National ID Cards: In the Interest of Surveillance?

October 2, 2008

By rahnuma ahmed*

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

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

Photo: NewAge

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

Praise was due. And it was given.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National ID Card, `an offshoot’

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘largest biometric database in the world’

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Rahnuma Ahmed is an anthropologist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact:


Making a new order

September 18, 2008

By Nurul Kabir*, NewAge, September 2008


Change is the key word that has been ringing in the political discourses in our country for quite some time now. Almost all the thinking sections of our society, even of diametrically opposite ideological moorings, have been talking about the need for a changing order – political, economic and cultural – for the further progress of our people. The various left groups talk about change, as do those on the right. Even the middle-roaders, still the mainstream, who are proponents of a centrist polity, preach change. And that almost an entire population initially supported enthusiastically the anti-political, and therefore anti-people, military-controlled ‘caretaker’ government of Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed in January last year, was a massive manifestation of our people’s eagerness to see a change – a change for the better that is – in their social, political and economic lives. The incumbents, one would remember, promised qualitative change in our political, economic and cultural order. And that the entire populace, barring the small politically naïve or self-seeking coterie known here as ‘civil society’, quickly got disillusioned about the present regime is due, by all probabilities, to the latter’s visible failure to prove itself anything but an agent of the cherished change – the pervasive popular aspiration of the day.

However, that all the thinking sections of a people, including the politically organized ones, eagerly talk about a new social, political and economic order – regardless of the differences of opinion they have with one another on the nature of the required change – is a clear proof that the exiting order has failed utterly to serve the cause of the people.

What is the nature of the order that we are forced to live in that has failed to fulfil the people’s social, political, economic and cultural aspirations of the day? What kind of an order, then, can help realise the popular aspirations, and how can such a positive order emerge? These are questions that perhaps need to be discussed thoroughly, and debated freely, in the society in order to facilitate a comprehensive change of qualitative nature.

To begin with, the political order that rules us is non-representative and non-participatory, and therefore undemocratic, and does not effectively allow people to have a decisive say in policy formulations of the state – thanks primarily to the absence of elected local governments at all the tiers of the administration, a constitutional obligation on the part of the elected governments which has never been met properly. Then, the dominant political culture, plagued with the overriding influence of money and muscle, hardly provides any opportunities for the thinking people with moderate income, let alone the poor, even to contest the elections – local or national. Thus the elected representative bodies, if one calls them so, eventually become the clubs of the rich, understandably indifferent towards the need of ensuring effective public participation in the policy making process of the governments – local and central.

Moreover, the parliamentary form of governance that the country has experienced since 1991 has never ever been able to deliver even some of the positive results that it produces in some parts of the world – the most important idea being parliament controlling government policies. In reality, just the opposite has happened in Bangladesh: the governments have controlled the parliaments – thanks primarily to the constitutional failure of separating the legislature from the executive wing of the state. How can members of parliament control a government when the head of that government simultaneously remains the head of parliament, and that too in a parliament where a member loses his/her seat if s/he votes against the party that s/he is elected on the ticket of? Notably, the Bangladeshi brand of parliamentary democracy allows the same person to simultaneously hold three vital positions: chief of the ruling political party, head of the government, and leader of parliament. No wonder that our ‘democratic system’ is not keen on democratising the state and devolution of power, let alone democratising the political parties and their front organisations.

Then, we have an economic system that is entirely insensitive towards inclusive developments, and thus devoid of the democratic principle of social justice. Under the system, the economic policy makers, usually a bunch of economists and bureaucrats influenced more by the political-ideological hegemony of the anti-people foreign financial institutions like World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, etc rather than the ideas of public good, blindly pursue a kind of unrestrained ‘market economy’ which is committed only to maximisation of profit , and that too primarily of the transnational corporations and their local cronies in the age of imperialist globalisation. Least bothered about the democratic concept of equal rights and opportunities of the citizens in general, the unbridled market economy, which is practiced here, only contributes to perpetually widening the income gap between the rich and the poor. The obvious political implication is powerlessness of the vast majority of the poor, which pushes them further from participating in the policymaking process of the state, and thus practically turns the state to be the association of the rich minority. And there is the bureaucracy, fashioned on the colonial model, to perpetuate the anti-people system by using the coercive state machine.

