The misrule of law in Bangladesh

Rater Zonaki, Human Rights Defender, Sylhet, Bangladesh

Arresting and taking high-profile people to court has become a sensational issue in many countries of the world. In Bangladesh, it occurred recently for the second time when former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was arrested without a warrant on allegations of graft early in the morning of 16 July 2007 and taken to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court straight from her residence over an hour before it normally begins its proceedings. After two hours of deliberation, she was sent to jail after the magistrate rejected her bail petition.

Arresting high-profile political people in Bangladesh has long been a part of political game playing. In 1991, the military autocrat General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who was toppled by public protests, was arrested on corruption charges. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) that formed government after nine years out of power did not waste any time putting Ershad in jail. He was later convicted on several charges of corruption and imprisoned by the courts for his involvement in grabbing public properties and mishandling public funds.

The same hated man was rehabilitated in 1996 when the Bangladesh Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, needed a few seats in parliament to form government. A quick and secret agreement soon changed the political map: the Jatiya Party, led by Ershad, supported the Awami League. A member of his party was included in cabinet as part of the agreement. Within a few months, Ershad was released from jail.

Ironically, after five years Ershad joined an alliance with the BNP. Both groups moved against the Awami League, but the Jatiya Party left the coalition after a while, so when the BNP got back power it restarted the prosecutions against Ershad. He again agreed to bond with the BNP, with the effect

This article consists of the edited text from a series of weekly commentaries, entitled Humanity or Humour? written for UPI Asia Online under a pen name. All of the original columns, and others, can be read on the UPI website: www.upiasiaonline.com/human_rights.

that the prosecutors handled the cases against him so poorly that the charges of corruption were dismissed, after which Ershad changed his mind again.

The upshot of all these machinations was that the government did not recover its property and money nor did it uphold the law through consistent due process. The government-controlled prosecution and judiciary were used as tools to achieve political aims instead of protecting the lives and property of the country’s citizens.

The present military-backed interim government, although superficially non-political, is gradually producing its own political offspring by intimidating those who are unwanted politically by threatening them with corruption cases. Like many other military governments in the world, the one in Bangladesh took power with saintly talk about fighting corruption, upholding the rule of law, ending exploitation, restoring people’s faith in governmental institutions and reforming various sectors, including politics. The government has confidently asserted that it will somehow implement all of these reforms by the end of 2008 with the help of the same persons who have failed to demonstrate any professional commitment to any of these principles in the past and have not yet begun to abide by the law.

Abusive past, dramatic present and confusing future

For the two years prior to the start of 2007 when an interim government took over Bangladesh under a declared state of emergency it was political chaos. There were frequent meetings joined by huge numbers of unemployed people. Processions for lawful and unlawful demands were part of life. Party leaders used to shout at the top of their voices, even though they were using microphones, displaying a range of moods, manners and movements: confident and arrogant, persuasive and hyperactive, crazy and clever, hungry and thirsty, alert and calculating, rich and powerful, energetic and aggressive, tired and motionless, smiling and inspired or frustrated and confused. They attacked each other and remained “dedicated” to the people while multiplying their sufferings.

In those days it was unusual to have a week without a nationwide strike. On these days, students wondered when they would next have a chance to go to class, and their parents grew tired of worrying about the academic progress of their children. Those living hand-to-mouth would go hungry for hours and try to borrow money from any available source to feed their families. The seriously ill would count their breaths, fearing they would not make it to a hospital. Public servants and private employees alike struggled to get to their workplaces on foot or by any other means in order to save their jobs. Everyone longed for life without politics.

And now all politics is banned. Military-led law enforcement officers have arrested dozens of former ministers and members of parliament. The black hand of the Special Powers Act of 1974—

once beloved by these politicians as a means to suppress their opponents when in power—and the newly framed Emergency Ordinance and Rules of 2007, are being used to keep them and business magnates under lock and key.

The print and electronic media in the past had limited freedom of expression. Now that freedom has been suspended they are playing a very interesting role. Every day the media publish sensational news, quoting undisclosed sources on stories of corruption and malpractice by politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats. The government is allowing them to publish these stories, rather than criticizing it. For example, a former home minister reportedly confessed that he had taken a huge amount of money to free the son of a businessman who faced a murder charge, and get him out of the country. He gave details as to how and who took a share of the money. Businessmen have reportedly confessed how they used to “manage” politicians to smooth the way for their moneymaking. A number described how they formed a syndicate to keep the price of basic commodities always beyond the reach of common people in order to make huge profits.

All these dramatic incidents are taking place under the complete control of the military. Two out of 11 government advisers are retired major generals of the army, and one is the former chief of police and the Rapid Action Battalion. The Anti- Corruption Commission’s new chairperson is a retired lieutenant general and the former chief of the army. A national coordinating committee formed to monitor the sensational graft cases against political and business leaders is headed and controlled by military officers. And the armed forces have been deployed all around the country to “assist” the civil administration and law-enforcement agencies.

