Source: South Asia Analysis Group: Paper no. 2311
Published on: July 23, 2007
Bangladesh: Arrest of Shaikh Hasina – Was it to Silence Her?
Guest Column by Dr. Anand Kumar
The former prime minister of Bangladesh and chief of Awami League Shaikh Hasina was arrested on July 16, on charges of extortion. Hasina is the senior most leader of Bangladesh so far to be arrested by the caretaker government in its ongoing drive against corruption. This arrest however, is not predominantly for the reason of corruption but to silence the voice of Hasina, who has been getting increasingly vocal in recent times against the caretaker government. It also serves the purpose of taking further the “minus-two policy” of the caretaker government. Though there has been some domestic protest against this action, the international reaction has been generally muted. This appears to be a first major step towards ‘command politics’ in Bangladesh. But whether it will be successful or not only time will tell.
Shaikh Hasina was arrested on charges of extortion. This case was filed on June 12 this year by Azam J Chowdhury, managing director of Eastcoast Trading Private Ltd, with Gulshan Police Station in Dhaka. The complainant accused Hasina and Awami League leader Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim of extorting over $5.8 lakh (equivalent to a little over Tk 2.99 crore).
The caretaker government of Bangladesh has been trying to take into its dragnet the two top leaders of Bangladesh for quite sometime now. However, it could not muster courage to do so because these leaders have large following in Bangladesh and they are leading two top mainstream political parties in Bangladesh. The interim government also tried to sideline these leaders by creating dissidence in these parties, but was not very successful as the dissidents were managed skillfully by these seasoned politicians. These leaders did not allow dissidence to go beyond a limit where it can challenge their supreme control on their respective political parties.
It appears that the idea to put Hasina behind bars is guided by the intention to humiliate her and to silence the voice of protest. Charges against her are not such where her internment is necessary. Hasina was harassed similarly in April this year when in a media interview during her US visit she had criticized the caretaker government for delaying elections in Bangladesh. She was especially critical of 18 month time-table which the EC had announced for updating the voter list.
Immediately after this charges were leveled against Shaikh Hasina on April 9, 2007, a case was filed with Tejgaon police station under the non-bailable sections of the penal code by Tajul Islam Farook, chairman of Westmont Power Company. In the case, Tajul brought allegations against Hasina of extortion of 30 million taka (USD 434,000) and abuse of power in 1998, when she was the prime minister.
This charge was soon followed by a separate charge of murder. Hasina was charged for killing six persons in a political clash on October 28, 2006, the day when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia relinquished power in favour of a caretaker government. Fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, the main partner of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led four party alliance, had filed the case in which Awami League General Secretary Abdul Jalil was also accused of involvement in the incident.
Sheikh Hasina wanted to return to country to face these charges but was not allowed to do so. Later, however in a dramatic reversal, the military backed interim government on April 25 withdrew the bar on Hasina's return to the country and also said it never put any pressure on BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia for leaving the country. The external and internal pressure on the caretaker government forced them to take back the decision of sending the two top leaders of both the political alliances into self-exile.
Even this time, the high-handedness of the government is very clear in the arrest of Hasina. There are leaders in Bangladesh who are facing graver charges of corruption, but are free. The most important example is that of Khaleda Zia. The discreet silence against the caretaker government has saved her from facing the wrath of caretaker government. Though her elder son has been detained, the caretaker government could not muster enough courage to arrest Khaleda. Interestingly, Bangladesh had the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt nation under her regime. The other leading politicians of Bangladesh, former military dictator Ershad has also similarly been spared from any drastic action against him, though there are several charges against him.
The caretaker government in Bangladesh has been careful this time before taking action. Bangladesh political parties have been clamouring for early elections. There has been similar demand from the international community. Ostensibly, to meet these demands the Election Commission (EC) of Bangladesh announced the election roadmap just a day before. But the main aim behind the announcement was to show to the world that the caretaker government in Bangladesh is not interested in a takeover or lingering to stay in power.
Unveiling its comprehensive plan for holding the next election, the EC stated that a voter list with photographs will be ready by October 2008 and the parliamentary poll will definitely be held by December of the same year. Speaking to media Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) ATM Shamsul Huda said, ''Mid October of 2008 will be the latest for having the voter list ready. The election could be held even before December of that year if the voter list gets ready earlier."