Then comes the question of culture/s, one of the most important components of human life that provides, among many other things, social legitimacy to a political order – democratic or undemocratic. The culture that dominates our national political psyche, the psyche of the Bengalis within the nation-state called Bangladesh that is, still gravely suffers from horrible insensitivities towards various inequalities – gendered, ethnic and religious alongside the social, political and economic inequalities – in almost all spheres of life, private and public. It is, therefore, not surprising that the political parties or anti-political groups governing the country still do not face any effective public resistance of their political practices devoid of the sense of equality of citizens. Slogan mongering for democratising the society and state is the last thing to help democratise the society and state, if the slogans are not inspired by a pervasive cultural sense of social, political and economic equality of citizens irrespective of their gender, faith and ethnic identities.

However, there are at least two political camps – the left and the right – that engage in critiquing the dominant political ideologies of the dominant political stream represented primarily by the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The right wing offers religious rule, which is nothing but theocracy, as the sole solution to get rid of the exploitative socio-economic formation of the day. Theocracy, it is to be noted, does not believe in the idea of sovereignty of people in running the affairs of the state in the first place. Besides, the camp, committed to gendered social division of labour, abhors the democratic idea of equality between men and women. Moreover, it does not appear to have serious objection to the West dominated international politico-economic order, identified by the progressive democratic sections of people across the globe as a prime impediment towards the social, economic and cultural emancipation of the post-colonial countries of the world. However, the right wing political groups, although divided in various groups, have seriously been propagating their ideologies for quite some time now, and thus slowly, but steadily, progressing towards creating a cultural hegemony to secure social legitimacy of its political agenda to set up a theocratic state in Bangladesh.

The left, on the other hand, offer socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat that is, as an ultimate solution to the existing politico-economic order standing in the way of social, political and economic emancipation of the people at large. This camp, however, identifies an interim phase of representative democracy, at least theoretically, before it reaches its final destination. The camp rightly identifies the corporate global political–economic order as a serious impediment towards national economic liberation of poor countries, rightly criticise the social injustice produced and reproduced by the development paradigm of the undemocratic mainstream political parties, points out the democratic importance to demolish gender inequalities, repression of the ethnic and religious minorities, etc for a genuinely democratic order to emerge in the country. But unlike its rightwing counterpart, the left camp, divided into splinter groups, is hardly carrying out any significant programmes to create a counter cultural hegemony against either of its opposing streams – the failed existing system presided over by the dominant parties, and the right wing slowly filling the political space automatically created by the failures of the dominant polity of the day.

It is a complex circumstance, indeed. The old order has failed to deliver, the new order is to yet emerge. The present, naturally, is inflicted with hopeless confusion. But the future has to be created – a future that genuinely promises people’s democratic emancipation – social, political and economic.

We are aware that any qualitative change in the existing order needs painstaking efforts, theoretical and practical, by those politically ready to bring in the cherished changes. There are no short-cuts to be taken in creating new history. The cherished changes cannot be translated into a political reality until the majority of the people are convinced about the need of a change of order, the way of changing it, and they themselves are ready to change. Heroes do not change history one fine morning. Rather, it is the people who bring about heroic changes over time.

But there is always the question of guiding history, which by itself is blind, towards the light of hope. It is always the farsighted intelligentsia with proper understanding of the dynamics of history who have shown the right paths across the globe. We, on the occasion of New Age’s fifth anniversary, offer our readers some essays, written by some of our reputed scholars most committed to bringing positive changes to Bangladesh’s history, that hint at various paths that they find right. The readers, we believe, would find the essays thought provoking. 

*Nurul Kabir, Editor, NewAge. Contact:  

279 fall victim to extrajudicial killing in 20 months: Says Odikhar report

September 13, 2008
Staff Correspondent, The Daily Star, September 13, 2008
At least 279 people fell victim to extrajudicial killing by the law enforcement agencies across the country during the state of emergency between January 2007 and September 2008, revealed a study report yesterday.

