Monday, July 30, 2007

The Misrule of Law in Bangladesh

(Source: UPI Asia Online)
SYLHET, Jul. 30

Column: Humanity or humor?
Arresting and taking high-profile people to court has become a sensational issue in many countries of the world. In Bangladesh, it occurred recently for the second time when former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was arrested early in the morning of July 16 in a graft case. She was taken to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court straight from her residence at 7:50 a.m., 70 minutes before the court normally begins its proceedings.

After two hours of deliberation, followed by legal arguments and protests by the person under arrest as well as her lawyers, the former premier was sent to jail as the magistrate rejected her bail petition. Now it has become a burning issue in the country.

Arresting high-profile and political people was a comical and farcical matter in Bangladesh in the past. The trial would not be fair, nor would there be any pretense of upholding the rule of law. Such trials were a mere political game.

In 1991, a military autocrat, Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who was toppled by the protests of the people, was arrested on corruption charges -- the first arrest of its kind. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party that formed the government after nine years of losing political power to the general did not waste any time putting Ershad in jail. He was later convicted on several charges of corruption and imprisoned by the courts following prosecution for his involvement in causing a huge loss to the nation through grabbing public properties and mishandling public funds.

The same hated man became very "respected" in 1996 when the Bangladesh Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, needed a few seats in Parliament to form a government and was seeking support from others. A quick and secret agreement soon changed the political map: the Jatiya Party, led by Ershad, supported the Awami League in Parliament, forming a majority and helping them return to power after two decades. A member of Ershad's party was included in the Cabinet as part of the agreement. Within a few months, Ershad was released from jail as the government instructed its attorneys not to be rude to the "powerhouse" of the ruling party.

The approach of the prosecution changed radically afterwards. Some of the cases in the lower courts that were under the direct control of the Home Ministry and the Law and Justice Ministry were terminated by the government; the trials in the appeal courts were either stayed or the punishment -- mostly imprisonment -- was reduced to a sentence that permitted Ershad to be freed from prison as he had already served this reduced sentence. These legal maneuvers transpired due to a preplanned weaker prosecution by the state.

Ironically, after five years, Ershad joined an alliance with his "enemy," the BNP. Both groups moved against the Awami League, although Ershad's Jatiya Party left the coalition after a while, which, of course, annoyed the BNP. Returning to power, the BNP restarted the prosecutions against Ershad again. The intention was to keep pressure on him so that he did not join the opposition that was desperately attempting to generate a movement against the ruling BNP.

As soon as Ershad agreed to bond with the ruling BNP, his "astute" decision began to benefit him. The attorneys were deliberately prosecuting him so poorly that the charges of corruption against Ershad were being dismissed by both the lower and higher courts. Suddenly, Ershad changed his mind again, a decision which was ultimately against the interests of the rulers and brought about a reverse of the process. At the end of all these machinations, the government did not recover its property and money nor did it uphold the rule of law through the inconsistent legal process it orchestrated.

Thus, the prosecution system of the country has become synonymous with persecution or the misrule of law in Bangladesh. Ruling politicians have always used the government-controlled prosecution and judiciary as tools to achieve their own aims instead of upholding the rule of law and protecting the life and property of the country's citizens.

The present military-backed interim government, which is superficially non-political at the moment, is gradually producing its own political offspring by intimidating those who are unwanted in their present political tents by threatening them with corruption cases. Like many other military governments in the world, Bangladesh's military rulers, upon taking power, began speaking like saints about fighting corruption, upholding the rule of law, ending exploitation, restoring people's faith in governmental institutions and reforming various sectors, including politics. The government has confidently asserted that it will implement all of these reforms by the end of 2008 with the help of the same actors, who have not shown any professional commitment in the past and have not yet begun to abide by the law.

Sheikh Hasina, one of the most influential people in Bangladesh, who was living, in essence, under house arrest since her return from abroad in May, was arrested on alleged extortion charges by the police and other security forces without any arrest warrant and was taken to the court earlier than the normal office hours -- actions that have triggered widespread criticism. She will be prosecuted soon -- it is believed to be the government's intention to ban her from the political arena forever. The nation, on one hand, is frightened to face the roaring reaction from the pro-Awami League professionals and supporters. On the other hand, everyone is worried about the fate of democracy in the country as well as the transparency of the prosecution process in Sheikh Hasina's case.

The practice of arresting people without a warrant is a heritage of the police. Neither the government nor its law enforcement agents care about the laws of the land. The people of Bangladesh have to respond to such abnormal practices because they suffer from this misrule of law, both personally and nationally, when they are forced to suffer these politician-made disasters. There is also a culture of little compassion in the country. Whenever a person or family becomes a victim of political or governmental atrocities, no one cares for them. The people of Bangladesh are not sure of the intention of the government; they do not know what will happen next. Will the military-backed government push the nation and its citizens into another disastrous period? Are recent developments a way to build a democracy?
Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender living in Sylhet in Bangladesh who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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