Monday, August 27, 2007

Never open an umbrella in Bangladesh

Commentary: Never open an umbrella in Bangladesh
SYLHET, Aug. 27

Source: UPI Asia On line
Column: Humanity or Humor?
Bangladesh is in a dangerous transition that began with the declaration of a state of emergency and the suspension of fundamental rights at the beginning of 2007. Initially, the interim, military-backed government was widely supported by the people, which purported to be hell-bent on eradicating the widespread corruption that plagues the nation. However, increases in the cost of living have begun to foment unrest and opposition, leading to outbreaks of violent clashes last week and the imposition of ongoing curfews.

During a football match between two Dhaka University departments last Monday, the university's playing field turned into a battlefield. The clashes were apparently sparked by a student opening an umbrella while watching the game, which blocked some soldiers' view of play. This caused a dispute, which resulted in the soldiers starting to beat the students for their "offence." Other students and teachers came to their assistance, but were in turn insulted and assaulted, leading to five of them being injured.

As news of this incident spread around the campus, protests began, with the students calling for the punishment of the soldiers in question and the withdrawal of the military camp stationed on the university's grounds.

The military and police in Bangladesh have only one way of dealing with protestors -- the big stick. Demonstrating students were indiscriminately beaten, in some cases so severely that they will be in hospital for several weeks. That evening the police began raiding the university's campus and dormitories, using tear gas and beatings, in order to arrest those it considered "culprits." As the news spread, clashes also spread to other universities and cities across the country, accompanied by the ransacking of public and private property, including vehicles, markets and shopping malls.

The authorities responded with mass beatings, mass arrests and the injuring of hundreds, including bullet injuries. One rickshaw puller was killed in the clashes. The closure of all universities and other academic institutions in the country was ordered, and all students were told to vacate their dormitories before a curfew was imposed at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. The curfew continues, although cut from an initial 21 hours per day to five hours per night. The government also blocked all mobile phone networks for a period.

Nobody is allowed to complain about the military-backed government's response. Instead, the media has been threatened into censoring itself for fear of "breaching" the emergency powers ordinance and rules currently in force.

Early Thursday morning, teachers belonging to pro-Awami League professional bodies -- two from Dhaka and three from Rajshahi universities respectively -- were arrested by the authorities and held incommunicado until Saturday afternoon, when they were produced before their respective cities' courts. The two Dhaka University teachers were remanded for four further days, while the three Rajshahi University teachers were remanded for a further ten days, which is unprecedented in Bangladesh's recent history.

Also Saturday, the chief of the Bangladesh army, Gen. Moeen U Ahmed, accused the teachers of treachery, quoting undisclosed law-enforcement agents alleging that the teachers trained students to cause the troubles at the football match. The teachers were further accused of holding meetings with diplomats from a "neighbouring country" in recent weeks and colluding with the latter's intelligence agency, which provided financial support to foment the violence, in order to topple the government in Bangladesh. Thankfully, the heroic military stepped in to save the nation from this vile plot!

Now, thousands of still-to-be-identified people have been accused of violating the country's emergency rules and other laws of the land in 34 cases lodged at different police stations in the country's major cities. The number of these so-called accused, whoever they may be, is estimated at between 10,000 and 87,000, depending on reports. According to the police, investigations are being conducted based on information collected by the intelligence agencies and video footage from private TV channels.

These 34 cases, and the potential for mass and potentially arbitrary arrests and detention that they entail, raise significant concerns. We need only recall the gross violations of human rights that occurred in the ironically named "Operation Clean Heart" from Oct. 16, 2002 to Jan. 9, 2003, to see why. At the time, after the alleged failure of civilian administration and in the name of restoring law and order in the country, the authorities launched a military-led operation that resulted in thousands of arrests, torture and as many as 44 deaths in custody. These deaths were explained away as having all resulted from heart attacks. The current situation in Bangladesh, where military officials are increasingly supplanting civilians in state institutions and where the authorities are seeking to crack down on opposition, is of concern given past practices.

Furthermore, the alleged treachery by the aforementioned teachers is difficult to swallow for several reasons. Firstly, it is highly convenient for the government to have found scapegoats so quickly. The intelligence agencies have a very poor record in catching culprits in prominent cases, including a grenade attack on a Bangladesh Awami League meeting on Aug. 21, 2004; a grenade attack on British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury in Sylhet in 2004; simultaneous blasts in four cinema halls in Mymensingh town; and the bomb attacks across the country on Aug. 17, 2005.

In blaming the recent arrests on attempts by foreign actors to undermine the Bangladeshi authorities, the underlying grievances of the people of Bangladesh -- notably the everyday struggles that are being made worse by ongoing increases ino the cost of living and the suspension of fundamental rights under the state of emergency -- are being side-stepped.

It is hoped that the personal integrity of the teachers in question will be respected and that the investigation of these events and any subsequent trial will be fully transparent and fair. This is the only way the authorities will be able to convince their people and the world that these men are not mere scapegoats. In the meantime, it is hoped that no umbrellas will be opened during football matches in the country.
(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender who has been working on human rights issues in Bangladesh for more than a decade. He also worked as a journalist in the country in the 1990s.)

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