Bangladesh: Arrest of Khaleda Zia
Guest Column by Dr. Anand Kumar
September 5, 2007
Source: South Asia Analysis Group
The arrest of former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on September 3, 2007 did not come as a surprise to many. In fact, people were so far wondering why the caretaker government first chose to arrest Shaikh Hasina before meting the same treatment to Khaleda Zia against whom charges were more glaring and of recent past. Khaleda was also gearing for this arrest. She has been talking of alternative leaders who can look after the party in her absence. The swiftness with which Mannan Bhuiyan, the leader of reformist within the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was expelled indicates that Khaleda was waiting for her arrest to announce the expulsion. Now with both Khaleda and Hasina behind bars, the caretaker government seems to have taken another step forward towards implementing its minus-two policy.
Bangladesh has been under emergency rule since January 11, 2007 when elections were cancelled after months of political violence and street battles between the two main political parties - the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League. The violence resulted as the existing caretaker government at that time headed by country’s president Iajuddin Ahmed was perceived to be biased by the main opposition alliance. They also wanted a number of political and electoral reforms so that the elections were held in a free and fair manner.
At that time Awami League had also demanded action against the corrupt leaders of the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami who were in power. However, the crackdown against corruption which was started in response to this demand subsequently also took into its embrace many top Awami League leaders, most importantly its chief Shaikh Hasina. A quarter in Bangladesh believes that 16 years of misrule of Khaleda Zia Shaikh Hasina and her arch rival Shaikh Hasina is primarily responsible for rampant corruption in Bangladesh. The present caretaker government in Bangladesh also subscribes to this view. Hence to free the politics of Bangladesh from these two leaders they are following a minus-two policy under which attempt is being made to keep these leaders away from the future elections in Bangladesh.
Initially an attempt was made to achieve this objective by expelling these leaders from the country. But as these leaders were reluctant to leave Bangladesh and the international opinion was not supportive of this step, the caretaker government had to think of some other strategy. The interim authority then decided to take legal measures. A number of corruption charges have been leveled against these leaders and Shaikh Hasina is already in detention since July 16, 2007. From the BNP side, though the elder son of Khaleda Zia, Tariq Rahman is behind bars the party chief had been free. This had made the whole exercise of the caretaker government against corruption look lopsided. To correct this mistake, corruption charges in which Khaleda is involved are now being pursued with greater vigour.
Charges against Khaleda and Koko
The powerful Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in Bangladesh on September 2, 2007 filed a case against former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia who is also chief of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), accusing her of awarding the work for constructing an inland container depot to favour her younger son Arafat Rahman Koko. The anti-graft body filed the case with a Dhaka police station also charging Koko and 11 other officials and businessmen.
This was the first graft charge brought by the military- backed government against the ex-premier who was accused of appointing Global Agro Trade Company (GATCO) as a contractor for both the Inland Container Depot in Kamalapur and the Chittagong port on March 1, 2003 without following the "proper bidding procedure". On the basis of these charges, a Dhaka court on September 3 sent Khaleda Zia to jail and placed her younger son Arafat Rahman Koko on a seven-day remand, a few hours after their arrests.
Fresh charges leveled against Hasina
The caretaker government also levelled a fresh charge against the detained former Bangladesh Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina Wajed on the same day. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) alleged that Hasina took as kickback Taka 3 crore for awarding a bid for the country's first private sector power plant in southwestern Khulna in 1997, when her party was in power. According to the charge, she took the money in the name of constructing a building for a memorial trust in Dhanmondi named after her father and Bangladesh founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Hasina had already been facing two cases filed by two Bangladeshi businessmen and she was detained on June 16 on the basis of the charges.
Both the leaders have denied the charges pressed against them. Khaleda told the court that the case was fabricated, motivated, conspiratorial and fictitious. She alleged that the charges were aimed at forcing her out of politics and she would come back stronger. Similarly, Hasina has denied all the charges against her and claimed that they were aimed at forcing her out of politics. The government has rejected the claims.
Expulsion of Mannan Bhuiyan
Immediately after her arrest, Khaleda’s lawyer Barrister Rafiqul Islam declared that the former prime minister has expelled the party Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Joint Secretary General Ashraf Hossain from their respective posts. She also appointed Khandaker Delwar Hossain as new Secretary General of BNP in place of Mannan Bhuiyan.
Split In BNP Imminent
The expulsion of BNP Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Joint Secretary General Ashraf Hossain from the party for their alleged conspiracies to break up the organisation has now ensured that the party would split in the coming days. Mannan Bhuiyan has termed the decision of expulsions as 'undemocratic, unconstitutional and unacceptable.' He criticized the decision because he was not given a chance to defend himself. About 130 leaders including a few standing committee members, former ministers and lawmakers in a joint statement also rejected the expulsions and termed the decision as 'undemocratic and unconstitutional'.