The report published by Odhikar, a human rights organisation, covers 20 months of the present government. 

The government has set up National Human Rights Commission in the country only to shore up their credibility before the international community rather than safeguarding the rights of the people, it added.

The report mentioned that the National Human Rights Commission Ordinance 2007 provided for establishment of an independent body to safeguard the people’s rights, but it left the power to select the chairman and members of the commission to a committee controlled by the government officials, which is an impediment to establishing an independent body.

The ordinance stated that the commission would resolve the human rights violations through arbitration or mediation, but Odhikar said the violators should be tried in a court of law, which will ensure exemplary punishment of the perpetrators.

Besides, Right to Information Ordinance will curb the freedom of the press and people’s right to know rather than extending it, the report said, adding that if the ordinance is promulgated, a person even a journalist will need to apply in a prescribed form for information and the authority will have the power to reject the application or provide the information sought.

It also expressed concern that the draft ordinance was prepared by a committee dominated by bureaucrats who ignored submissions made by key stakeholders like Federal Union of Journalists, National Press Club and South Asian Free Media Association.

Odhikar observed that the tele-tapping by the state is a direct contravention of Article 43 (b) of the constitution that ensure a person’s right to the privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication.

The report said Truth and Accountability Communication (Tac) has not only failed to attain its desired objective, but it is also contrary to the constitutional provisions and the spirit of law.

Tac’s aim to re-energise the country’s economy has failed. Corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats are allowed to continue their businesses and services while politicians are barred from contesting in the elections after being bestowed with mercy from the commission, it added.

The report further said the government should allow trade unionism in all sectors to ensure a sustainable and healthy growth of the economy.


Govt itself stands in the way of positive changes in politics

September 9, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, September 6, 2008

It is nice to know that the military-controlled interim government has become sceptical about the fate of its agenda to bring about ‘qualitative changes’ in politics before the general elections, scheduled for December. Such scepticism, we hope, will dissuade the incumbents from further tinkering with the political process in general and the political parties in particular. When articulating the government’s scepticism on Thursday, the commerce adviser made a point that the politically conscious and democratically oriented sections of society have been hammering on since the incumbents came to power, i.e. the important stakeholders in bringing about qualitative changes in politics are the people and the political parties. Regrettably, the interim government has thus far sought to keep these two stakeholders out of the process to bring about a qualitative change in politics.

For the political process to undergo a positive change it is of paramount importance that the people have the right to partake in the requisite debate and discussion. However, under a state of emergency, this government has denied the people of even their fundamental rights to the freedom of thought and expression, to bring out processions and stage rallies to voice their grievances, to move the court for democratic justice, etc. At the same time, the incumbents have launched a campaign to malign and harass the politicians and the political parties through arbitrary actions. All along, the interim government has appeared relentless in their efforts to antagonise the people and the political parties alike.

Within the first few weeks of its assumption of office, the interim government virtually negated the economic gains that the country had made in the 30-odd years since its independence. Its arbitrary drive against unauthorised structures on government lands and makeshift shops on roadsides and pavements left tens of thousands of people homeless and jobless almost overnight. Its anti-corruption drive induced a climate of fear in the business community, resulting in a virtual standstill in trade and investment. Its unquestioning compliance to the prescriptions of the multilateral lending agencies led to the closure of one state-owned enterprise after the other. All this while, as unemployment rose and people’s income dwindled, the price of essentials embarked on a relentless climb upward. The net result of its numerous arbitrary actions has been the loss of livelihood for a significant section of the populace, drastic decline in the nation’s average protein intake, complete breakdown of informal economy and overall stagnation in the economy.

