khaleda gives her consent to the changes brought about, and not otherwise. We, however, do not believe that the ‘midnight coup’ carried out on Monday has yet received Khaleda’s seal of approval, given the statement of Delwar, her trusted deputy, that the meeting itself is not in line with the BNP’s constitution as only the chairperson can call a meeting of the standing committee.

The meeting, we believe, represents nothing more than the latest manifestation of the military-driven interim government’s ‘minus-two’ scheme. While that scheme is not new in any way, we do have reason to believe that the Election Commission may have gotten entangled in it this time around, given that an election commissioner, Sohul Hossain, said, earlier on Monday, certain issues were going to be solved within the BNP so that the commission would not have to choose which faction to invite to talks, as if he were already aware of what was to take place that night. We view this as being very ominous for the future of democracy in our country as this will undoubtedly lead to the loss of credibility of the commission. Therefore, we urge the commission not to become party to any political scheme of the government and ask the government once again to abandon its attempts to restructure the political order and focus instead on bringing about electoral and administrative reforms.

A year on, no closer to democracy

October 30, 2007

NewAge, October 30, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elections, emergency mutually exclusive

October 5, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, October 4, 2007

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

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

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

Fakhruddin’s pledge remains under the scrutiny of the world

September 30, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, September 30, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 13, 2007

Authorities Should Lift Emergency Rules Undermining Basic Rights

(New York, September 12, 2007) – The Bangladeshi caretaker government’s decision to partially lift the ban on political activities is not nearly enough to address widespread restrictions on basic freedoms and rampant human rights abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government imposed a total ban on politics on March 8, two months after it imposed a state of emergency. On September 10, the head of the government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said that the authorities were lifting restrictions on “indoor” politics in the capital Dhaka “to create an environment conducive to talks with political parties.”

“The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is bizarre. If the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy, they must fully end the ban on political activities,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Politics is not a sport that can be played only in an indoor arena.”

The move was aimed at facilitating discussions between political parties and the Election Commission, which is revising the country’s election rules. The Election Commission, led by ATM Shamsul Huda, has been assigned the responsibility to institute electoral reforms. However, the commission said that these reforms would not be possible without consultations with the political parties. The government announced the partial lifting of the ban before the commission begins discussions with political parties, scheduled for September 12.

However, the partial lifting of the ban will only allow a political party to meet to discuss internal party reforms in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform. Parties will still be required to inform the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in advance about all meetings. A maximum of 50 party members will be allowed to attend each meeting. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force in the rest of the country. Under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, those who violate the restrictions face prison terms of two to five years as well as fines.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about emergency rules that undermine basic due process rights. While certain restrictions on some rights during properly declared states of national emergency are permitted under international law, the measures under the government’s emergency law have not been limited to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

Under Bangladesh’s current state of emergency, the government has restricted political and trade union activities and prohibited the media from publishing anything that can be considered “provocative.” Tens of thousands of people – and perhaps as many as 200,000, according to some reports – have been arrested under the state of emergency without proper judicial oversight. A large number of offenses have been made “non-bailable,” meaning that many detainees face indefinite detention without trial. The courts have frequently been sidelined from ensuring due process of law. Many detainees are being held in unofficial places of detention.

Bangladesh’s emergency laws have created an atmosphere ripe for torture and mistreatment, which has been widely alleged by victims and family members. Human Rights Watch has confirmed these allegations in cases that it has investigated.

Freedom of the press has also come under assault by the government. In some districts, the army has summoned journalists and photographed them in blatant efforts at intimidation, warning them not to publish anything critical of the security forces. Even as the caretaker government announced that it would make the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) an effective, autonomous body, it pulled the country’s only privately owned 24-hour news channel off the air, days after it warned the channel not to broadcast footage of recent anti-government riots.

Moreover, government censors ripped out two recent articles in the The Economist on protests and Bangladeshi politics before the magazine could be distributed. Bangladeshi editors and journalists have told Human Rights Watch that self-censorship has become common.

“The government should make the same commitment to ending human rights abuses that it it has made to fighting corruption,” said Richardson. “The army and other security forces need to be reined in, and censorship has to end.

“Ripping out pages from an international magazine is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not a caretaker government committed to reform and the rule of law,” Richardson added.