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Bangladesh: The Enduring Legacy

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By Fazal M. Kamal *

In spite of its complete hold on all branches of government, evidently, the enduring legacy of the present administration in Bangladesh is going to be its abject failure to ensure safety and security for people’s life, limb, liberty and property. Aside from its inability to solve murders and disappearances over the years the ruling party has been in office, now what is obvious and scary---and worse still---is the degeneration of many members of what are purported to be law enforcing units.

Apart from the unabashed absurd inanities and outrageous public claims made by senior officials of these forces, what is both tragic and horrendous for the nation is that many of the men in uniform have morphed into “thugs in uniform” and some have brazenly transformed themselves into “guns for hire.” And as is wont to happen in such circumstances, they are often---to the utter distress of the people---defended by major government leaders.

In a recent report a leading human rights organization of Bangladesh, Odhikar, observed “that a section of the members of law enforcement agencies is getting involved in different criminal activities. If [such acts are] protested, the members of law enforcing agencies make arrests and inflict torture and tag protestors in various fabricated cases. Despite these kinds of allegations, the government does not take any punitive action against members of law enforcement agencies. As a result, they are enjoying impunity. The government cannot avoid its responsibility for this inaction and criminalization of law enforcing agencies.”

In these circumstances it’s little wonder that long-festering unresolved incidents of murders (like those of journalists Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi) in spite of repeated assurances and promises continue to remain “mysteries” while the vulnerable families of the victims are left in a constant state of mental agony. Similar is the state of the families of those who have “disappeared” in conditions that are less than tolerable, even though in these cases too police honchos and administration leaders (after initially pointing their fingers at various persons/groups) assured the people they are determined to hunt the perpetrators down.

In addition, new oppressive laws are being put in the books which will make anyone offering a dissenting voice subject to, at the very least, harassment and possibly, ultimately, be victims of arrest, torture and prison. As Odhikar explains: “The latest amendment to the ICT Act [Information and Communication Technology Act] was made on October 6, 2013. Section 57 of the ICT Act, states that publishing or transmitting in a website in electronic form, of any defamatory or false information is considered to be a cognizable and non-bailable offence. Moreover, punishment for committing this offence has been increased to a term of a minimum of seven years and a maximum of 14 years imprisonment. This law has curtailed the freedom of expression and the government is using this Act against HRDs, journalists, bloggers and people who have alternative beliefs.”

In recent reports the US Department of State has lauded Bangladesh for its anti-terrorism and counterterrorism efforts. That certainly is well worth noting, as stated in one such report: “Bangladesh is active in the full range of international fora. Bangladesh is party to various counterterrorism protocols under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and is bringing the country’s counterterrorism efforts in line with the four pillars of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. … In past years, the India-Bangladesh relationship has provided openings for transnational threats, but the current government has demonstrated its interest in regional cooperation on counterterrorism. It has signed memoranda of understanding with a number of countries to share evidence regarding criminal investigations, including investigations related to financial crimes and terrorist financing.”

But the point that is closer to home for Bangladeshis, and equally urgent, is the one that relates to their own safety and security against the backdrop of the worsening situation pertaining especially to unsolved murders and untraced “missing” persons. The clear fact is, when there’s criminalization of politics and politicization of crimes there’s hope for little, if any, improvement in a dreadful situation as is extant in that country particularly given that the political opposition is an extremely emasculated state. After all, it is an axiomatic truth that without a functional political adversarial entity any government will find it almost impossible to feel that it has to answer for its transgressions.

The present circumstances in Bangladesh, consequently, draw these observations from analysts. According to a Deutsche Welle report, “The deteriorating state of human rights in the South Asian nation [Bangladesh] has drawn widespread attention across the world over the past couple of years. Many international rights groups have long been expressing concern and demanding the government in Dhaka to take steps to improve the situation.” While on the other hand, says the DW, “The administration of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, has long accused non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of pursuing political agendas and has reportedly tried to obstruct their activities in the South Asian nation.”

On the conditions in Bangladesh Human Rights Watch director Brad Adams told DW, “First and foremost, there is a lack of rule of law. The police and courts are highly corrupt. Judiciary is highly politicized and judges are appointed based on their political affiliations. Human rights are not a priority to the Bangladeshi government.”
When asked specifically about inimical administration actions Adams elaborated: “The most well known case is that of a non-governmental organization called Odhikar. Its leader Adilur Rahman [Khan] has faced arrest, threat, prosecution and public attack due to the reporting on human rights violations. The government has blocked a lot of funding that Odhikar was receiving, particularly from the European Union. The administration has always accused [Khan’s] and other organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of being politically motivated. Dhaka is creating a very negative environment for the human rights groups that are active in the country. The ruling government now has a new draft law that will restrict funds to NGOs, thereby hindering their activities.”

As has been said earlier---and numerous times prior to that---there can be precious little expectation that the status of civic and human rights will improve anytime soon especially because of the ruling party’s almost total command over all branches of government as also because there is no political opposition that has been provided the requisite functional space to be effective enough to resist the delinquencies and misdemeanors of an avaricious authority. And we haven’t even mentioned the perennial abomination of “crossfire” (which have accounted for 108 deaths in the past six months alone) carried out with nary a care by the country’s lawmen!

* The writer has been a media professional, in print and online newspapers as editor and commentator, and in public affairs, for over forty years.


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