The interim government needs to realise that it has itself become the single-most formidable barrier to the nation’s overall well-being. Of course, the political parties in particular and the political process in general need to undergo a positive change; however, for that to take place, the people and the politicians, who, by the commerce adviser’s own admission, are the important stakeholders in this regard, have to be afforded the freedom to engage freely. Therefore, if the interim government is really committed to bringing about a qualitative change in politics, it should immediately withdraw the state of emergency and arrange for the general elections to be held, so that the primary stakeholders can once again take over the reins of the political process. We admit that there is the possibility of the political parties going back to their old ways. However, we believe if the intelligentsia lives up to its expected role of maintaining pressure on the political parties to desert their old habits and the political workers sustain the demand for programme-based activities, instead of hollow rhetoric, of their leaders, politics will be on its way to undergoing positive changes.

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.

Extra-judicial killings must be stopped: speakers

September 5, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, September 5, 2008

The politicians, academics and lawyers at an exchange of views on Thursday said that the extra-judicial killings in the name of crossfire should be stopped and the perpetrators should be brought to book.

They proposed formation of a mass enquiry commission and a human rights protection committee for the trial of the perpetrators of the ‘crossfire’ incidents.

The Democratic Left Alliance, a combine of the left leaning political parties, organised the programme tilled ‘The extra-judicial killings under crossfire and future of the law’ at the National Press Club.

The alliance coordinator, Abdus Samad, read out the keynote paper at the programme.
   ‘We want the trial of all the killers under the existing law of the land,’ the keynote paper said.

The mass enquiry commission might be formed with the law experts, human rights leaders and politicians, the keynote paper suggested.

The convener of the National Committee to Protect, Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, Sheikh Md Shahidullah said in a civilised country every killing should come under trail. Getting trail is the basic democratic right of the people, he added.

The member secretary of the national committee and Jahangirnagar University professor Anu Muhammad said of late the killings under crossfire had increased.
 Even some left political leaders like Mizanur Rahman Tutul fell victim to crossfire recently, Anu Muhammad added.
 He also criticised the two major parties the Awmi League and BNP for patronising the killings under crossfire.

The BRAC University professor, Pias Karim said it was unfortunate that the state was patronising the crossfire killings.

Dhaka University professor, Meghna Guhakhakurata favoured formation of the mass enquiry commission for holding the trial of the killings under crossfire.

Lawyer Ruhul Quddus Babu said the political parties especially the left leaning parties should wage the movement against the crossfire killings by the Rapid Action Battalion or other law enforcers.

Family members of some crossfire victims took part in the discussion moderated by DLA leader Zonayed Saki.

More reasons than one to disband truth commission

September 5, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, September 5, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

THE Truth and Accountability Commission, installed by the military-controlled interim government for a few months to allow some people to admit to their corruption thereafter absolve themselves of their wrongdoings, is, as expected, proving to be by and large ineffective. First, there is already a writ petition with the High Court challenging the legality of the commission which has cast a shadow over its activities. Second, only 18 parties have thus far availed the services of the commission, admitting to irregularities of about Tk 5.7 crore and promising to deposit the sum with the exchequer in return for pardon. These 18 are mostly government officials whose ill-gotten wealth was accumulated through bribery. However, it must be remembered that one of the main reasons for the establishment of this commission was to allow businessmen to avail the opportunity to admit to their wrongdoings, pay fines and thereby avoid prosecution. This would, it was hoped, provide a signal to the market that the incumbents are willing to facilitate business activity which in turn would infuse more dynamism and vibrancy into the stagnating economy. This has obviously not happened as the business community has altogether shied away from availing this facility. According to reports, even the chairman of the commission did not sound upbeat as far as that objective was concerned since most of the people taking this opportunity were bureaucrats and not businessmen.

Also, politicians accused of similar wrongdoings are not allowed to avail the same facility as businessmen and bureaucrats. This is arbitrary, duplicitous and unlawful. There cannot be two sets of laws or rules for two different groups of people for the same crimes, and as such, the actions of this commission are contrary to the spirit of the rule of law and justice. Moreover, there cannot be any forum or body to deal with criminal offence other than the judiciary according to the constitution. It is the incumbents’ contention that the commission would reduce the burden of the court system and expedite some cases. However, that stance is not acceptable since the constitution quite unambiguously stipulates that the judiciary is the only competent body to dispose of criminal cases. As such, this commission is at best a vigilante initiative.

