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Re-constructing the nation: imperial designers at work

December 22, 2008

Rahnuma Ahmed*NewAge, December 22, 2008

After all, one cannot permit the feud between the two parties to destroy the nation. We must dedicate ourselves to higher causes instead. Our bodies and souls must be dedicated to the defense of empire, and to its interests.

`Shamorik, Beshamorik o Jameson’er Ccholke Pora Totto,’   Shomokal, July 4, 2007.

I had written these words nearly a year and a half ago. I wish I had been wrong.

The words were based on my readings of the `universalisation’ of the US empire’s interests throughout the world by means of armed coercion and ideological hegemony, and my interpretation of political events at home. At the sudden installation of the military-backed caretaker regime on 11 January 2007, and at the Chief Advisor’s vows: to crackdown on corruption and establish the rule of law, and to initiate strict reforms aimed at ensuring long-term stability and restoring democracy in national politics.  

Before the installation of the Fakhruddin-led government, before the scheduled January 2007 national elections, even before late 2006 when some of the streets of Dhaka city had turned into battle-fields of opposing political parties, Western diplomats in Dhaka had been frenziedly active. Particularly the US Ambassador Patricia Butenis, and the British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury. But I must not fail to mention other western diplomats, those from the EU and from western European nations, from Canada, and from Australia. And how can one ever forget Ms Renata Dessalien, the UN’s Resident Coordinator? Even the blind, I felt, could not fail to notice the fury and madness that seemed to possess these western diplomats: holding discussions and meetings with politicians, some of these closed-door, making off-the-cuff statements to press and television reporters, constantly advising and preaching to the politicians, to the nation at large. On occassions, the Indian High Commissioner too, had joined in the fray.

It was a frenzy that did not abate with the installation of the interim government. It is a frenzy that still continues. Later entrants to this proselytising club have been the diplomats of some of the Muslim nations, happen-chance choir boys to western soloists.

I have friends who are cynical, who think that western diplomats posted in Dhaka — for them ‘outposts’ — are from far worse outposts themselves, that they do not possess much in the way of education, culture, and refinement, that they have probably not read the Vienna Convention and hence are totally unaware of the norms of diplomacy that are obligatory. One of them even said, maybe they don’t know of it’s existence? Hey, what about doing a questionnaire survey…? Another friend chipped in, you know, in some ways they are quite similar to our politicians, these diplomats are also surrounded by sycophants, by our politicians, writers, university teachers, lawyers, journalists, NGO and development-wallahs, they seem to hang on to every word that they say.

But I think these `reasons’ let them off too easily. I also see no reason to deny the bitter hostility between the two main political parties, a hostility that was aggravated by the 2004 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina outside the Awami League party office in Gulistan. One that was further deepened by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s accusation that the `militants’ behind the grenade attacks were `accomplices’ of the AL. Of gnawing suspicions of poll-rigging, ones that became increasingly clearer as the parliamentary elections to be held under the caretaker government of president Iajuddin Ahmed in January 2007 approached. Accusations and counter-accusations have been heaped on to fractures that divide the nation, that are deeply embedded in the nation’s political history of autocratic civilian governments, preceded or followed by military dictators. A nation that faced a threat at birth when the US Seventh Fleet entered the Bay of Bengal in 1971, days before independence, and yet again, suffered more grievously, in August 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, and most of his family members, were assassinated. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s name has forever remained linked with the coup’s conspirators.

I do not know whether any of the western diplomats had stoked the fires of intolerance that was on display on either side, in late 2006. But I do know from newspaper reports that Ms Butenis had been present at a luncheon meeting organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership, where a video film on the violent events of 28 October 2006 was screened.

A question that is hardly raised, let alone discussed in `civil society’ forums, deliberating endlessly on the urgent need for national unity, is: is the unity to be forged against the west’s imperial interests, or is it to be accomplished to serve these interests further? What paths are open to us? What are the consequences of the paths that we tread upon, for us and for our future generations?

Footprints in the sand

The cat was let out of the bag by the World Bank’s Vice-President Praful C Patel, on a visit to Dhaka, in December 2007. “What [had] looked possible before,” said  Patel, “like the minus-two approach,” no longer seems possible. The leaders of AL and BNP have a “very strong and powerful power base.” Rumors that the caretaker government was attempting to apply the minus two formula had been circulating for months, only to be vehemently denied. The government had insisted that it only sought to create a level playing field, one in which all political parties could participate freely and fairly. Strategies for restoring democracy to Bangladesh, it seems, were being planned most undemocratically.