Spelling out the timetables, the CEC also announced that the EC will hold dialogues with political parties on electoral reforms between September and November this year with the aim to complete the reforms by February next year. The CEC also underlined the need to lift the ban on indoor politics. He said, "The ban on indoor politics must be lifted. We have decided on the matter after consulting with people of different levels. The government will issue a statement in a few days supporting the roadmap."
The roadmap charts timetables for the EC's internal reorganisation, electoral reforms, preparation of the electoral roll with photographs, and reformation of parliamentary constituencies. Political parties interested in contesting the next elections will have to register with the EC by next June.
Apart from electoral law reforms, the EC will complete some internal reforms to strengthen itself before the election. The proposed reforms include ensuring independence of the EC Secretariat, resolving the issue of controversial 303 upazila election officers, determining recruitment rules for officers and employees of the EC Secretariat, designing the EC's own building, and strengthening its information technology wing.
The political parties of Bangladesh are not happy with this decision as the EC wants to hold local elections before going for parliamentary election. On the other hand they want the caretaker government to hold national elections as soon as possible and hand over power to an elected government.
This announcement of the caretaker government has been however successful in one objective. It has stopped the international community from going for any severe criticism. So far, international reaction to the arrest of Shaikh Hasina has been guarded. The United States and the United Kingdom have urged the caretaker government to ensure due process of law and international standards in dealing with the arrested former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Dhaka said, "All individuals should be treated fairly and receive the full range of their legal and constitutional rights. It is also incumbent upon the government to prove its case in a court of law…we are following all cases to see if they meet international standards of due process." The British High Commission in Dhaka similarly called upon the caretaker government to ensure that due process is followed and the rule of law upheld.
In its guarded reaction, India stated that it was "closely monitoring" developments in the neighbouring country and hoped that free and fair elections would be held to restore democracy in that country by the end of next year. Speaking to media external affairs ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said, "As a close and friendly neighbour, India would like to see a peaceful, stable and liberal democratic Bangladesh…We are closely monitoring the internal developments in Bangladesh, including arrests of high level politicians in Bangladesh.” He also added that in all such cases, it must be ensured that there is no violation of due process as established by law and that basic individual rights are fully respected.
Use of Law for ‘Command Politics’
The caretaker government has justified the arrest of Shaikh Hasina by saying that no body is above law. It is true all individuals are equal before law. But the way law has been implemented in some of the high profile cases has left a lot to be desired. Law should also not be used to victimize certain people or to gain certain political objectives.
The caretaker government has been asking both the mainstream political parties to go for internal political reforms. A minus-two formula was also propagated, which unfortunately has not been very successful. The interim authority has also reportedly tried to create alternative political parties. Their agents have been contacting local leaders of both the mainstream political parties who they consider as honest to join this party. Unfortunately, even this effort of the caretaker government has not been very successful. Some of the steps of the caretaker government have actually proved to be self–defeating. It has put a ban on indoor politics. At the same time, it expects these parties to go for internal reforms. The dissidents of these parties are not able to move ahead with their agenda under these restrictions.
The caretaker government of Bangladesh few days ago completed six months in power. Still, the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh are nowhere in sight. The work of preparing a flawless voter list is yet to start. This has made the mainstream political parties and their leaders impatient. Leaders like Shaikh Hasina who were earlier talking of legalizing the actions taken by the caretaker government are now criticizing it.
It appears the interim authority is also feeling frustrated as it is unable to create alternative ‘reformed’ political parties who can be useful in creating new ‘reformed’ democratic political order in Bangladesh. Since no alternative leadership is emerging on its own, the interim authority is trying to handpick leaders. This step has also opened it for the criticism of creating a puppet government in Bangladesh, like Pakistan. The long stay in power of interim authority has also made several people suspicious of its intentions. They think that Bangladesh might turn from being the second largest Muslim democracy after Indonesia to second largest Military dictatorship after Pakistan.
By acting against corruption the caretaker government in Bangladesh had created hope among the people. But its high-handed action like arrest of Shaikh Hasina has tarnished its image. So instead of nullifying all good work done by it, the interim authority should try to take now concrete steps which will make a free and fair democratic election in Bangladesh a reality at the shortest possible time. Instead of trying to thrust leaders on people, it should try to create checks and balances within system and leave the selection of leaders to the wisdom of people. It has already taken some steps like registration of political parties and election of leaders at the grassroot level. The interim authority should also now go whole hog on the roadmap it has announced for election. High handed actions like arrest of Shaikh Hasina should be avoided which only makes the intention of the caretaker government suspect and might drive the country towards lawlessness.
(The views expressed by the author are his own. The author can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)