Daily Star


Mahfuz Anam’s recent editorial, The Sons are Coming, makes for interesting reading. I advise readers to then go back and read a pair of his columns from 2007: How could BNP come to this stage?, written after the arrest of Tarique Rahman on March 9, 2007, and The mandate that Khaleda Zia Wasted, that ran on September 4, 2007, the day after Khaleda Zia was arrested.

Browsing through Daily Star in 2007 is like watching a super-sad movie: you know how all this is going to end, but you cannot help but be touched by the optimism in the middle. An article on the National Coordination Committee, written by the breathless Julfiqar Ali Manik (as a part of his competition with Zafar Sobhan to see who could make grander pronouncements about the all-encompassing success of the CTG), nicely illustrates the point. It would have “ultra-crime bust forces” and a “mighty committee.” It would “be at the helm of all major hunts for corruption and criminal suspects.” It “will not rest on filing of cases but follow those up till the disposal by keeping constant contacts and communications with relevant authorities.” In fact, short of wearing leotards and flying through the sky, it would virtually have no other limitations.

Newt Gingrich apparently shut down the US government because Bill Clinton did not invite him to the presidential cabin while taking a trip in Air Force One. Did Mahfuz Anam support a coup because he was “teased” (Mr. Anam’s words, not mine) by TR?

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Daily Star Website Misspells "seat"

Echo chamber: Situation where one purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true.

Mahfuz Anam sometimes treats us to Commentaries, in addition to the editorials he pens every day. On October 21, his Commentary was called: Obviously, our leaders think we are idiots. It reprimanded Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for claiming that the Padma Bridge funding had been suspended due to the fault of the past BNP government, and Khaleda Zia for saying that:

Jamaat Ameer Motiur Rahman Nizami, Moulana Sayedee, and Jamaat Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed did not work against our Liberation War in 1971, and that they all had been arrested under false charges.

The problem is, Khaleda Zia never said anything like that. Anam’s own Daily Star reports that what Khaleda Zia actually said was:

At the rally, she questioned the standard of the International Crimes Tribunal. She demanded immediate stop to the trial and release of opposition leaders facing charges of crimes against humanity during the Liberation War.

“We’ve no objection to the trial, but it must be transparent and of international standards. If necessary, foreign lawyers should be allowed to defend the accused, but that is not being done,” she said at Altafunnesa ground, home district of party’s founder late president Ziaur Rahman.

Khaleda alleged that the tribunal has been formed with people from Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee which, according to her, cannot conduct a fair trial.

and the next day:

[Zia] also demanded release of all opposition leaders including those arrested for crimes against humanity. She said Awami League is the real anti-liberation force and that is why actions should be taken against them.

Mentioning the names of arrested Jamaat leaders including Motiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujaheed, she said the government arrested them in false cases. “They [govt] branded Jamaat leaders as anti-liberation force but the real anti-liberation force was Awami League.”

The difference here is extremely obvious. Khaleda Zia is complaining about the process under which the leaders of Jamaat (and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury) are being tried. Concerns about charges, defense counsel, and composition of the tribunal are all related to the process and working of the Tribunal. She is emphatically not passing judgment on the actual guilt of these people. In fact, she is explicitly saying: “We have no objection to the trial.”

As anyone who has followed David Bergman’s reports from Dhaka knows, questions about the Tribunal’s transparency and judicial standards are widespread, both in our country and outside. However, Anam has misrepresented Khaleda Zia’s comments as something completely different.

And then, the echo chamber jumped into effect. Awami League leaders have only been too happy to follow Anam’s leads and fantasize about locking Zia up. Syed Bardul Ahsan, in his incomparable style, has chimed in. As has Sohrab Hasan.

During BNP’s time, Daily Star played the lead in formenting anger and frustration against the government by publishing any and every story about inflation, price syndicate, corruption, terrorism, and so on. Visibly alarmed by the overwhelming response to Khaleda Zia’s road-marches, it has decided to do the opposite during this regime, and try to tar the ruling party and opposition equally every chance it gets, no matter the gravity of the mistakes committed by each side. And if Anam has to lie in order to make his point, well, when senior media figures lie, it suddenly becomes “spinning.”

But the stench is the same.

Five years ago, Anam wrote another of his Commentaries addressed to the current prime minister. Perhaps he should revisit it. It was titled “A little respect for truth would help.”