And, of course, there was the slip made by the more-than-voluble British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who had commented on the Dhaka university student protests of August 2007, protests that had spread to other public universities and educational institutions, and was later brutally put down by the army with the imposition of curfew. “Initially spontaneous,” these protests, said Mr Choudhury, had signalled “something much bigger, something much sinister.” He had felt obliged to inform us, “A lot of money and co-ordination came into the equation.”

Ms Butenis has been succeeded by James Francis Moriarty, in the words of the well-known Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, “an American cowboy in a Nepali china shop.” Dixit should know since Mr Moriarty had been the US ambassador to Nepal (2004-2007), before being posted to Bangladesh. In response to reports of the infamous killings and destruction of property in Kapilavastu in the Terai by death squads, based on Latin American paramilitary “death squad” models, Moriarty is reported to have said, it was a reason for “optimism.” Later, when confronted with this report and asked for further comments, he had said, his main concern was that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was running out of bullets. As US ambassador to Nepal, Mr Moriarty is reported to have visited army camps, to have frequently given speeches about domestic political affairs, to have visited Nepal’s Terai region, to have instigated Madhesi leaders to take actions against the Maoists, and to have machinated to get the Seven Party Alliance to break their pact with the Maoists.  

The US military involvement in Nepal is said to have increased considerably after Christina Rocca was appointed the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia in 2001. (Ms Rocca is familiar to many Bangladeshis, too). Millions of dollars have been pumped into building-up Nepal’s security forces, military exchange programs have been expanded, the Royal Nepalese Army has increased in numbers, from 35,000 before 2001, to 100,000 in 2005, with further increases of up to 150,000 projected for this year. Permanent headquarters have been built for US `advisers’ adjacent to RNA headquarters in Kathmandu’s city centre. The US army has trained Nepalese security forces in `special operations’ through its International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program. In 2003, Ms Rocca is reported to have tabled the proposition that RNA troops be sent to Iraq. This was politely declined by the Nepalese government, but it had gone on to request for “more weapons, helicopters, surveillance equipment that would enable the army to find and kill the revolutionary leadership, and the continuation of counter-insurgency training.”

Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomat-ic activity has fallen on Mr Moriarty, who has made visits from madrasas in Rangpur to the Kumudini Welfare Trust complex in Tangail, to holding meetings with AL, BNP, Jatiya party and Jamaat’s local-level politicians in Rangpur, discussing their present organisational structures, all in the interests of `strengthening democracy.’ There are other newspaper reports too. Recently, representatives of US Department of Homeland Security, US Pacific Command, and US Border Patrol completed a survey on border security in Bangladesh. According to reports, the Bangladesh government has not yet been informed of the details of the survey.

National unity? Of course. But in whose interests?

*Rahnuma Ahmed is an anthropologist based in Dhaka. E-mail: rahnuma@drik.net

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The cat is out of the bag

July 27, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

HC once again reminds govt of its constitutional trespass

July 27, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

July 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With subjects like these, the emperor needs no gunboats

July 19, 2008

NewAge, 18, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact: mahtabhaider@gmail.com

Attorney general’s resignation hugely significant

July 19, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, July 18, 2008

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

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

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

Foreign interference in local politics condemned

July 19, 2008

NewAge, 17, 2008

The cross-section of people, including politicians, thinkers, economists, teachers, physicians, political scientists and business leaders on Wednesday harshly criticised the foreign quarters for meddling in internal political affairs of Bangladesh.
   

They condemned the political parties, their leaders and others who hang out with foreigners to talk local political issues.
   

Some of them said the US ambassador in Dhaka, James F Moriarty, should be declared persona non grata for interfering in local political affairs.
   

They said this in reaction to a ‘tea party’ organised by Moriarty at his residence at Baridhara for a select group of politicians and others to discuss political issues, including the state of emergency and parliamentary and local government polls.
   

Leaders of political parties, including the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jatiya Party, told him the interim government must hold parliamentary elections before local government polls, especially the upazila elections, and the state of emergency must be lifted before polls. The tea party lasted for two hours and a half from from 4:00pm Tuesday.
   