Considering that the Truth and Accountability Commission has not only failed to attain its desired objective but is also contrary to the constitutional provisions and the spirit of the rule of law, we see no reason for it to continue to exist. The incumbents would do well to dismantle it and allow the law to take its own course in cases of financial corruption as with any other criminal offence.

UNDP feels more should be done to stop extra-judicial killings

September 2, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, September 2, 2008

The UNDP’s resident representative, Renata Lok-Dessallien, felt that though the number of extra-judicial killings has decreased significantly, more remains to be done for improving the situation.

She made the comment when she called on the foreign affairs adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, at the foreign ministry on Monday morning.
 Renata praised the interim government for establishment of the Human Rights Commission that will begin functioning from September 1.

‘Many governments in the past have failed to do this,’ she said.
   Renata also said there has been a marked improvement in the law and order situation and the number of extra-judicial killings has shrunk significantly, ‘though more remains to be done.’

Among other issues, Iftekhar and Renata discussed the wide range of Bangladesh-UNDP cooperation for development.

The adviser underscored the importance of the setting up of the Human Rights Commission.

‘Not only will it benefit the people of Bangladesh, it will also vastly improve the image of the country abroad,’ he asserted.

Iftekhar expressed the hope that the UN would send observers to cover the parliamentary elections in December.

Govt forms body to check ‘negative’ price increase news

August 30, 2008

Asif Showkat, NewAge, August 30, 2008

The government has formed a media committee to see how ‘negative news’ on commodity prices can be thwarted as reports on price hike have been seen as factors that fuel market volatility.

Experts, however, see it as a tool for controlling the media and feel that there is no use of such a committee. ‘The print and electronic media are not giving the real reports on declines in prices of essential goods, so consumers are being deprived of positive outcome of price fall,’ said an information ministry official.

The ministry will take initiatives to ensure that the media play a ‘positive’ role in letting people know when prices fall as they do in case of soaring prices, said the official.

The eight-member media committee, headed by a joint secretary of the information ministry, had its first meeting on August 23 and analysed the media reports on the local commodity market.
 Most of the members agreed that the media, both print and electronic, reported elaborately when prices of some items had gone up, but they were often reluctant to even have a mention in their reports when prices declined, the information ministry official said.

The director general of Bangladesh Betar, the principal information officer and the chief editor of the state-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha are members of the media committee, which will hold its next meeting on Monday at the information ministry.

Regulatory Reforms Commission chairman Akbar Ali Khan has said there is no necessity to control the media reports on price hike of essentials. Rather, the government should allow the media to publish real news on price hike of essentials across the country so that necessary interventions can be planned and made on time.

‘The government has taken certain programmes in the budget to keep prices of essentials in check. If the programmes, like official import and procurement of food, are implemented properly, prices of essentials will be automatically stable in the market,’ Akbar, a former finance secretary, told New Age.

AAMS Arefin Siddiqui, professor of journalism at Dhaka University, rejected the contention that media reports on price hike have negative impact on the market.

‘Our media reflect the real picture of commodity price situations across the country,’ he said to New Age, adding that the interim government might want to control the media in the name of checking ‘negative report’ by forming a media committee.

In its first meeting, the committee found that the country’s major newspapers were downplaying or ignoring the news of significant reduction in prices of many items.

It suggested that the state-run Bangladesh Television could easily show sales of commodities at the BDR fair price shops and open market sale outlets of Trading Corporation of Bangladesh and the food ministry.

Newspapers should publish price chart of essentials so that the people can know the real prices of goods and bargain with the traders effectively. Private televisions and radio channels can air programmes like Bazarer Bag [shopping programme], a reality show run by BTV, to update the viewers on market prices, the committee said.

It entrusted the Press Information Department with making official price charts available to all newspapers routinely, sources close to the committee said.

Truth and Accountability Commission (TAC) relevance in question

August 30, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, August 30, 2008

The Truth and Accountability Commission appears to have missed its prime mission to put the country’s economic and industrial development back on track as it has found only two businessmen appealing for mercy.

