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Why Bangladesh Should Not Be Audited By International Bodies

By Saleem Samad

10 July, 2008

Bangladesh for obvious reasons is under renewed scrutiny by global watchdogs, think tanks, and the international press. This is not just because of more than a year of emergency rule, but also due to recent dramatic political developments toward democratic transitions in several countries, including Thailand, Nepal and Pakistan. Expectations have risen for Bangladesh.

Around Bangladesh, political observers see optimistic developments, perhaps light at the end of the tunnel. The Nepalese are preparing to change their century-old kingdom into a republic. Thai military generals have vowed to not interfere in the polity and have returned to the barracks, though they’ve left behind institutions for influencing internal security. In Pakistan, after decades of military subjugation, there is a change of heart—forced in no small part by a change of heart in the US administration—among the Generals, who have conceded their failure to manage the country.

An overall estimate

Global watchdogs are keenly observing the reforms agenda in Bangladesh toward a transition to democracy. And none of them seems happy. Despite a year of anti-corruption and anti-crime drives by the interim government, Bangladesh is still placed toward the bottom on the list of world’s most corrupt nations. The Global Integrity Report 2007 stated that Bangladesh’s caretaker government had failed to deliver the wishful target it had set about reducing corruption and increasing accountability. Accountability at all levels—executive, legislative, judicial—was rated as very weak, even though laws were strong. The Global Integrity Report pointed out that the military is routinely involved in government affairs.

Similarly, Washington based Freedom House in its Freedom In The World 2008 report says that Bangladesh experienced a reversal due to the introduction of emergency rule in January, the suspension of scheduled elections, and the curtailment of civil liberties and press freedom, were identified as severe blow on good governance and democracy.

Religious freedom has never improved since previous military rulers declared Islam the state religion two decades ago. Persecution of religious minorities like the Hindus, Ahmadiyya Muslim, Buddhists, Christians and cultural minorities (animists) in Modhupur, Sylhet and Chittagong Hill Tracts have continued unabated. It was expected that after the military returned to power in early 2007, the status of religious freedom may improve. But the predators remain loose, and even in 2008, Bangladesh remains in the watch list of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

So far, no notable initiative has been taken by the quasi-military government to ensure transparency in governance. With no real improvement in weak institutions, the Failed States Index, published by Foreign Policy / Fund for Peace, placed Bangladesh among the 20 most unstable and highest risk countries, next to Burma, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.

The slide in human rights

More troubling are the problems regarding human rights and democracy. In its “Human Rights Report 2007,” local watchdog Odhikar has written flatly: “Human rights situation deteriorated sharply in Bangladesh in 2007.” This not just because fundamental rights remain suspended, but also because the anti-corruption and anti-crime drives are being used “as nothing more than a tool to reform the political parties to its [i.e., the government’s] liking.”

Amnesty International made a high profile visit to Bangladesh in January. The delegation, headed by Amnesty’s Secretary General, made similar observations about “new patterns of manipulating due process.” It also noted with concern the “creeping role of the armed forces in a range of functions, with no clear rules of accountability.”

In February, a group of British and European parliamentarians visited Bangladesh in order to encourage the return to democracy through holding free and fair elections. They also expressed “deep concern over the human rights abuses.”

The same month, Human Rights Watch published a scathing criticism of severe abuses by “Bangladesh’s notorious military intelligence agency.” It pointed out that “the government has routinely used torture to extract confessions,” and that it has protected abusers. Its Asia director asked, “Are they reformers, or do they just say they are reformers?”

In March, the US Department of State submitted to Congress its annual report on human rights in different countries. It gave similar conclusions about Bangladesh’s record in 2007: “The government's human rights record worsened, in part due to the state of emergency and postponement of elections.” It noted how the government has restricted freedom of press, freedom of association, the right to bail, and due process, with political discrimination and “serious abuses, including custodial deaths, arbitrary arrest and detention, and harassment of journalists.”

Law, order, justice

It will be incorrect to think that all of these are new. DGFI, the dreaded security service at the center of many abuses, operated unhindered during the elected governments of Khaleda Zia (1991-1996, 2001-2007) and Shiekh Hasina (1996-2001). Like in Pakistan, interference by state security agency jeopardised the transition of democracy, even after last military dictator General Ershad quit power in 1990 in the face of violent street protests.

The last elected government headed by BNP gave unprecedented powers to elite law-and-order agencies, using them politically and frequently. The current government also uses the same techniques. “Joint Forces,” a combination of uniformed military officers, the anti-crime squads and elite police are given the responsibility in implement the government’s anti-crime campaign, in which hundreds of suspects have been tortured and killed in custody. The differences between then and now are twofold: whatever rights people had before have all been extinguished, and there is no accountability whatsoever for the government’s actions.

The judiciary is yet to demonstrate that it is independent of government influence, or that the security agencies are not intimidating the magistrates and judges. Most of the District Magistracy and Speedy Trial Court judgements are glaring examples of government interferences. The judgements are arbitrary, illogical and mysterious, based often on forced confessions and fictitious estimates—and each and every one of the 61 verdicts given in the high profile cases so far have gone in favour of the government. As a dismayed newspaper editorial observed recently: “the prosecution, i.e. the present regime, has been able to ensure a near perfect conviction success rate … Even the best prosecution lawyers around the world cannot boast such a conviction success rate" (New Age, 25 February 2008).

To conclude, Bangladesh’s present military-driven government has made many promises and taken many initiatives, but failed to perform neutrally and satisfactorily, with good governance, transparency and accountability.

Supporters of the government usually respond to this allegation in two ways. First, they accuse all critics of “tarnishing the image of the country,” as if performance is nothing and image is everything. Second, they say that it is too early to judge them: they have not been given a fair chance or enough time to clean up all the mess that Bangladesh was in. The first accusation has no substance. To the second accusation we say, the job of the caretaker government, by Constitution, is to hold elections toward a return to democracy. Their job is not to fix everything in the country, and claiming to fix everything an ominous excuse to hold on to power.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is a Bangladesh born journalist presently living in exile in Canada. He edits streaming from Toronto and specialises in conflict, terrorism, security and intelligence issues in South Asia. He could be reached by email [email protected]


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