‘It is regrettable that foreigners are persistently poking their nose in our political affairs and politicians are hobnobbing with them,’ said the Communist Party general secretary, Mujahidul Islam Selim.
   

‘The US ambassador should be declared persona non grata for interfering in internal political affairs here,’ he said.
   

The Workers Party president, Rashed Khan Menon, said, ‘It is very unfortunate that foreigners are openly meddling in our internal affairs.’
   ‘It is demeaning the political parties and the history of politics of Bangladesh,’ he said.
   Eminent thinker Farhad Mazhar said the presence of the leaders of major political parties at this sort of meeting exposed their ‘minimum perception’ of sovereignty.
   

The leaders of major political parties such as the Awami League, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami do not sit across the table to discuss local political problems, he said, ‘but they share wine and chips at the meetings sponsored by foreign embassies.’
   

He said the ambassador should be declared persona non grata for poking his nose in Bangladesh’s internal political affairs. ‘According to the Vienna Convention, he committed an offence by formally inviting politicians to discuss local political issues.’
   

He said the politicians and others, who joined the meeting, should be arrested and questioned for their role in the meeting.
   The Jatiya Mukti Council president, Badruddin Umar, and the secretary, Faizul Hakim, in a statement said the meeting between the US ambassador and the leaders of the Awami League, BNP, Jatiya Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and the Progressive Democratic Party was a part of a conspiracy against the country.


The Dhaka Community Hospital chairman, Quazi Quamruzzaman, said, ‘It is regrettable that our politicians instantly rush if foreigners invite them [politicians].’
 ‘Foreigners only work for their own interests. They do not share our interests,’ he said. ‘We must protect our interests.’
   

Political scientist and Dhaka University professor Talukdar Moniruzzaman said, ‘Foreigners get the chance to interfere in our internal politics as politicians hang out with them [foreigners] without considering the consequences.’
 ‘Politicians must be careful in responding to foreigners’ invitation,’ he said.
   

Economist Anu Muhammad said, ‘Foreign embassies, especially the US embassy, have become the centre point of political affairs of Bangladesh, and the ruling class, especially politicians, is gradually becoming dependent on the embassies.’
   The US government signed some secret treaties, which undermine the sovereignty of Bangladesh, using the members of that class in the past, he said. ‘The people should identify the members of this class and they must be exposed.’
   

BRAC University professor Piash Karim said, ‘It is a reflection of a new colonial attitude of the country [United States]’.
 ‘It [Tuesday’s tea party] also reflects the overall political bankruptcy here as the politicians went to the US embassy to give their views on local politics,’ he said.
  ‘We should be able to resolve our political problems on our own,’ he said. ‘We should reclaim our politics.’
   

Former Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries president Mir Nasir Hossain said, ‘Our leaders have developed a culture to request foreigners to resolve internal political problems. They [politicians] do not even talk with each other and foreigners are taking this as a chance to interfere in local politics. It is disgraceful.’
 ‘Our leaders must uphold their dignity,’ he said.
   

The Bangladesh Political Science Association president, Ataur Rahman, said, ‘Interference by foreigners in local politics is not desirable… But it is a reality and our politicians have accepted it.

Attorney general resigns

July 19, 2008

Shahiduzzaman, NewAge, July 17, 2008

 

The attorney general, Fida M Kamal, resigned on Wednesday.
   

‘I have tendered my resignation,’ Fida Kamal told reporters at about 8:15pm at the law ministry where he attended a meeting behind closed doors with the law adviser, AF Hassan Ariff, for about four hours and three quarters.
   

Asked about the reason for his resignation, he said, ‘I have resigned on personal grounds.’
 Sources in the attorney general’s office said the resignation came after a recent tug of war between the military-controlled interim government and the highest law officer of the government over a number of issues, including promulgation of the Government Attorney Service Ordinance 2008, establishment of the government attorney services directorate, conflicts between the attorney general’s office and various government organisations and agencies and non-appearance of Fida Kamal for hearing in various important cases.
   

Fida Kamal, however, made no comment when he was asked whether any difference of opinion with the government prompted him to resign.
 He was appointed attorney general on February 5, 2007. Before assuming the office of attorney general, he had been additional attorney general since June 26, 2002.
 His resignation came after the High Court on July 13 had ruled the president could promulgate no ordinance making provisions not directly related to elections.
   