Daily Star Report Blaming Hawa Bhaban

About ten months into the current Awami League government’s tenure, Daily Star produced this sensational investigative report. In blaring headlines, it pinned the blame for the August 21 assassination attempt on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tarique Rahman (referred to as Hawa Bhaban bigwig in report), and some other BNP leaders. The assassination attempt was billed as a joint venture between BNP and an Islamic fundamentalist organization.

The timing of this report was extremely significant. Two years ago, it was quite common to hear predictions about BNP breaking apart or an end to the Zia-brand of politics. Rovian dreams of Awami League’s permanent majority was quite du jour. BNP was scheduled to have its annual party council at the end of 2009. A feasible connection between Tarique Rahman and a murder charge would not only put BNP’s leadership transition into question, it would have given the government a huge bargaining chip against the largest opposition party.

Julfikar Ali Manik claimed that a “highly privileged document” from “a top accused of the grenade carnage” was the source of this information. This document finally went public on April 7 2011, when Mufti Hannan was brought in front of a magistrate to give a confessional statement that mirrored exactly what the 2009 Daily Star report had claimed. Important to note, Hannan had already confessed to his own involvement in this crime back in 2007. This additional information was only to pave the way for Tarique Rahman and other BNP leaders to be also indicted for the same crime.

Fast forward to September 27, less than a week ago. Having involved everyone the government wanted to involve, the case starts. Mufti Hanna submits a document stating that his supposed confessions were extracted by torture. How does Daily Star cover the story?

Daily Star Report on Retraction

It buries the retraction deep into the story. Which is funny, because the news that the government allegedly extracted a confession from a prisoner in its custody, only so that it can frame opposition politicians, ought to be big news. Amar Desh has reproduced the entire petition, including description of the torture. Eyebrows have been raised for less.

Daily Star Report on BNP

The next day, BNP, quiet understandably, held a press conference claiming vindication and pressing for the name of its leaders to be dropped from the charge-sheet. Again, in the headline, Daily Star made no reference to the alleged retraction. A casual reader glancing at the headline, as I did, would have probably thought it referred to some garden-variety claim made in some rally somewhere, and missed this entire back story.

In an incredible counterattack, to make sure the retraction of the confession was downplayed, Daily Star printed a competing news article claiming that Hannan’s legal petition had no standing. The next day, it got eminent jurist State Minister for Law Quamrul Islam to say the same thing.

Daily Star Report on Retraction of Confession

Let us look at the legal claims that a confession given under Section 164 cannot be retracted. Section 164 (3) of Bangladesh’s Criminal Procedure Code states:

(3) A Magistrate shall, before recording any such confession, explain
to the person making it that he is not bound to make confession and that if he does
so it may be used as evidence against him and no magistrate shall record any such
confession unless, upon questioning the person making it, he has reason to believe
that it was made voluntarily; and, when he records any confession, he shall make a
memorandum at the foot of such record to the following effect :-
“I have explained to (name) that he is not bound to make a confession and that, if he
does so any confession he may this confession was voluntarily made. I was taken in
my presence and hearing, an was read over to the person making it and admitted by
him to be correct, and it contains a full and true account of the statement made by
him.
(Signed) A. B.,
Magistrate.”

This makes abundantly clear that voluntariness is at the heart of any confession obtained through Section 164. The fact that confessions extracted through torture are illegal are no surprise; the courts of Bangladesh have been very exact in this regard. Our Supreme Court has explicitly held, in State Vs. Abul Hashem, 3 MLR (HCD) 30, that a magistrate cannot record a confession that is extracted through torture. And then, just to make sure, the magistrate has to affix his own signature at the end, verifying that the statement was not produced through torture.

What factors should a court look at to see whether there were any indication of torture or general police coercion? One very important factor is whether the confession is extracted after being in police custody, or whether there is any possibility that the witness may be taken back to remand right after his interaction with the magistrate. In State Vs. Farid Karim, 8 BLT(AD) 87, the fact that the accused was in police custody for unexplained two days before the police produced him for making confessional statement, was one of the important factors in the confessional statement being found involuntary.