Questions are being asked regarding the attitudes of the current government to democracy and the rule of law: will there be rule of law or martial law? Is the country moving toward civil war as the corrupt politicians fight back? Is it moving toward the style of government in Pakistan? How can its confusing future be made clearer?

Who will benefit from the National Security Council of Bangladesh?

The interim government is also eager to establish a new body, the National Security Council: the brainchild of a part-time politician-cum-international broker who is detached from the real life of the Bangladeshi people, staying abroad out of personal interest as well as that of clients’ businesses. The government has not been informing the people about the proposed council, although media reports have suggested that it will be brought into effect with speed.

The council will consist of the head of the government as its chief—either the prime minister or chief adviser like nowadays— the chief of staff of the army as its joint chief, and the principal staff officer of the armed forces as its member secretary. In addition, a top-level committee shall comprise of 10 more people, including those responsible for the finance, home, foreign affairs and defence ministries, as well as the leader of the opposition in parliament, which has been dissolved since October 2006, and the chiefs of the air force and navy along with the cabinet secretary, chief secretary and national security adviser. Finally, the president shall appoint an “impartial person” as national security adviser, who will have the status of a cabinet minister.

There are a variety of rationales for creating this council, including the inability of the government to impartially address national problems regarding wars, earthquakes, bomb blasts, water sharing of the Ganges and border-related problems with neighboring countries and international or bilateral relations regarding trade and mineral resources, like coal, gas and oil. None have been properly addressed because the country’s policymakers and their staff have lacked professionalism, commitment, honesty, patriotism and accountability.

But the council brings with it many unavoidable questions. What, for example, is the constitutional authority for creating this council? What work does it have to do that is not already a part of the official duties of the people who will sit upon it? What changes will this council introduce and how? Moreover, what effect, if any, will these changes have at the local level regarding government administration and the work of the civil service, policing, the judiciary and political practices? Why is it being initiated without holding any open discussion at a time when there is no parliament in the country? Why is secrecy being maintained about the structure, functions and facilities of the council?

The nation needs a change of mindset instead of further militarization of its administration. Efficient and pro-citizen civil servants, with the assistance of honest and humane police officers, alongside a reliable judiciary, could bring about all the necessary changes to make people feel secure. If the basic existing institutions could be strengthened then this would be sufficient to ensure progress.

Collapsing buildings and collapsing rule of law

On 11 July 2007 an under-construction medical college hospital collapsed in Dhaka, taking the lives of three workers and injuring 12 others. The East-West Medical College Authority was constructing a part of its hospital building while another wing was being used to provide medical treatment to patients at the time of the accident. Thankfully, the roof of the wing housing the patients did not also fall in.

The police and related authorities told the media that the ground of the construction site was too soft and could not support the weight of the temporary bamboo pillars underneath the roof,thus causing the accident. A complaint has been registered with the local police regarding the unnatural deaths of the three people.

The collapse of buildings is unfortunately not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. An old dormitory building at the University of Dhaka collapsed upon sleeping students in the early morning of 15 October 1985, killing 39 and injuring about 300 others. Although aware of the structural weaknesses, university officials did not take any measures to avoid the disaster.

Again on 11 April 2005 a nine-storey factory building in the industrial town of Savar, near Dhaka, collapsed and killed at least 64 workers and permanently disabled 74, out of approximately 400 in total. Survivors said that they had seen cracks in the walls of the building and reported them to the management five days before the accident, but their warnings went unheeded. The families of the deceased workers and injured victims received only token monetary relief after a few months, following tremendous pressure from the media as well as national and international rights organizations. In addition, hundreds lost their jobs.

The Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, the capital city development authority, and the Dhaka City Corporation are jointly responsible for monitoring construction in Dhaka. The Department of Public Housing, Department of Roads and Highways, and the Local Government Engineering Department do the same job as municipal corporations in their respective jurisdictions throughout the country.

These authorities are responsible for ensuring the quality of construction of buildings, roads, schools, hospitals and public offices. Each proposal, whether public or private, requires the official approval of these offices. But for decades they have learned only how to harass people and extract money to approve proposed projects, rather than serving the country’s citizens.

The collapse of buildings symbolizes the sorry state of the rule of law in Bangladesh. The practice of individuals or companies that are allegedly responsible for the country’s man-made disasters bribing officials to have their way is stronger than any law in effect in a country where the leaders both rule and exploit.

The unhealthy state of Bangladesh’s health care system

Fifty-year-old Rahima Begum went to the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopedic Rehabilitation in Dhaka—the largest public orthopedic hospital of the country—in mid-June 2007 for treatment to her elbow, after falling from the roof of a one-storey building. The doctors at the hospital ignored her when she was admitted and the following morning Rahima was released.