Speculations had been rife for some days in different quarters, including the legal arena, over the possibility of his resignation.
   In his tenure as attorney general, Fida Kamal did not appear in courts during the hearing in various important cases, including the cases involving the Emergency Powers Rules, cases against former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, and the writ petition challenging the Supreme Judicial Council Ordinance 2008.
   

In almost all cases in which he did not appear, the government lost the legal battle and this has angered the interim administration, sources in the law ministry said.
   

Lastly, the High Court bench of Justice ABM Khairul Huq and Justice Abu Tarique had asked Fida Kamal to appear during the hearing in a writ petition that challenged the authority of the interim government to promulgate ordinances.
   

The court finally delivered the verdict in the case on July 13 giving a rule that the president could promulgate no ordinance making provisions not directly related to elections.
   His absence in the hearing in such important cases was found by different government offices and agencies as deliberate, the law ministry sources said.
   

Sources in his office also said different offices and agencies recently questioned him about such of his absence.
   He also angered the authorities by not giving traditional felicitations to the immediate past chief justice on his retirement and the present chief justice on his assumption of office.
   

For the first time in the history of Bangladesh, an attorney general refrained from giving felicitations to the outgoing or the new chief justice. Fida Kamal had told New Age at the time that he had gone by the decision of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
   

Fida Kamal recently got involved in a tug of war with the government as it promulgated the Government Attorney Services Ordinance 2008 on May 18 and formed the government attorney services directorate on June 2 without consulting him.
   

He opposed the ordinance and the formation of the directorate, formed to regulate the services of the government law officers, as the ordinance had no role for the the attorney general in regulating the services.
   

According to the sources in his office, he had also been in conflict with the government over the relationship between his office and government offices and agencies. He had also made some recommendations on the issues, but the government allegedly did not heed them.

Supreme Court observes unelected government’s promulgation of ordinances ultra vires and unconstitutional

July 16, 2008

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 
AHRC-STM-192-2008
July 15, 2008

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

A High Court Division Bench of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh declared on Sunday [13 July 2008] that promulgation of ordinance by the country’s President, under unelected caretaker government be unconstitutional and ultra vires, unless the ordinance is directly related to the general election. The Bench comprising Justice A B M Khairul Huq and Justice Abu Tarique declared this verdict following a writ petition challenging the legality of the “Muslim Marriage and Divorce (Registration) Amendment Ordinance-2008. Bangladesh’s media published this news yesterday (Monday, 14 July).

According to the English dailies, The Daily Star and The New Age, the Ministry of Law issued a gazette notification on the ordinance on 20 February. The president of the marriage registers’ association and five other marriage registers lodged a writ petition with the High Court on 13 March. The Court issued a rule upon the government to explain the legality of the promulgation of the ordinance, but the government did not respond to the rule. The Court appointed Barrister Rafique-ul Huq, Barrister Azmalul Hossain and Barrister AHM Shamsuddin Chowdhury as amicus curiae (friends of the court) for legal interpretation in this matter along with Dr. Kamal Hossain, who did not made any argument before the Court. The Attorney General Barrister Fida M. Kamal also refrained from speaking on this issue when the Court invited him to do so. However, the Deputy Attorney General Mr. Iddrisur Rahman Khan pleaded for the government.

Observing that the powers of the Caretaker Government are narrower than those of a politically elected government, the Court said, “An ordinance can only be promulgated by the caretaker government if it is directly related to elections. Otherwise, that would be without lawful authority. If the power of the president is widened at the demand of particular quarters beyond the constitutional framework, the balance of the people’s powers would be jeopardised. Before promulgating any ordinance, the President must be satisfied that the elections will be hampered unless the ordinance is promulgated. Otherwise, the President cannot promulgate such an ordinance”.

The judgment observed, “In general, the President, in the exercise of his functions, acts in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister. But, under Article 58E of the constitution [during the tenure of the caretaker government] the President does not act in accordance with the advice of the Chief Adviser to the caretaker government. The council of advisers (equivalent to the cabinet) also cannot advise him for promulgation of any ordinance. They can only request him. The President promulgates an ordinance on his own responsibility and power in accordance with Article 93 and 58D.”

