Mahtab Haider*, NewAge, July 4, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh
Living as we are under an oppressive and open-ended state of emergency – with a rising crescendo of allegations of media censorship and persecution of dissenters – it is not difficult to see how the new anti-terror laws might be easily abused by the incumbents to punish such dissenters, even those in the realm of the ‘suspected’ and the ‘alleged’, writes Mahtab Haider
AN INTERESTING item ran on the international news wires three weeks ago, filed by Associated Press writer Foster Klug and titled US is low key about alleged Bangladeshi crackdown. Against the backdrop of the countrywide mass arrests that saw more than 50,000 people — mostly political activists — arrested in the span of a few weeks, the AP observed that the Bush administration had remained ‘largely silent’ on the human rights violation the arbitrary nature of these arrests represented.
‘In contrast to its loud and repeated criticism of the governments of Myanmar and Zimbabwe, which the United States believes are subverting democracy, the Bush administration says little about a makeshift government in Bangladesh that has curtailed citizens’ democratic rights since taking power in January 2007,’ wrote Klug.
What followed in the report is a fairly accurate description of the ongoing political cataclysm that Bangladesh is passing through, but what was particularly insightful was the observation of a South Asia specialist the writer spoke to. ‘As long as Bangladesh’s government is doing the things the US wants it to do, “I don’t think (the US) is going to be terribly upset” about other issues, said Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the RAND Corp,’ wrote Klug.
Further down in the story, the writer hints at what it is that the military-controlled interim government in Dhaka has done for the US that it is prepared to gloss over its human rights record quite so readily. ‘Terrorism is a major worry for the United States, especially after a string of bombings in Bangladesh blamed on a banned Islamic group. The army has taken “a zero-tolerance policy” against extremism, Fair said, something that ‘really played to the international community,’ the story reads.
‘Similarly, in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf overcame criticism over his seizing power in a 1999 coup when, after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, the Bush administration embraced him as “indispensable” to the US-led fight against extremists in South Asia,’ noted the AP writer.
While the comparison to Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan may read like a compliment from Washington’s point of view, it is a serious cause of concern when an unelected regime in any country becomes more ‘indispensable’ to a foreign government than its own citizens. In fact, the ‘anti-terror’ policies of the Musharraf regime are notable not for their success in combating Islamist terrorism as much as for their success in fuelling such terrorism in the post-9/11 Pakistan. Islamabad’s allegiance to the Bush administration has resulted in Islamist radicals in Pakistan equating their own government with their ‘enemies’ in Washington: a reputation that has immersed parts of Pakistan in more turmoil and insurgency than in recent history.
One of the significant acts that possibly earned the military-controlled interim regime in Dhaka this comparison to the Musharraf regime is the draconian anti-terrorism law that it legislated last month, allowing arbitrary and nightmarishly sweeping powers of detention to state security forces to combat terrorism, some in clear violation of the fundamental tenets of the rule of law. Kept largely secret until the ordinance was passed by the cabinet on June 11, it views ‘reasonable suspicions’ and ‘reasonable allegations’ as grounds for arrest on terrorism charges punishable by jail terms or even the death penalty, doing away with the legal requirement of proving a crime beyond reasonable doubt. So for example, under the new law this newspaper or any other could face charges of terrorism if it published an interview of an operative from a ‘banned’ organisation, regardless of whether that interview served a public interest, and whether or not it incited criminal or destructive behaviour in others.
As the US-based rights group Human Rights Watch, which heavily criticised the new law last week, noted, ‘the law provides that a person may be held criminally liable for financing terrorism if that person is involved in financial transactions for which there is merely a “reasonable suspicion” that the money will be used to fund a terrorist act’. Furthermore, ‘the new law allows the imposition of the death penalty for certain offences that cannot be considered among the “most serious crimes,” as required by international law’.
While the new law is believed to have been created largely at the behest of the US and UK governments in a bid to combat radical Islamist movement globally, it is not surprising that the interim government has used the sweeping nature of this ordinance to include clauses that could be politically expedient to its own apolitical ends. Under this new law, political protestors, or say, garments workers demanding higher wages through street rallies, could face death penalties on charges of terrorism if they damaged cars on the streets or pelted the glass façade of a factory – since the act of damaging private or public property is included in the definition of terrorism. If it would be absurd to suggest that such acts of vandalism which have largely dominated the culture of protest in Bangladeshi society are justified, it would be equally absurd to suggest that these are acts of ‘terrorism’ that deserve punishments of say a 12-year jail term or the death penalty.
Living as we are under an oppressive and open-ended state of emergency — with a rising crescendo of allegations of media censorship and persecution of dissenters — it is not difficult to see how this new law might be easily abused by the incumbents to punish such dissenters, even those in the realm of the ‘suspected’ and the ‘alleged’. The Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar has rightly noted that this law ‘will likely be a handy tool for the persecution of political opposition, human rights defenders, trade unionists and other activists in the name of ensuring “security” of the state’. And it is not even a question of an unelected regime exercising such powers of such near-omnipotence; no government elected or otherwise should be allowed to exercise such sweeping powers. We have seen successive elected governments of the past abuse sweeping laws such as section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedures to persecute political critics and rivals, and there is little doubt that this new law, should it survive this interim regime, will also feature in such abuse by those in future governments.
Bangladesh is no doubt in need of strong anti-terrorism laws, given the rise of Islamist radical movements in parts of the country in the past decade. But it is alarming that this sweeping antidemocratic law has been hurriedly and secretively pushed through with little or no public discussion, by an unelected regime that itself faces allegations of the use of detention, torture, and killings in state custody as political weapons. How safe is such a law in the hands of any government, elected or otherwise, which can extract a testimony under duress with the use of torture, and then solicit the death penalty on the basis of such testimony? Such a law would have faced widespread criticism from civil society and the press, as well as an opposition party, had any elected government proposed it in parliament. Unfortunately, it has been legislated with some of those checks and balances absent while others remain silent as stakeholders of the current regime or fearing the legal implications of dissent under the state of emergency.
There are two possible approaches in viewing the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance 2008, both of which suggest that it embodies a strategy of ‘state terrorism’ against its own citizens and that we are better off seeing the law repealed. If we approach it merely as a law that seeks to combat radical Islamist movements, it is important to reiterate the evidence from the US-led ‘war on terror’ that such movements are essentially political in nature and require largely political solutions alongside existing and not even minimally undemocratic legal means. In fact, laws that circumvent democratic ideals are often more successful in violating and damaging transparency and accountability of government, rather than in combating any kind of terrorism. As the US-backed regimes in Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria, for example, have learnt over the better part of the past three decades, draconian laws legislated at the behest of Washington mostly succeeded in hardening radical movements in those countries. Bangladesh will most likely be no exception. If, on the other hand, we approach the newly legislated ordinance as one that seeks to deter violent protests of any kind, it is clear that it will be the public at large that will see its interests compromised. This law will only strengthen the repressive hand of current and future regimes — elected or unelected — allowing them to do legally by day what they have till now felt the compulsion to do secretly, and by night. Once again, no government, elected or otherwise, should be allowed by society to exercise such powers of near-omnipotence.
*Contact Mahtab Haider: firstname.lastname@example.org