Mannan Bhuiyan has been the leader of reformists within the BNP. On June 25 he had announced his reform proposal, which said a member of the party cannot be the chairperson or the secretary general for more than two terms. Later he also announced a comprehensive proposal and taken initiatives to hold a party council amid the state of emergency. The chairperson and his supporters rejected the idea as they said they also wanted to implement their own reform proposals, and that the council can only be held once the ban on indoor politics is lifted.
Khaleda Zia later alleged that a group of leaders led by Mannan Bhuiyan were hatching conspiracies to break up the party, but Bhuiyan rejected the allegation. Bhuiyan and his followers tried to contact field level leaders in the last two months to get their support for his reform proposal, while Khaleda Zia talked to leaders at home and abroad through teleconferences.
International Community Wants Due Process of Law to Be Followed
The international community too is not surprised by the arrest of Khaleda. It has urged the caretaker government to ensure due process of legal and constitutional rights in dealing with former prime minister. Reacting to the arrest of Khaleda a spokesman for the US embassy in Dhaka said, “All individuals should be treated fairly and receive full range of their legal and constitutional rights. It is also incumbent upon the government to prove its case in a court of law.” He also informed that the embassy is following all cases to see if they meet international standards of due process. Similar views were expressed by the British high commission. India however, has been more guarded in its response. External Affairs Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna in New Delhi said, "We have seen reports to this effect (arrest of Zia). We would hope that the people of Bangladesh will be enabled to choose their representatives in a free, fair and democratic process…In our view, the early and full restoration of democracy, due process of law and respect for individual rights will contribute to the evolution of a stable, democratic and prosperous Bangladesh."
Awami League Wants Fair Trial of Khaleda
The crackdown against corruption in Bangladesh and the attempt of caretaker government to free the politics of the country from dynastic leaders has seen some of the gaps between the two main political parties patched up. Now they have been sympathizing with the plight of each other. After the arrest of Khaleda Awami League acting President Zillur Rahman said, "She (Khaleda) was a prime minister of the country; so we think she has a right to justice as a citizen of the country." He also termed the ACC's case against Hasina regrettable and said people would not believe that she could receive kickbacks from power companies in a bid to buy land for Bangabandhu Memorial Trust. He however disagreed that there was a comparison between cases leveled against Khaleda and Hasina.
Election on Schedule
Immediately after the arrest of Khaleda the caretaker government made it a point to declare that elections in Bangladesh would be held on schedule. This was stated by senior foreign policy adviser of the army-backed interim government in Moscow. After a meeting in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdury said, "It is the expressed declaration of the head of government and also of the electoral commission that the election will take place within December 2008." This promptness was shown by the caretaker government to remove any doubts about their intention to capture power.
Khaleda Wasted Huge Democratic Mandate
The people of Bangladesh had given huge democratic mandate to Khaleda. She could have used this mandate to improve the lot of Bangladeshi people. Unfortunately, she decided to do the opposite. The cadres of four party alliance led by Khaleda indulged in political vendetta. They attacked supporters of opposition parties. Minorities had extremely tough time under their rule. What was worse, in her bid to groom Tariq Rahman as political heir, she gave him a free hand in the governance of the country. This led to emergence of Hawa Bhawan as an alternative centre of power in Bangladesh, which was generally perceived as more powerful than PMO in the country. During the second term of Khaleda, Islamist parties also consolidated their hold over the country. BNP led government turned a blind eye to the terror activities of Islamists as they expected benefit from them during the elections. Islamists too found BNP closer to them ideologically. This was not to the liking of many BNP leaders who had Liberation War past. But they were not able to speak up fearing expulsion from the party. These voices of dissent became more powerful after they received some support from the caretaker government.
The political situation in Bangladesh has now become completely fluid with both the top politicians behind bars. The caretaker government appears determined not to allow them to come back to power. Unfortunately, no strong third political alternative has emerged in Bangladesh. People like Muhammad Yunus who won Nobel Prize for their pioneering work in the area of micro-credit soon realized that politics in south Asia is a different ballgame. Next few months are very crucial for the politics of Bangladesh. A large section of Bangladesh population is uneasy with current political situation. Though, some of the developments like crackdown on corruption in not undesirable, but it has also resulted into prolong period of political uncertainty. People are not opposed to drive against corruption but they also want restoration of their political rights. Places like Dhaka University, known for their revolutionary past are itching for a movement.
Even if the election in Bangladesh is fought without these two leaders, as of now it is difficult to visualize a political order free from the influence of these leaders. Hasina and Khaleda have already designated their favourite people as party leaders. These leaders may not be contesting the elections if the caretaker government succeeds in its design, but their dominant influence over their parties would remain. These leaders will indulge in backseat driving. There is no third political party in Bangladesh which can win the election on its own. Some hope however has been generated with the expulsion of Mannan Bhuiyan. But it remains to be seen what kind of support he gets from his former BNP colleagues. The crackdown against corruption of caretaker government is no doubt useful for Bangladesh politics but its long term impact will be limited if the elections once again throw either the same dynastic leaders or leaders who are in their complete control.
(The views expressed by the author are his own. The author can be reached at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)