Referring to a judgment delivered by the US Supreme Court in 1608, the Court said, “The President cannot go beyond the powers given to him by the constitution. If any person is aggrieved by an ordinance promulgated by the president, s/he can seek redress before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has the power to consider such a petition and to examine the constitutionality of the ordinance.”

“Every citizen and every person engaged in the service of the republic are bound to go by every article of the constitution. If the constitution is violated, however slightly, for some reason the probability arises for its complete destruction in the end,” the court observed, “No authority can violate the constitution on any grounds, as none is above law.”

The Court further said, “All powers in the republic belong to the people. In Bangladesh, elected parliament runs the state. The Prime Minister and the cabinet are accountable to the parliament for their functions. It means the elected government is accountable to the people.”

Commenting on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Ordinance 2008 which empowered the deputy commissioners, instead of the law ministry, with the authority to hire and fire marriage registrars, promulgated on 20 February, the Court also observed, “The promulgation of the ordinance is without lawful authority. So, the ordinance is declared ultra vires of the constitution and void.”

The High Court Bench verdict has raised the question of legality with regards the promulgation of most of the ordinances of around 70 in number, promulgated so far by the President in the military-controlled regime. It is, however, highly assumed that the government will lodge an appeal with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court challenging this verdict.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) recalls that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, in a controversial verdict passed on 23 April 2008, abdicated its own constitutional power to entertain the petitions of bail from the persons implicated in the Emergency Powers Ordinance-2007 and the Emergency Powers Rules-2007. The professionals concerned will have to wait and see whether the Appellate Division, the highest organ of the Court prefers to overturn this verdict once again like what it did in the recent past or upholds a trend of loyalty to the Constitution and rule of law. Any further controversial verdict from the highest body of the Supreme Court will not only undermine rule of law but also lead to a total destruction of the already jeopardized democratic institutions. An obverse, on the contrary, can resist the temptation of power-abuse by the vested quarters, and champion the cause of democracy.

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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.

Crimes of the armed forces are not beyond judicial procedures

June 27, 2008

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) 

The New Age, a Dhaka-based national English daily, has published a report yesterday [26 June 2008] quoting a former General of Bangladesh Army, who has launched a political party during the ongoing State of Emergency in the country. 

According to the report, Syed Mohammad Ibrahim, a retired army General, said in a joint press briefing with an adviser of the government, “My request to the government is to remain alert against any attempts to bring the people and the military face to face. . .” Referring to a recent statement of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Gen. Ibrahim reportedly said, “. . . certain political leaders are making adverse criticism of the armed forces. They are making vengeful utterances and deceiving the people into believing that the armed forces are responsible for all wrong doings. We did not expect such a statement from a leading politician. . .” The retired General reportedly feared that such statements might have adverse impact on the society. The joint forces, in his opinion, are assisting the government in carrying out its responsibilities since the caretaker administration is an unelected government. 

The comment of Gen. Ibrahim seems to be provocative to earn sympathy from the armed forces, prior to the elections where his party is a contestant, rather than an articulation in favour of the people. This is an example of the typical “army-flattering culture” in Bangladesh, which has been rooted in the mindset of the politicians and civil servants. 

During the ongoing state of emergency in Bangladesh, the officers of the armed forces have arrested, tortured and detained thousands of innocent people of which more than 200 have been extra-judicially killed by the military-dominated law-enforcing agencies. Likewise, thousands have been permanently or temporarily disabled surviving torture in custody. These actions are simply crime, not law-enforcement at all.

While everyone is aware that none of the citizens attempted any attack on the armed forces, and rather the armed forces committed the heinous crime of inhuman tortures to the “crime suspects”, Gen. Ibrahim did not include this in his comments. He did not clarify whether he had any commitment to bring under prosecution the officers who perpetrated the brutal torture against innocent people, based on mere suspicion before the judicial procedures. 

This is the default mindset of a Bangladeshi politician, let alone Gen. Ibrahim who served in the armed forces,  to begin with the premise that “the armed forces are beyond the judicial process” and compel the ordinary people to suffer continuous injustice. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges the professionals, politicians, academics and the civil society to de-mystify the imposed myths that the armed forces are always “patriotic” regardless of whatever misdeeds they commit and the politicians are bad on the same ground. Unless the very notion of justice is rescued from such a distortion, a credible justice system will remain a far-reaching dream. 

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.