Bangladesh: The point of no return
Following the expulsion of the Secretary General of Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Joint Secretary General Ashraf Hossain from the party for their alleged attempts to “split the party” by BNP Supremo Begum Khaleda Zia on 2 September 2007, the military backed care-taker government struck back. On 3 September 2007, Khaleda Zia was arrested along with her younger son, Arafat Rahman Koko on alleged corruption charges. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) charged them of corruption and abuse of power for allegedly using their influence to award tender to Global Agro Trade (Private) Company Ltd for container handling at the Dhaka Inland Container Depot and the Chittagong Port Inland Container Depot although it allegedly lacked required experience and skills. Khaleda Zia has been denied bail and sent to jail.
With the arrest of over 150 politicians on corruption and extortion charges, Bangladesh is inexorably moving towards the point of no-return.
I. A verdict foretold: The order of Supreme Court on detention of Sheikh Hasina
When the Supreme Court of Bangladesh deferred the order on Shiekh Hasina's bail plea to 14 August 2007, its verdict was foretold. As expected, on 27 August 2007, the Supreme Court stayed the order of the High Court of 30 July 2007 which granted bail to Sheikh Hasina and directed the government not to try her under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007.
Though the alleged bribery was committed by former Minister Fazlul Karim Selim in 2001, the government is trying Sheikh Hasina by retrospectively applying the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007. A case of alleged bribery has been turned into extortion to ensure that the alleged crime can be brought under the purview of the Emergency Power Rules 2007. The invocation of the Emergency Powers Rules against Sheikh Hasina is illegal. Article 15 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states “No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time when the criminal offence was committed”.
Had Sheikh Hasina been released by the Supreme Court, the care-taker government would have been forced to count its days. Therefore, judiciary became the rubber stamp of the Care-taker government.
II. The strategy of the Generals
The military backed care-taker government adopted various strategies.
First, in a la Musharaff style, the care-taker government sought to purge the Begums from the country. After the flip-flop, Sheikh Hasina was allowed to return. The plan to send Begum Zia also failed.
Second, the care-taker government has been trying to split the political parties to institutionalise their role. Though Awami League remain united, the Generals have successfully made inroads into the BNP ranks. When Begum Khaleda Zia expelled BNP Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Joint Secretary General Ashraf Hossain from the party for their alleged attempts to “split the party” on 2 September 2007, she was arrested the next day. This was to pave the way for Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan to strengthen his hold in the BNP. About 130 leaders of BNP including a few members of the National Standing Committee, the highest policy making body of the party, issued a joint statement rejecting the expulsion of Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Ashraf Hossain by Khaleda Zia. Mr Bhuiyan called a meeting of the party's central and district level leaders and its former lawmakers at his Gulshan residence today i.e. 5 September 2007 to finalize his future course of action. They will support the care-taker government.
Third, before any major crackdown at national level, the generals have been choreographing their moves to satisfy India and the United States. With British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, H.E. Anwar Choudhury supporting the care-government blindly, the care-taker government need not worry about the European Union. Without providing any evidence, High Commissioner H.E. Anwar stated that “A lot of money and coordination came into the equation” during the recent protest in Dhaka University. Historically, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is considered to have more expertise than its European counterparts. A Bengali origin British High Commissioner is supposed to be better than the British. Yet, the comments of the British High Commissioner have been far from impartial and these comments could invite defamation suit in a country governed by the rule of law but in Bangladesh, judiciary has been reduced to a rubber stamp.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office may as well learn from the experience of Amnesty International which does not allow its national sections to lobby on issues which can raise questions about independence and impartiality of the organisation.
Nonetheless, the choreographed moves of the Care-taker government are visible. Following the takeover, on 30 March 2007 it hanged six terrorists including Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) supremo Abdur Rahman and his deputy Bangla Bhai on the charges of killing two judges at Jhalakathi in November 2005. It sent a signal to the US and India that Bangladesh was acting tough on terrorism.
From 2-3 August 2007, Home Secretary of Bangladesh held talks with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi where, among others, “both sides agreed to initiate swift action on information received about groups and elements and other fugitives from the law of either country taking shelter in the other country”. India's Home Office was quite upbeat, only to be woken up by the killings of the Hindi speaking persons in Assam. Obviously, India did not know what to speak of after the denial of bail to Sheikh Hasina.
Prior to the arrest of Khaleda Zia, the Government of Bangladesh allegedly announced that it had arrested Mohammed Sharifddin alias Abu Hamza, a Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI) operative in connection with the twin blasts in Hyderabad on 25 August 2007 in which at least 44 persons were killed. Hamza was also wanted for his alleged involvement in two other terrorist attacks in Hyderabad - the Mecca Masjid blasts of 18 May 2007 and Special Task Force office blast of 12 October 2005. However, once India demanded restoration of democracy following the arrest of Begum Khaleda Zia, in a clear rebuff on 5 September 2007, the Government of Bangladesh denied having arrested any one by the name of Mohammed Sharifuddin alias Abu Hamza. It termed reports about the arrest appearing in a section of Indian media as “disturbing and clearly motivated”.
III. Conclusion: A point of no return
If the political parties led by the Begums come to power, those who are running the care-taker government can themselves face the same music. Corruption has not been weeded out in Bangladesh, it has become more expensive! In any event military has been the most corrupt institution in Bangladesh. But, neither any military officer nor any senior Jamaat-I-Islami leader has so far been arrested. The military backed care-taker government is seeking to build an alliance between the break-way factions of the Awami League and BNP and the Jamaat-I-Islami to institutionalise its role through a referendum for a new constitution of Bangladesh.
The models being experimented by the Generals have been tested and proven to be failure. The formula of sending political leaders to exile has been tested by President Pervez Musharaff and both Nawaz Shariff and Benazir Bhutto are heading back towards Pakistan.
The less said the better about the results of the referendum on the new constitution in Thailand. That Thai Rak Thai Party supported candidates can still win the elections in Thailand is a strong possibility.
The generals across the world have never learnt the lessons. Bangladesh is unlikely to be an exception.