After four days, Rahima went back to the same hospital due to her unrelenting pain. Staff members discouraged her attendants from admitting her, frightened them about the public doctors’ supposed negligence, and instead had brokers encourage her and her relatives to visit a private clinic nearby, assuring her of better treatment there at the cost of 10,000 takas (USD140).

At the clinic, Rahima was wheeled into the operating room where doctors informed her that the procedure to operate on her elbow would take 30 minutes. However, after three hours, the doors of the operation theater remained closed, and no one from the clinic came to meet her relatives. Around midnight relatives found Rahima’s dead body in an ambulance in a dark lane at the rear—apparently in a surreptitious attempt to take away the dead body. A son of the deceased subsequently lodged a murder case with the local police against the brokers as well as two doctors.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. Sima, 22, was in May 2007 taken to the Rajshahi Medical College Hospital in critical condition, suffering from inflammation of the brain caused by a viral infection and pneumonia, according to the doctors’ diagnosis. On the afternoon of the following day, her condition deteriorated, and she started bleeding profusely through her nose.

Sima’s husband, Shahabul Islam, a guard at the Chapainawabganj district jail, rushed to the on-duty doctor and asked her to attend to his wife immediately. Because of the doctor’s sluggish response, Shahabul attempted to drag the doctor toward his wife’s bed by holding her hand. In the process, the doctor stumbled and fell. Other doctors, interns, and hospital staff gathered around the man and beat him. The police had to rescue Shahabul from their blows. The interns of the hospital subsequently went on strike, resulting in Sima’s death the next morning, as she received no emergency medical attention. Hundreds of other patients left the hospital fearing that they too would die there. Meanwhile, the director of the hospital, a brigadier general in the army, allegedly arranged for another beating of Shahabul in his office. Shahabul was admitted to the Rajshahi Jail Hospital with fractures and other injuries.

It is well known that medical doctors in Bangladesh’s public hospitals either own or have contractual relationships with private clinics. Public service is a false identity. Their true aim is to make money through private practice. They appoint public hospital staff members as brokers instead of properly treating them in public hospitals. Even if people are treated in them, they are still forced to visit private clinics for diagnoses. For the same reason, medical equipment in public hospitals is intentionally kept “out of order”. A patient cannot expect a simple pathological or radiological examination unless spending money at a clinic.

Those in Bangladesh with serious illnesses or injuries often pay the price with their lives, like Rahima and Sima. Corrupt and unethical health care professionals dig their graves.

If the head aches, cut if off!

Mohammad Ashik is an eighth-grade student. His father Abed Ali lost his job without receiving the wages he was owed by the People’s Jute Mills in Khulna District. Consequently, the family’s

only breadwinner cannot buy the essential foodstuffs for his family, let alone think about the pens and paper necessary for his son’s education. At the same time, 70-year-old Khadeza Begum is starving and incapacitated; she has nothing to eat, as her son has been jobless since the government closed the mills.

These people are among the 6000 workers and their families at four jute mills that the military-backed interim government decided to shut forever without paying the wages owed to the workers, although promising to pay them later. The four mills— in Khalishpur, Khulna; Rangunai, Chittagong and Sirajganj District—were closed on 31 July 2007. Eighteen others are facing imminent closure, with 14,000 workers expecting to be laid off.

Apart from the immediate consequences on the workers, thousands of jute cultivators are on the verge of extinction. Many of them have not received payment for their raw materials and will lose the opportunity to cultivate and sell jute for the foreseeable future. Thousands of traders also have nothing to do, as they have lost both their businesses and the money owed them, and cannot launch any alternative businesses as they lack the capital and experience.

People frequently ask, why these closures? The answer from the authorities is quite simple: the mills have incurred a huge loss. The government has reportedly calculated a net figure of 75.8 billion takas (USD1.1 million) of which 33.7 billion takas (more than USD490,000) are owed as wages. The World Bank, which pretends to be a friend and development partner of the government, recommended the closure of the mills, and they were shut less than two weeks later.

In the past few decades the authorities had not assessed whether the machinery of the mills required replacement, whether the workers needed further training to increase production, or whether the management was skilled enough. In short, they did nothing until it was too late. This also meant that politically influential trade union leaders could continue to manipulate the system, and that officials and management wasted public money.

In Bangladesh, the Ministry for Jute, along with the Jute Research Institute, is responsible for overseeing this industry. If the laid-off workers are to be held liable for the large amount of public money that has been lost, then what responsibility does the ministry owe? How should it be penalised? Why not first close it before denying the workers their wages? After all, what did the ministers and high-ranking bureaucrats do for decades while these factories were sinking? Why should they not be sacked and held accountable for the utter failure of what was once the most lucrative industrial sector of the country?

If the problem persists in the head, which aches after producing nothing but suffering, then cut it off! Lay off the Ministry of Jute! Without the factories and workers to fill them, Bangladesh does not need it any longer.

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