Monday, October 22, 2007

Can a Truth Commission help Bangladesh?

Can a Truth Commission help Bangladesh?

SYLHET, October 22, 2007
Source: UPI Asia Online

Column: Humanity or Humor?
An ordinary citizen of Bangladesh, frustrated after a long job search in the public and private sectors, decided to establish a small factory to make cotton using cut pieces of fabric from garment factories. The man needed only a few things: a place for the factory, one or more cotton making machines, and an electricity supply to power the factory.

Having fulfilled the first two criteria, he went to the local office of the Power Development Board to apply for an electric connection. The engineer in charge asked for 75,000 taka (around US$1,000) for the approval of the electric connection. Officially the factory owner should have paid the government around 30,000 taka (about US$440) for the whole project.

Business begins with bribes -- this is an unavoidable fact to common businessmen in Bangladesh. Now the military-backed government is talking about establishing a Truth Commission in the country. The idea is to allow some kind of amnesty for the businessmen, according to Barrister Mainul Hosein, the government's Law and Information Adviser. Over the last few weeks this issue has been the hottest topic around.

At a recent meeting with the press Hosein reportedly said, "It is necessary to overcome the economic crisis through reconciliation with businessmen." He explained the idea of forming a commission where businessmen would confess their misdeeds as a means of dealing with major corruption charges, short of bringing them to trial. However, under questioning from reporters the adviser backed down, saying the law would not stipulate that the commission was only for businessmen.

No government official has, so far, clarified the idea of the Truth Commission beyond the barrister's remarks. The tight-lipped attitude of the government toward its talkative adviser suggests that the government itself is in the dark as to the purpose and function of such a body.

It may be too early to talk about this particular commission, as the government has not yet disclosed its structure or function. Yet it is necessary to assess the credibility of the institutions that implement the rule of law in the country, as well as the professionals and public servants involved in such institutions.

The role of the police, so far, has been to allow corrupt segments of society to compete with each other in the race of corruption, by themselves practicing corruption. In return for bribes, they allow offenders to commit crimes one after another; they work as musclemen for corrupt rich and influential groups to exploit and harass the common people, who are poor and helpless.

On one hand, the civil servants and professionals involved in implementing and upholding the laws of the land lost the public trust decades ago. The country's prosecution system is not only faulty and lacking skilled professionals, but also partisan by nature -- the judges, as part of a dysfunctional and lame judiciary, are incompetent to determine justice for its victims. Verdicts are products purchased by the rich in the courts, while the poor are destined to suffer for years for the crime of seeking justice.

On the other hand, the habit of misrule has established a culture of hiding the truth and distorting facts. People do not feel free to speak out for fear of harassment or abuse at the hands of public servants and even professionals who should protect them. This culture has resulted in a forced silence -- a social numbness all around.

The situation requires a monitoring authority, such as an ombudsman, to investigate the behavior of public servants and punish them automatically when misdeeds are discovered. The existing departmental procedures for holding such people accountable have completely failed to address the problems.

Common citizens of Bangladesh do not know who speaks the truth within the nation's legal institutions. Nobody knows who will benefit from the proposed Truth Commission. What will be the criteria for granting amnesty? What sort of solution will this commission bring to the nation's problems?

If the government creates a Truth Commission for the business community, then why not one also for the public servants and bureaucrats who create the problems for the businessmen and the citizens of all segments of society, who swim in a sea of corruption?

The nation has recently demonstrated its unique style of combating corruption by detaining a handful of people and putting them on trial. Meanwhile, hundreds of real champions of corruption remain protected by their loyalty to the armed forces. They are free to do what they will with their successful businesses and political positions.

The government has utterly failed to prove its credibility to the people or the media over the past ten months. Now it is planning to spend public money to set up another misguided and confused institution. Does anyone really think a Truth Commission can solve the prevailing problems in Bangladesh?
(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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