Has Mufti Hanna been taken in custody, also called remand, often? According to a very desultory Google search, he has been remanded for 7 days on September 6, 2009, 5 days on September 12, 2009, 3 days on September 23, 2009, for 7 days on December 3, 2009, for 3 days on July 18, 2010, 2 days on August 22, 2010, and 5 days on December 27, 2010 . After making the statement, he was remanded for 1 day on April 26, 2011. That makes for 32 days of remand, and potential police torture, before and  1 day after making this confession statement. During the remand hearing held on August 22, 2010, Hannan tallied the number of days for which he had been in remand at 369 days over the past five years, and begged the magistrate not to grant any more remand. Remand, though, was granted.

Hanna was in police remand for half of September 2009. Presumably, it was this during this period that the document which became Julfikar Manik’s investigative piece was produced.

Even if this confession was made through torture, should we care if such confession statements cannot be retracted? Yes. There exists a plethora of judicial opinion, specifically State Vs. Lalu Miah and another, 39 DLR(AD) 11, which holds that any allegation of torture which forced the confessional statement, is to be treated the same as a petition for the withdrawal of the statement. Now that Hannan has claimed torture in police custody, the judge must decide whether his earlier confessional statement is credible. So the claim that there is no legal basis for withdrawing his confessional statement is without merit.

So why is this about the Daily Star’s coverage of this whole issue, rather than the much serious issue of torture of a prisoner in government custody, in a conspiracy to subvert the opposition political forces. There are two main reasons. The first is that we hear about these human rights violations through newspapers, and especially the Daily Star. If not for the Daily Star, Limon would be rotting in a jail cell or dead by now. So, when the newspaper itself decided to obfuscate the story and shift the focus to legal technicalities like getting permission from jail authorities instead of the much bigger and more serious allegation of torture in government custody, it renders hollow its supposed commitment to human rights and reinforces the suspicion that the news printed in Daily Star is slanted to serve a particular agenda.

Secondly, torture does not occur in a vacuum. No torture can flourish in a society unless it decides, as a whole, that certain individuals or classes of individuals are exempt from the protection of law. It very much seems like Daily Star has made such a finding for Mufti Hannan, which makes the paper, in general, and the relevant individuals, in particular, accomplices to torture. And the insidious thing is that the class of people who can be tortured tends to grow and metastasize at unbelievable speed. You may think that it only includes people with beards, and then suddenly, it also includes young university students out at night. 

This saga is by no means over. While there is an aspect to it that has a purely partisan aspect, this incident also serves as a reflection of the values that we hold as a society. And those values are fraying fast.

Major General (rt) Tarique Ahmed Siddique is an Advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with rank of cabinet minister. (For those interested, he is the brother of Dr. Shafiq Siddique, who is married to Sheikh Rehana, Sheikh Hasina’s sister.) He held an extraordinary press conference in the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday, where he said:

1. There is currently an ongoing international conspiracy to disband RAB.

2. The United States has a similar force to RAB, called Homeland Security.

3. Limon was involved with criminals.

4. All those writing about Limon are involved in the conspiracy to disband RAB.

5. A certain newspaper editor is at the forefront of the campaign to ban RAB.

6. This newspaper editor was involved with the 21st August grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina.

7. This editor is probably a supporter of terrorists and militants.

8. The government has enough evidence linking him to these attacks so that they could arrest him right now if they so wished.

9. However, the government shall refrain because it does not want to harass journalists.

So, where to start? In case there is any confusion, the editor in question is Prothom Alo’s Matiur Rahman. Allegations that he was involved in the 21 August grenade attacks against Sheikh Hasina had so far been limited to the realms of nutty conspiracy theories. They were propagated primarily by Kaler Kontho, a rival vernacular, and mouthpiece of the Bashundhara corporate group (Prothom Alo and Daily Star are owned by Transcom). In fact, merely a month ago, Matiur Rahman had won a decision in the Press Council that found such allegation to be without any supporting facts and issued a warning to Kaler Kontho.

Major General (rt) Siddique ran the military intelligence outfit, DGFI, and the force that guards the PM, SSF, during the last Hasina government. This term, he functions as Bangladesh’s de facto Defense Minister. Given that he has confirmed what Kaler Kontho has been saying all along, will the Press Council now apologize to Abed Khan and Kaler Kontho? Interestingly, both Prothom Alo and Daily Star have completely blacked out the story so far. I assume lots of emergency meetings are being held at CA Bhaban right now.

As a sidenote, Homeland Security is not a military or para-military force, it’s government department in the United States government, somewhat akin to our Home Ministry. Although in a country where the chief justice goes around saying safety of the state is the supreme law, nothing really shocks any more, but it would still be nice if blatant ignorance was the exception rather than the rule.

Showing us that all sorts of dynasties can coexist and flourish side-by-side in Bangladesh, Zafar Sobhan has very capably taken over the defense of Dr. Yunus (here and here) from his illustrious father. Mr. Sobhan’s main point is that this witch-hunt against Dr. Yunus hurts Sheikh Hasina’s international standing abroad, and detracts from what should be the Awami League’s real mission: the destruction of Tarique Rahman.

I absolutely defer to Mr. Sobhan on the ups and downs of our prime minister’s international standing. However, I am still left with some disquieting thoughts. Dr. Yunus is arguably the most accomplished Bangladeshi alive. He is certainly the most well-connected Bangladeshi alive. If all Mr. Sobhan is left with is appealing to international sentiments, one has to ask, is there no domestic constituency left in Bangladesh that can dissuade or counsel Hasina from this disastrous policy? The fifty-plus cabinet, the half a dozen advisers, too many MPs to count, the much-vaunted sushil brigade, and no one to tell or show Hasina that you can’t sink Dr. Yunus?

Instead, Mr. Sobhan is left appealing to the prime minister’s international standing. It’s not a completely futile threat. Joseph Stalin once asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” Sheikh Hasina isn’t likely to be quite as flippant; she knows better than any of us the path that took her to Gono Bhaban in 2007 – 2008. However, it’d have been nice to be able to solve this one mess by ourselves.

Speaking of 2007 – 2008, we have fond memories of the glory days when the unbeatable troika of Messrs. Sobhan, Wahid, and Ahsan used to regale us with grand tales and lofty ambitions from the rarified perch of Daily Star’s op-ed page. However, as they say, all good things come to an end. Mr. Sobhan is no longer at Daily Star, and Mr. Wahid now graces Shah Alam’s Daily Sun. Syed Badrul Ahsan alone is left to educate and inspire us. But he has switched into over-drive recently; there are only so many rags that pro-AL tycoons will be able to publish in the next three years, and the plum editorial jobs aren’t going to land themselves. Thus, we got this gem:

Khaleda Zia’s vow of nullifying every act of the Awami League is a patent threat to all of us. If the threat comes to pass, the sunlight will go fleeing from our lives, the moon will lose its luster, poetry will die, politics will be no more, rivers will not run and good men and women will be fugitives in the wild woods.
Everything will pall. Everything will pale. Everything will fall.

If Mr. Sobhan is sending a message from the Awami League base to its leadership, Mr. Ahsan’s message is from the Awami League leadership to the people, and especially those who make up the readership of the Star: Yes, we are proving to be quite bad, and we have also started losing elections, but stick with us, otherwise, dum dum dum…

Yes, those currently in power have started thinking about the next elections. Which is good, because our opposition seems to find it difficult to focus on a time-window past the next two weeks. They should take a leaf from Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed Joy, the eminent computer scientist “with graduation from Texas University at Arlington, USA” who, like many before him, has discovered the convenient advantages of one-party rule, as long as it’s his party doing the ruling. Another message from AL, and perhaps the most significant one yet.

From the Daily
Star
:

According to Singapore newspaper
The Straits Times report, the court on Monday convicted and fined
businessman Lim Siew Cheng $900,677 (S$1.2 million) for
transferring Koko’s $3.17 lakh and holding the money in his
personal account upon Koko’s advice.

From The
Straits Times
:

Lim Siew Cheng, 63,
should have suspected the money could be the proceeds of criminal
conduct and should have reported it to the Corrupt Practices
Investigation Bureau or the police. He did neither and on Monday he
pleaded guilty and was fined $6,000 each for the two offences under
laws to prevent money-laundering.

Two fines of
6,000 for a total of 12,000. Not 1.2 Million, or 1,200,000. But
hey, when the Zia family is concerned, exaggerating things
a hundred times is nothing new. Expectations of accuracy and
honest reporting from the Bangladeshi media? Not unless your name
is Dr. Yunus.