In Bangladesh, Relief Turns to Worry

Concerns are growing both inside and outside Bangladesh that the January military takeover has spawned widespread human rights violations including scores of extrajudicial killings and mass arrest of as many as 200,000 people.

The seizure of power was initially applauded by many relieved citizens who hoped it meant an end to internecine squabbling between the country’s two dowager politicians, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and her bitter rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, to whom clinging to power came to mean more than the welfare of the country itself. However, as the military’s takeover government has worn on, relief is turning to dismay.

A Dhaka-based advocacy group, Odhikar (“Rights” in Bengali) alleges that the caretaker government has been responsible for at least 107 deaths since it came to power. The group has demanded a public inquiry into the killings. Nor is Odhikar alone. New York-based Human Rights Watch also has expressed concern at the extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.

"In Bangladesh, security forces have long been implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings. These have continued since a state of emergency was declared on January 11, 2007,” said, Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. “The killings have been attributed to members of the army, the police, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force."

The Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR) in a recent statement alleged that the present government has “rolled itself into the executive, legislative and judicial body” of Bangladesh that is “in clear violations of the internationally accepted cardinal principles of administration of criminal justice.”

The caretaker government has “every right to fight corruption,” said ACHR director Suhas Chakma, but “it must do so within the ambit of the rule of law and not by acting as the judge and jury, because no decision of any government, which claims to seek to establish democracy and rule of law can be above judicial scrutiny.”

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don Mckinnon was the first to call for restoration of democracy in the South Asian country, a plea later echoed by the immediate-past US Ambassador in Dhaka, Patricia Butenis. The European Union has maintained its support of efforts by the caretaker government to clean out the country’s endemic corruption, but has also called for a specific timeframe to lift the state of emergency and hold general elections.

Although elections have always been tumultuous in one of the world’s poorest countries, the squabble that began last October, when Khaleda stepped down at the end of her five-year term, made previous tensions pale by comparison. Khaleda and her enemy, Hasina, began charging each other with various acts of political treachery. As many as 50 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded as supporters of the rival political blocs fought pitched battles in the streets. Nationwide blockades of roads, railways and waterways crippled business activity. Armed clashes between supporter of Hasina’s Awami League alliance and Khaleda’s Bangladesh National Party in the town of Bagrehat left at least 27 wounded in November.

At regular intervals Dhaka was cut off from the rest of the country as the Awami League erected blockades. Protesters burned vehicles and attacked offices of the BNP and the homes of officials. The chaos engendered by years of mistrust between the two women, who represent competing political dynasties, created further opportunities for fundamentalist Islamist forces such as Jamaat-e-Islami that operate openly. The United States, India and other nations are growing increasingly concerned about the rise of fundamentalism, which has been described by some as the “Talibanization” of Bangladesh.

Largely ignoring the rise of fundamentalist Islam, however, the two sides continued to battle it out for political advantage.

Thus, after the political process was effectively paralyzed, the military stepped in and installed a military-backed caretaker government headed by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed – and cracked down with a vengeance, arresting hundreds of politicians believed to be corrupt, including former ministers. A ban on indoor and outdoor political gatherings was imposed on March 9. The primary responsibility of the caretaker government is to empower the Election Commission to hold free and fair polls within a stipulated period.

Soon after the country was brought under emergency rule on January 11, the general election scheduled 11 days later was postponed. Ahmed, a former World Bank official, was appointed advisor to the caretaker government. Calls for a modern democratic Bangladesh gained momentum, leading to the arrests of leaders of all the major political parties.

Khaleda and Hasina were not spared Khaleda, the widow of former President Ziaur Rahman, was pressured to go into exile and Hasina was barred from returning from a non-official visit to the US, although she defied the order and returned to a rousing welcome.

Undeterred, the government charged her with extortion and corruption, which she denied. She was also prohibited from going abroad. When he attempted to return to the US to attend to her daughter, who is expecting a baby, she was stopped at the airport. An Awami League source said she had been prohibited from leaving because it would hamper the extortion case against her

Meanwhile, the caretaker government has submitted an annual budget that confirms it intends to remain in power for at least a year. A US$12.6 billion anti-inflation budget for 2007-2008 has proposed many welfare schemes for Bangladesh’s 144 million people, 40 percent of whom live in acute poverty.

However, a delay in declaring an election schedule is causing growing resentment, despite promises that polls will be held in 2008. But any possibility that the state of emergency will be lifted remains bleak

Mainul Hosein, the law, justice and parliamentary affairs adviser to the caretaker government, recently told local media, ”No one thinks that an atmosphere for lifting the state of emergency has been created.” He also declined to comment on when the ban on political gatherings could be lifted.

Nurul Kabir, the editor of 'New Age', an influential English daily, said in an interview that the Bangladesh constitution “neither approves an open-ended tenure for interim government and state of emergency nor prescribes an indefinite wait for elections.”

The constitution states that the tenure of an interim government is 90 days. It also says that for the state of emergency to go beyond the stipulated 120-day timeframe, it needs the approval of the parliament – which remains dissolved.