The commission started its operation early this month with high-sounding pledge to allow graft suspects to voluntarily admit their guilt, surrender ill-gotten wealth and get clemency.

Though swamped by mercy petitions from officials of utility agencies and other government departments, the commission only received two petitions from the business community, prompting it to extend the deadline for receiving applications by one month.

The TAC has so far received records of about 182 cases, filed against 184 people, its chairman Justice Habibur Rahman Khan said at a press briefing in his Hare Road office on August 27, four days before the first deadline expires.

Most of the case files involve graft charges against officials of the Rural Electrification Board, Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Ltd, Roads and Highways Department, Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Ltd, Dhaka Electric Supply Authority, Department of Land Registration, Forest Department, Chittagong Port and Bangladesh Road Transport Authority.
   Considering the poor response from the graft suspects especially the businessmen, the commission has extended the deadline until September 30.

The TAC chairman on Friday told New Age that they were hopeful that businesspeople would avail of the extended deadline and come up with clemency appeals.
   Economists and business leaders, however, expressed their doubts about the response to the extended deadline as the High Court on August 28 questioned the legality of the Voluntary Disclosure Ordinance 2008, which gave the basis of the TAC.

They termed the TAC as a ‘futile exercise’ as they felt no sensible businessman would risk being stigmatised by voluntarily admitting financial crimes at a time when many high-profile politicians with graft charges are getting bail from the High Court and the country’s politics is heading for a different shape.

They said that the commission, formed on July 30 only for five months, could hardy bring any improvement in business and investment climate, which is reeling from erosion in business confidence due to crackdown against corruption and tax evasion.

Some of them, without being quoted, even said the commission was put in place to save newly corrupt people and those who amassed huge wealth through shady means but enjoyed blessing from the powerful people.

‘It [TAC] is no more necessary because concerned people are reaching compromise and getting remedy beyond the purview of the commission. It has only added another farcical chapter to the history of governance here,’ said Anu Muhammad, a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies research director Zaid Bakht pointed out that the commission was formed at a wrong time. ‘Businesspeople now prefer waiting to see what happens after the elections as the situation on the political front and judicial arena looks fluid,’ the economist said.

‘It lacks credibility in absence of a political consensus about its formation and functioning. Giving it only a five-month term raises questions in the minds of many,’ said economist Atiur Rahman, chairman of research organisation Shamunnoy.
   He explained that businessmen too did not find confidence in seeking mercy from the commission, despite repeated assurance from the TAC chief that names would never be made public.

The business community, which earlier preferred formation of such a commission to give amnesty to some of them and bring back business confidence, now believes that the commission is of no use for them as it does not guard them against future actions by the anti-corruption or revenue watchdogs.

‘Why will they [a section of businessmen] take the risk of being branded as corrupt for the remaining part of their life? Most people are finding the High Court as safer place and they are getting justice there,’ said Annisul Huq, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, analysing the reasons behind the businessmen’s reluctance to go to the TAC.

In view of poor response from the businesspeople to seek TAC mercy to avert harsh legal measures, it seems that the commission itself is losing its relevance and potentials, the top business leader pointed out.

‘I think that a kind of critical social behaviour has been reflected here. No one wants to be socially identified as guilty,’ said Anwar Ul Alam Chowdhury Parvez, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
 He also observed that the commission had confused the people by coming into operation in a wrong context.

Aftab Ul Islam, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh, said the poor response to the commission’s mercy offer indicated that the concept of the government had totally failed in this regard.
 ‘Obviously, no businessman will like to have a tag and risk his/her career,’ he said, describing the formation of the commission as one of the biggest mistakes of the present government.

One of the fundamental objectives of the commission was to bring back normalcy in business activities and instil confidence in investors.

‘Under the circumstances, existing businessmen and new investors will definitely hesitate, no matter he or she is corrupt or not,’ said Zaid Bakht.

Anu Mohammad said the truth commission was not an effective tool for channelling ill-gotten wealth into the mainstream economy and productive activities in absence of the proper institutional mechanism, and the commission was also not geared to that job.