Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Trial of Sheikh Hasina must be observed by an international jury

Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) WEEKLY REVIEW

The care-taker government being run by Chief Advisor Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed and Foreign Affairs Advisor Ifthekar A. Chowdhury has so far been able to convey to the international community that it is a civilian government committed to strengthening democracy in Bangladesh. Having served as Ambassador to the Permanent Missions of Bangladesh to Geneva and New York, Chowdhury is eloquent with the human rights lingua franca and knows the human rights jargons too well. With regard to Sheikh Hasina's arrest on 16 July 2007 this is what Chowdhury had to say: "We expect Sheikh Hasina issue will be resolved quickly with due legal process ... What is important here is that if anybody is arrested, evidence and due process are to be followed."

Ifthekar Chowdhury's response should meet naïve concerns of India, United Kingdom and the United States. They had demanded for ensuring “rights within the legal process and that the process is not violated to protect anyone's interests”.

Does the arrest of Sheikh Hasina with hundreds of troops at 5 am meet international standards for affecting arrest? Is she going to run away from the trial process or temper with the evidence that she had to be denied bail and therefore put in jail? After all, she was ready to face the charges but it was the care-taker government which did not want her to return to the country. There was no need to arrest and put her in jail if the government has the “evidence” as stated by Ifthekar Chowdhury. In fact, on 17 July 2007, the Anti-Corruption Commission served notices on Sheikh Hasina along with Khaleda Zia to submit their wealth statements to examine whether there is any ground for filing graft cases against them. In legal language, Sheikh Hasina is being asked to submit self-incriminating documents so that further detention can be justified. The government had first arrested Sheikh Hasina and sent her to jail and then issued notices to submit statements from jail. Is this a fair process?

It is not a normal criminal trial but a political trial under the garb of confronting corruption. Yet, international community's call for the due process of law only cast aspersions until she is proven innocent. That the entire exercise of arresting her and denial of bail is a conspiracy to keep her out of political process and split Awami League is ignored by the international community. Sadly, even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has so far failed to mince a single word.

International community undoubtedly holds greater leverage over whichever administration it might be in Dhaka. Yet, naivety often appeared to be the monopoly of the international community in dealing with situations such as the one now prevailing in Bangladesh. International community often believes that temporary authoritarian measures are the panacea to deal with the anarchy of democracy. Is it not the case that even King Gyanendra's Royal Commission on Corruption Control was considered as the solution to deal with corrupt politicians of Nepal?

International community naively perceives it to be a care-taker government. Since a care-taker government is unelected and unaccountable in every sense of the word it must function within the ambit of the Constitution. But, the care-taker government of Bangladesh has abrogated the constitution, subsumed the role of judiciary and brought ordinances to set aside the constitution and the principles of the rule of law and due process of law. The right to freedom of association and assembly has been restricted to such an extent that even “indoor politics”, unheard in the lexicon of political science, has been banned.

International community is yet to accept that care-taker government is a military-run one. While Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed controls the grip over the nation, his colleagues, Brig General (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain and General Lt General (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury as respective head the most crucial agencies of the regime, the Election Commission and anti-Corruption Commission have been instrumental to pre-decide as to who shall rule Bangladesh after the next elections. That is not democratic by any yardstick.

On 16 July 2007, the Election Commission of Bangladesh announced the roadmap to hold general elections by 2008. One and half years should be sufficient for the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission to fix the winner beforehand.

I. Election Commission

After the government banned indoor politics, the Election Commission headed by Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain made some sound bites. Its simple agenda is to crop up new political parties and keep the Awami League and BNP out of the fray. It made several proposals in this direction:

Proposal 1: No foreign funding except for the Jamaats

The Election Commission imposed a ban on receiving funds from foreign sources to run political parties or their election campaigns. A number of Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders detained on charge of corruption have allegedly admitted to taking money from foreign sources to run their party's election campaigns.

Obviously, Jamaat-i-Islami, the highest recipient of the foreign funds does not figure in the radar of General Hossain.

Proposal 2: No foreign branches but only foreign advices

The Election Commission is weighing a provision for restricting participation in the polls by the political parties having branches abroad. After all, the Awami League branch of the United Kingdom had campaigned heavily.

While Awami League has not been listed as a “terrorist organization”, the Jamaats with strong links with the terrorists can continue to get guidance even from Jammats across the world.

Proposal 3: Social engineering for the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party

On 3 July 2007, the Election Commission stated that it will not sit in dialogue with any political parties on its proposed electoral reforms until the much-talked intra-party reforms are completed. The care-taker government has been openly encouraging the split in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. It is an extraordinary attempt at social engineering.

II. Anti-Corruption Commission

The branding of Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world consecutively for five times by the Transparency International has come handy to the care-taker government. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is the strong arm of the Care-taker government and is headed by Lt Gen (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury. General Chowdhury calls all the shots and the latest was his briefing for the Chief Justice M Ruhul Amin and Attorney General Barrister Fida M Kamal to set up separate benches at the High Court for disposing of the cases relating to the ACC.

Over 200 persons including UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking of women and children, Sigma Huda have been charged with corruptions. The ACC will put the final stamp as to who can contest the elections.

Though the Jamaats were part of the government with the BNP, there have not been any corruption charges against the Jamaat ministers. Neither any army personnel has so far been arrested for corruption.

III. Why Hasina and not Khaleda?

The question remains as to why Sheikh Hasina and not Khaleda Zia been taken into custody. This is despite the fact that corruption was more widespread during Khaleda's term. In comparison, Sheikh Hasina's family members had little influence on the government unlike Begum Zia's notorious sons.

The fact remains that it is Sheikh Hasina who poses the most serious threat to the care-taker government. Her tumultuous return to Dhaka from the UK after government banned her entry further strengthened her hold on the party. Her return was the most serious challenge the care-taker government faced at a time when Khaleda Zia was negotiating her exile to Saudi Arabia.

On return, she has been consistently vocal. Finally, she touched the most critical issue which politicians never touched even during normal situations. Recently she asked whether the budget for the notorious Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) is for breaking up existing political parties and for launching new ones. In fact, the district administrators have been making lists of so-called clean politicians and that many of them are being visited by the DGFI to join the new so-called king's party. The care-taker government has also been openly asking senior leaders of both the BNP and the AL to move against their party leaders or face corruption charges. That is why Sheikh Hasina stated that a civilized and democratic society cannot let an intelligence agency control everything while it is “arresting and torturing politicians and forcing them to say what the members of the agency like to hear”.

It is never late to wake up. International community must realize that the Generals are in no mood to give up the power and they are not here to promote democracy and rule of law. They are hell-bent on creating alternatives with the help of the Jamaats and breakaway factions of the BNP and the AL. If nothing works, as the new King of Bangladesh, Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed suggested on 10 July 2007, a "constitution review commission" should be set up.

International community must urge the care-taker government to immediately release Sheikh Hasina from jail. Nobody is suggesting to the international community that they should demand withdrawal of the cases filed against Sheikh Hasina. Since she is neither running away from the trial (a preferable choice of the Care-taker government) nor is there any possibility of tempering with evidence, the demand for her release from the prison is legitimate and can conform to the diplomatese. In addition, the care-taker government must make public all the evidence produced during the trial and allow United Nations and other international representatives to observe the trial to determine as to whether it meets international standards. The diplomatic missions in Dhaka must send their representatives to the relevant court to observe the proceedings of the trial.

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