Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bangladesh president is facing questions

Bangladesh president's powers in question

By Rater Zonaki
Column: Humanity or Humor?
Source: UPI Asia Online
July 29, 2008

Bangladesh's President Iazuddin Ahmed is now in a critical situation. The Supreme Court has declared that the president has no constitutional authority to impose any rules that are not related to calling a general election as long as there is no Parliament in the country.

Also, the media has exposed a "canal scandal" by members of the president's family, alleging abuse of power. The situation has given rise to questions as to whether the president will remain in office, and who will replace him in the coming days?

On July 13, after a long hearing, the High Court passed a verdict in a case challenging the legality of an ordinance on Muslim marriage registration and divorce. Three senior lawyers submitted arguments as friend-of-the-court briefs. The court ruled that the president, as head of an unelected caretaker regime, has no authority to impose an ordinance that is irrelevant to an election. The court declared such an action to be beyond the powers granted the president by the Constitution, and thus null and void.

The High Court's decision has already been challenged by the military-controlled government before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Therefore the people must wait for the issue to be resolved at the highest level of the judiciary – which has already created controversy by abdicating its own constitutional power to consider granting bail to people arrested under the current government’s emergency laws.

However, the High Court's decision has already shaken the government’s policymakers and raised questions concerning the legality of some 77 ordinances passed since the State of Emergency was proclaimed on Jan. 11, 2007. The president has been giving his consent by default to ordinances drafted by the military-controlled government, regardless of the necessity and legality of these so-called laws.

Adding to the president’s woes, a Bangladeshi newspaper published a report on July 23 alleging that part of a canal in the capital city of Dhaka has been permanently leased to the president's wife, Professor Anowara Begum, who is the chairperson of the governing body of the British Columbia School situated adjacent to the canal.

The process of leasing the submerged land was initiated by the president on Nov. 2, 2006 – less than 48 hours after he took the oath of office as chief adviser of the caretaker government on Oct. 31. The previous government of Khaleda Zia had rejected the same deal, after considering objections raised by various ministry officials.

The authorities handed over the submerged land to the president’s wife on June 17, 2007. The media have found a number of irregularities in the whole process.

Ever since the president took over the office of chief adviser – equivalent to the prime minister – of the caretaker government, there have been debates concerning the legality of his move. The two recent incidents have brought the president’s relationship with the law into further question.

First, if the 77 ordinances imposed by the president under the military-controlled regime are illegal, what happens to the orders and decisions taken under those ordinances? Emergency powers laws have been used to arrest, detain and implicate hundreds of thousands of persons in Bangladesh; what will happen to the victims of these illegitimate ordinances? Who will be held responsible for such a disaster? How will the responsible persons and officials be brought to justice and punished, or will they be given amnesty?

The second issue concerns the president’s own position. Iazuddin Ahmed completed his five-year term in office on Sept. 5, 2007, but since there has been no Parliament to elect a new president, he has simply continued in office.

Ahmed’s critics are putting pressure on him to step down as a result of the "canal scandal." To take responsibility for his actions, he should hand over the office to the speaker of the Parliament, Jamir Uddin Sarkir, according to the Constitution.

Another group of critics suspects that army chief Moeen U Ahmed wishes to hold the office of president, even though in public he denies this. Some even suspect that this ambition was behind the approval of the canal deal in June 2007 – and the subsequent disclosure of the deal one year later – in order to create space for pro-military intellectuals and journalists to call for the general to take over the office of president.

Those who calculate the politics of power say that Sarkir, the speaker – who has links to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – may not be considered impartial enough to serve as the country’s president. Therefore, pro-military voices say, in order to maintain the neutrality of the office, General Moeen should be "persuaded" to grace the nation by taking the role of head of state.

In these complicated circumstances, the people of Bangladesh are waiting to see whether any real investigation takes place into the president’s alleged wrongdoing, whether he steps down and who replaces him. When these questions are answered they may be able to guess who caused them all to be raised in the first place.

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national with a degree in literature from a university in Dhaka. He began his career as a journalist in 1990 and engaged in human rights activism at the grassroots level in his country for more than a decade. He also worked as an editor for publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues and contributed to other similar publications.)

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