KUALA LUMPUR (AA) - “Bangladesh is today going through a deep political crisis that the global civil society is yet to fathom,” says the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in a report published May 5, 2016, the day the country’s highest court gave a final verdict upholding the death sentence of the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami party, Matiur Rahman Nizami, in a highly controversial case.
Overall the situation in Bangladesh is very grave. Although the current situation is not comparable to Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, the South Asian Muslim-majority country has witnessed hundreds of extrajudicial killings in the street and in police custody as well as many dozens of forced disappearances since the government of Sheikh Hasina came to power in early 2009.
Journalists have been killed and unjustly imprisoned, and TV channels and other media outlets critical of the government have been closed down. The most recent example is the incarceration of the 81-year old legendary journalist Shafik Rehman and his interrogation in successive “police remands” which have become a byword for torture, intimidation and forced-confession.
According to various human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International (AI) and the Human Rights Watch (HRW), political and media freedom has been significantly curtailed and democratic institutions and opposition forces in Bangladesh have been weakened by way of repression and civil rights violations committed mainly by the police and secret services.
All these have been further compounded by the executions of four high-profile political leaders – former minister Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Abdul Quader Molla, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman and former minister Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI).
Another influential BJI leader, Mir Quasem Ali is waiting to hear the verdict from the court on his appeal. A number of other leaders of BJI and BNP and more than 20 thousand of their supporters are languishing in various prisons in the country. Also instances of political activists being arrested by the security forces and their dead bodies being found later in a river or in a jungle have become very common in the country.
The death sentences against the opposition leaders have been passed on the basis of alleged war crimes perpetrated during the civil war in Bangladesh in 1971, through which the country was born. Importantly, no criminal cases were initiated against any of the defendants in any courts of law in Bangladesh or beyond before 2010; this despite the fact that the current ruling party Awami League (AL), under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was in power in the country right after the 1971 war and again in 1996-2001 with the premiership of the former.
Therefore, logically the timing of the prosecution that began only in 2010 leaves sufficient room for misgivings concerning the possible intentions of the lawsuits and the executions. Moreover, many statements of different government ministers in the last years suggest that, in a Bangladesh of politicized judiciary, the judges have been carrying out orders from the executives with regard to the death sentences.
Needless to say, the Skype conversation scandal of 2012 involving a judge of the so-called International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) made it clear that the trial is a political ploy to weaken the opposition by way of implicating a number of political leaders mostly from BJI and BNP with crimes committed about four decades ago. Sadly, the Tribunal has not been maintaining international standards and no international observers have been allowed to witness the judicial process; and many defense witnesses disappeared (kidnapped by government forces).
During the first four-year (1971-1975) rule of AL, while political opponents marginalized and politically ostracized BJI leaders for their support for a united Pakistan, nobody ever brought any accusation of war crimes against them. What is more, during the anti-autocracy (anti-Ershad) movement in the late 1980s and then again during the anti-BNP movement in the early 1990s, AL under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership collaborated with BJI leaders, and these ‘convicted’ BJI leaders were members of various all-party committees.
Suddenly, after AL came to power in Bangladesh for the third time in early 2009, the government and BJI’s political detractors drummed up media attention and started parading a number of BJI and BNP leaders as war criminals. Such political maneuverings, manipulations of the 1971 war and wrecking tactics do not augur well for a developing country like Bangladesh. Informed political analysts believe that the government undertook the decade-old issue only to break BJI’s political alliance with BNP.
Raising query about the current government’s initiative in passing a law preventing any questioning of “3 million killed by the Pakistani army and its local allies during the conflict,” will definitely be a big blow to Bangladesh’s history.
"Many think that figure is much too high. Although there is agreement that the Pakistani army liquidated key groups and committed numerous war crimes, much work remains to be done. So it would seem muddle headed, to say the least, to bring in a law that might prevent such work,” the editorial op-ed written for The Guardian states.
In fact, Indian-American author Sarmila Bose in her Dead Reckoning: Memories of the Bangladesh War book has already decisively challenged this rhetoric and nobody has yet challenged her with sufficient academic rigor.
Dhaka-based investigative journalist David Bergman has warned that “the proposed genocide law might work to the political advantage of the Awami League in the short term. But in the long term, curtailing free expression for sectarian political purposes is dangerous for democracy.” in an article. Also recently Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) has also argued in a report entitled “Political conflict, extremism and criminal justice in Bangladesh” that “Heavy-handed measures are denting the government's legitimacy.”
Because of its performance during the past seven or eight years the ruling party seems to have lost faith in democratic process completely. That is why, in most cases, elections are now held only after ensuring that no opposition nominee is able to become a candidate or run election campaigns even in very insignificant local elections.
If only incidentally the name of any opposition candidate appears on the ballot paper, the election commission officials make sure the government-nominated candidates win. However, the question is, where does the government receive support from? Any observer of Bangladesh’s politics knows answer to this major question: It is a big neighboring, regional power.
The High Commissioner of that country to Bangladesh is reported to have met the chief justice of Bangladesh just a day before the Appellate Division of the country’s Supreme Court passed the final verdict upholding the death sentence of the opposition leader Nizami. The Bangladesh government as well as its regional ally has been ignoring opinions of international think-tanks and human right organizations. Shuttle diplomacy has also succeeded in persuading both the US and EU to maintain a non-interference policy on Bangladesh government and thus giving it free reign to continue repressing opposition people.
Bangladesh is an immensely resourceful country with huge human potentials. In order to ensure the proper utilization of the various resources it has, the country needs a sound democratic culture and political stability.
However, the degradation of the law and order situation in the country and the stifling of opposition voices and media freedom do not suggest that it is heading towards the right direction. Moreover, passing death sentences against the opposition leaders as well as subsequent executions with inadequate evidence taints the country’s image internationally. A good reputation of Bangladesh as a democratic country with satisfactory human rights records is also very important for its millions of migrant workers and professionals working in other countries.
- Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy.