Khaleda Zia


In the current conflict of attrition between BNP and Awami League, AL’s main advantage is that it has the resources of the state to inflict as much damage as it can on BNP. Furthermore, the creation of RAB means that AL is able to hand-pick the most AL-leaning of armed forces men and send them on killing sprees, while the rest are kept cooped up in the cantonments. Against this, all BNP can hope for is to slowly unravel the unwieldy coalition of military and civilian bureaucrats and businessmen who are now currently keeping AL in power. In this conflict, as in most conflicts in Bangladesh, the situation favors the state.

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Sheikh Hasina is sitting in her chair at the Prime Minister’s Office. Suddenly, the head of SSF, or BGB, or the Engineering Corp for that matter, suddenly comes into her office and tells her that Tanvir Mohammad Twoki, a brilliant young student, has been murdered and that the suspicion is that the family of Shamim Osman is behind it. Hasina stays silent. Or perhaps, more realistically, she launches several blistering ad hominem attacks against the bearer of the news, Khaleda Zia, “shushil samaj,” and her pet peeves of the day. However, she doesn’t order any specific course of action.

Would that make her culpable for the murder of Tauqi?

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March 12 saw over a hundred thousand people gather to listen to Khaleda Zia speak. They came, despite the fact that all long-distance transportation to Dhaka, including buses, trains, and ferries, had been stopped the last three days, that police was indulging in mass arrests of anyone even suspected of going to the rally, and that on the day of the rally, AL workers armed with weapons were stationed at various points of the city to “discourage” people from attending the rally.
But you wouldn’t know any of that from reading Afsan Chowdhury’s latest. In fact, his piece is a perfect illustration of the iron-clad rules governing BD journalism. All criticism of AL is generic and vague: “AL came out looking like a bunch of scared rabbits”, “the AL who now stands out looking inept”, “But what the AL also did in its failed attempt to contain the crowds from swelling was use its cadres”, “AL had a bad case of nerves”, “AL decided to add to it by making direct broadcasts impossible”, “the party came out looking so novice like, out of depth and touch, hardly the kind of maturity that can handle a political crisis.”
You see, AL is a party governed by a series of inter-changeable drones, and all members have the exact same contribution to policy-making, so it makes no sense to mention the prime minister, or any of her advisers, or members of her cabinet. The party is governed by a hive-mind. Everyone is equally culpable: no need to mention anyone by name.
By contrast, the criticism of BNP is sharp and personal: “Khaleda where her political imagination is limited by her lack of understanding of what people want”, “she however left out was significant which is any reference to the War Crimes Trial”, “It was a very convenient but unpleasant silence on the part of Khaleda Zia”, “Khaleda has declared a number of new programmes including a hartal. So we are back to the hot and heavy season.”
Simple: BNP bad, Khaleda Zia worse.
Finally, this may come as a shock to Chowdhury, but there is no law “that forbids any criticism” of the war crimes trial. There is, however, Section 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which is titled “Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech.”  It protects the right of all Bangladeshis to express themselves as citizens of a free and democratic country. Perhaps he should glance at it.

It is always sad when a government with an overwhelming majority like the present Awami League government loses its way. Unfortunately, a host of recent developments all point to that direction. One theme that all these events have in common is that they represent attacks on free speech and political expression, something that should be sacrosanct in all democratic societies.

The most glaring demonstration of this trend has been evinced by the behavior of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who, in her speech in the last session of Parliament, accused the members of parliament of her own parties of “arming her enemies”, by criticizing some members of her cabinet, specifically Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain. Emboldened by this, Awami League General Secretary and LGRD Minister Syed Ashraful Islam accused the media of “creating the ground for Hasina’s death.” Of course, once the two most important leaders of the ruling party expressed their disdain of dissent in media so openly, other Awami League leaders wasted no time in springing into action. Supporters of Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, who has faced a lot of flak for suggesting the unqualified drivers be given long-distance driving permits, have seized bundles of newspapers, and set them to fire. A peaceful human chain organized by BNP to protest the crumbling state of infrastructure was attacked and broken up by Awami League activists. To cap it all, Hasina herself, in a cabinet meeting, instructed intelligence agencies to investigate the organizers of a peaceful rally held in the Shahid Minar on Eid Day.

Unfortunately, the government has made our judicial system an indispensable tool in its all-out war against free speech. Some of the developments are petty: like a sedition case being filed against a cleric for criticizing the government during the weekly sermon. Others are more serious, like Sheershanews editor Ekramul Haq being put in police remand (code for torture) multiple times for writing about corruption charges against certain members of the cabinet, specifically State Minister for Environment Hasan Mahmud. The use of the judiciary to achieve partisan ends only promises to heat up further after the High Court convenes on October 9th after its vacation. BNP acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Standing Committee member Moudud Ahmed have already been summoned to answer charges of contempt of court. If that goes well, the field is already being prepared to embroil Khaleda Zia in the same contempt charges.

Unfortunately, these tendencies were in full display during the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh, which added Article 7A stating that both to “subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this Constitution or any of its article” or to take any action that “abets or instigates… approves, condones, supports or ratifies” this subversion is sedition, and is to be punishable by death. Just to put this matter into perspective, given that this blogpost is fairly critical of Article 7A of the Constitution, I have just committed sedition. If a reader reads this post and approves, she has also committed sedition. Moreover, if someone then forwards this link (I know, highly unlikely) to a friend by email, that’s sedition too.

We are all going to drown in a sea of sedition.

When finalizing this Amendment, Hasina said in the House that she had acted thus to ensure ““empowerment of people, and their democratic and voting rights.” Perhaps, she had in mind, the provision that said that several parts of the Constitution, including one which titled her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Father of the Nation, could not be altered or amended in the future. Although, it seems like depriving future generations of the power to change the document that will affect their lives in such important ways is the express opposite of empowerment.

However, Hasina is not in good company. In the United States, home of the world’s most famous constitution, there has only been, in the country’s entire two hundred years plus history, only a single proposed amendment that sought to place any topic beyond any further debate or amendment, and it was the infamous Corwin Amendment. In this proposed amendment, in a last-ditch effort to avoid the Civil War, it was proposed that subject of slavery would not be open to any future amendments, effectively meaning that no future government could outlaw slavery. As we know, the Civil War was fought, and an alternative amendment, now known as the Thirteenth Amendment, was incorporated to outlaw slavery.

Hasina and her party love to glorify the role of Awami League in the 1971 War of Liberation. Unfortunately, it has been overwhelmingly documented by Dr. Badiul Alam Majumbad of SUJON (not a big fan of BNP), that the inspiration for this Fifteenth Amendment comes directly from the Pakistani Constitution. Around the world, there are have been two prominent laws passed in the last year that punish people for saying something. One was passed in Saudi Arabia, and it mandates jail sentences for anyone who criticizes the King of Saudi Arabia. The other was in Israel, which criminalized “calling for the boycott of Israel.”

This is not good company for Bangladesh to keep. As the current government finds itself increasingly unpopular, the risk remains that it will use these new laws to further crack down on dissent and opposing political parties. Which will be a sad ending for a government that held out so much promise.

Three cabinet-level figures: Sahara Khatun, H. T. Imam, and Tarique Ahmed Siddique, have informed us that questioning the existence of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is akin to supporting extremists and terrorists. As it happens, the magic of the Internet and Google can allow us to go back in time, and remember when all these individuals, as well as both Awami League and BNP, had very different views on this matter.

Daily Star: October 19, 2004.

AL calls Rab killing force, demands its disbandment
Staff Correspondent

The main opposition Awami League (AL) yesterday demanded disbandment of Rapid Action Battalion (Rab), terming it a ‘killing force’.

Pointing to frequent killings under Rab custody in the name of ‘crossfire’, the AL leaders also demanded punishment of the Rab members and those who raised the force for violating human rights.

The AL leaders at a news conference at the party’s Dhanmondi office expressed their apprehension that the government may indemnify the Rab against the killings.

They inferred the opinion from the indemnification of the armed forces for killing over 50 people during the Operation Clean Heart.

“The Rab cannot be a law enforcing agency. This is a killing force and violator of human rights,” said AL presidium member Suranjit Sengupta.

The AL held the conference to protest reported torture of two teenage brothers under the Rab custody for their confessional statements on the August 21 carnage. The Rab reportedly detained the boys in an unknown place for four days.

AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil said the government itself has become a weapon of torture and violator of constitutional rights of the people.

Asked whether the AL will take legal action challenging the Rab activities and against its members, Jalil said, “We’ll take the right decision in time.”

Suranjit said, “The Rab has killed dozens of people in the name of crossfire. This is simply murder as these people were killed without any trial. That is why we demand the government disband the Rab.

“How can it be ‘crossfire’ since there is no evidence of the Rab’s being shot at,” he said, asking, “Is crossfire a one-way shooting?” I’m quite sure the government will go to parliament to indemnify the killings under Rab custody,” he added.

He firmly said the Rab and those who have created it will have to face trial for custodial deaths and torture.

Jalil said the Rab tried to force the boys confess that they had hurled grenades at the rally at the directive of some AL leaders. One was released after four days and his younger brother sent to jail after spending 11 days in the RAB custody, he added.

Demanding compensation to them, he said, “They were subjected to heinous methods of physical torture including electric shocks.”

Daily Star: January 26, 2005.

Khaleda blasts opposition for anti-Rab stance
UNB, Comilla

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia yesterday reprimanded her political opponents for opposing Rab (Rapid Action Battalion) operations, saying that a party does not want the anticrime force as their “terrorists” cannot now unleash terrorism.

“Today, Hazari Bahini, Golondaz Bahini and Osman Bahini cannot stay in the field,” she told a public meeting at AR High School ground at Nagalkot in Comilla.

The prime minister said the Rab has been formed through enacting law to curb crimes in the country–one of the main election commitments of her party, BNP.

The prime minister said when people are leading a peaceful and happy life and want this situation to prevail, an opposition party stands against this situation. “Our opposition does not want peace— they want terrorism and so they are harbouring terrorists.”

Khaleda, the chairperson of the ruling BNP, observed that the Awami League, during its last five-year rule, had presented the country with terrorism, corruption and unfair means at public examinations.

On the contrary, she said, the three-year-old BNP-led coalition government has given roads, bridges, new schools, universities and employment and curbed crimes and formed independent anti-corruption commission to eradicate corruption from the country.

“BNP wants peace, welfare, progress and development while the opposition wants unrest and terrorism to take the country backwardand that’s the fundamental difference between the two,” said the prime minister.