Western duplicity regarding Bangladesh is a threat to the latter’s democracy and future
Oscar Wilde once said that democracy simply means the bludgeoning of the people, by the people for the people. One might be forgiven for thinking that this particular statement was penned in 1891 with modern day Bangladesh in mind.
Last week, Adilur Rahman Khan, a human rights campaigner in Bangladesh, was arrested in front of his family in a night raid of his home in the capital Dhaka by members of the Detective Branch. He was charged with “fabricating evidence” against the much-aligned military police outfit, Rapid Action Battalion, and bail was rejected. Public calls by UN, US, UK and EU diplomats for his immediate release have not been heeded.
Khan’s supposed crime was to highlight well-documented abuses by the government including extra judicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. According to Khan’s civil society group Odhikar, one of the only legitimate national human rights organizations, in the first six months of 2013, 184 people had been killed by the country’s security services.
Arbitrary arrests and intimidation of civil and political critics is the order of the day in Bangladesh, and has been since the election of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, in December 2008. Indeed there are widespread allegations that the current Government has been using the last five years in office not to improve the lot of Bangladeshis, but to try and destroy every pillar of opposition to her rule – real or imagined – political or civil society, in an attempt to cling to power in an election that must be held by 2014. And to win in 2014 would be to reverse a political trend in Bangladesh which has never seen a democratically government re-elected since it became an independent country in 1971. Re-election would also be in stark contrast to current polling estimates.
There are few governments least deserving of re-election than the current Bangladesh administration. In the last ten years Bangladesh has been scored last five times in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, a global barometer of institutional corruption. Most of these rankings have been on the current Government’s watch, and places Bangladesh in the same rogues’ gallery as North Korea, Somalia and Uzbekistan.
However, given the state of affairs in this country of nearly 200 million people, there has been little criticism from Western powers. Instead they have been selective in their criticism of the current Government to the point of contradicting their own stated goals on democratisation and the rule of law. When Khan was arrested, they rightly called for his immediate release. When Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus was hounded from Grameen Bank, the microfinance institution Grameen Bank he founded and which has improved the lives of millions, they offered only lukewarm resistance. The British Government went so far as to say this was merely “a matter for the Bangladeshi authorities”.
Yet when the Government rounded up political opposition leaders from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami party, those that I represent, and put them on trial before the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court tasked with trying those alleged to have collaborated with the Pakistan Military during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, the West was silent. This is despite the kidnapping of defense witnesses in broad daylight, recordings of direct collusion between judges, prosecutors and members of the government at the Tribunal being published by The Economist, and death sentences for most of the accused despite one Judge admitting in his summing up there was little or no evidence at all against the individual on trial.
Those before the International Crimes Tribunal are mainly Islamists, and there is a concern within the international legal community that the message this selective stance inadvertently sends is that more secular moderates – such as human rights campaigner Adilur Rahman Khan – should have the right to fair justice while the others can, quite literally, go hang.
Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami has now been deregistered as a political party. Yet by addressing only selective concerns, and ignoring others, the West is emboldening Sheikh Hasina’s Government to increase the crackdowns on the opposition by any means necessary. When hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against the crushing of Jamaat and the defenestration of the opposition, hundreds, possibly thousands, were left dead or injured.
Over the course of the next few months, the West must change course and be bold in its demands of Bangladesh, because to do otherwise puts the future of Bangladesh at stake. It must stop being duplicitous over its rebukes of Hasina’s actions. When her government arrests human rights campaigners, they should rightly speak out. But so should they speak out when a court is being used to kill Islamic opposition leaders without evidence.
Starting with the election the West might publicly call for the reintroduction of an interim government. Introduced six months before each election in Bangladesh for over 20 years, a technocratic government has allowed Bangladeshis to vote freely – and remove every single administration at each and every poll since independence. Under the current Government the caretaker government system has been abolished. Whilst it may be foreign to the West to hold elections under a non-elected, quasi-military government, with widespread allegations of election rigging in Bangladesh, such a draconian step is clearly necessary in Bangladesh. The fear is that holding an election under the current Government would allow them to manage and potentially manipulate the election process to their advantage this time. At the same time, the West should call for the re-registering of Jamaat, so the people of Bangladesh have a wide and fair spectrum of choice at the election, even if the views of that party might grate with governments in Washington and London.
The West should also press for a halt to the sentencing at the International Crimes Tribunal, and call on all political parties to support the formation of a truly international court to try the accused, so the politicization of the Bangladesh trials is halted. Only then will the Bangladeshi people be assured anyone found guilty is found so through credible evidence, and that the innocent will not be put to death for crimes they did not commit.
Along with the many problems that post-conflict societies and States in transition face, the problem of war crimes committed during the 1971 War of Liberation in Bangladesh will continue to be a burden for all aspects of civil society for years to come unless this problem is properly dealt with now. The last two years has clearly demonstrated the destructive force a disillusioned public can have and the way in which it can further divide a nation if a certain part of society feels aggrieved or discriminated against. The manner in which war crimes recovery is dealt with can therefore have a devastating effect on civil society and any societal development will be stifled unless the process is transparent and inclusive.
The West should also loudly call in support of Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, whose only crime has been to win a Nobel Prize for helping millions out of poverty, even though, according to the Bangladesh’s Attorney General: “If anybody in Bangladesh deserves the Nobel Peace Prize it is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina”.
As perverse as the attorney general’s comment might be, it is no more concerning than the selective silence from the West over the affairs of Bangladesh. This must change otherwise silence will become as effective as support. And to be silent when it comes to the current Government in an election year may be as good as witnessing the end of free speech and democratic government in Bangladesh.
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