End of the road for Hasina?
Suhas Chakma on how the present regime in Bangladesh is on a path of self-destruction
IN AN unprecedented decision on 30 June, the World Bank cancelled its $1.2 billion credit agreement with the government of Bangladesh for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project over allegations of corruption. The World Bank stated that it had ‘credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials, SNC-Lavalin executives and private individuals’.
While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as expected, launched a blistering attack on the World Bank, the fact remains that Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has exonerated all those questioned so far: Superintending Engineer M Liakat Ali and assistant engineers Golam Mortaza and Abul Kalam Azad, former state minister for foreign affairs Abul Hasan Chowdhury, civil contractor Mujibur Rahman Chowdhury, and Managing Director of Engineering and Planning Consultant Ltd, local agent of Canadian Company SNC-Lavalin, Ziaul Huq. The ACC has also failed to interrogate former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain and former secretary of the Bridges Division Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan. On the other hand, in November 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a request from the World Bank launched an investigation against SNC-Lavalin in connection with alleged corruption in the bridge project, seized documents and arrested three of its top officials, i.e., former chief executive Pierre Duhaime and former vice-presidents Indian- born Canadian citizen Ramesh Saha and Bangladeshborn Canadian citizen Ismail Hossain.
To an average Bangladeshi, there is no difference between Hasina and Begum Zia’s corrupt family dynasty. In the municipal elections held in January 2011, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had won 97 mayoral posts in comparison to 93 posts by the Awami League. The support for the Awami League has further deteriorated and the World Bank’s stamp is unlikely to help. The BNP is already asking for Hasina’s resignation.
The question being asked now is: Is this the end of the road for the Prime Minister?
Hasina undoubtedly made a series of mistakes to address the challenges. The first challenge she faced following her election victory in December 2008 was the Pilkhana massacre of February 2009 in which then Bangladesh Rifles killed 74 people, including 57 army officers. While the government must prosecute the culprits, Hasina allowed the army to vent its anger on those detained. At least 47 detained members of erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles died in custody while many disappeared, with a few bodies being recovered from rivers with telltale signs of torture. Over 6,000 detained suspects are being tried under questionable circumstances.
Prime Minister Hasina suspected the Islamists as being behind the Pilkhana massacre, but her response gave ammunition to the opposition to unite. The Awami League government established the International War Crimes Tribunal on 25 March 2010 by amending the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 to investigate and try the war crimes committed in 1971. While a number of Jamaate-Islami leaders including former party chief Golam Azam, current chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujahid, Nayeb-e-Ameer Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Kamaruzzaman, Qader Mollah and BNP leaders Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Abdul Aleem have been arrested so far, the question remains as to why the Awami League didn’t form the Commission when it came to power in 1996.
Further, three critical questions have been raised with respect to the tribunal. First, no Pakistani officers who were ultimately responsible for the war crimes will be charged. Neither has the government of Bangladesh raised the issue with Pakistan or the United Nations. Second, the procedures do not meet international legal standards on war crimes tribunal. The government has withdrawn constitutional rights from the accused who have not been convicted of any crime as yet and therefore, it undermines cardinal principles of the criminal justice system on presumption of innocence. The tribunal has no rules of evidence at all and the amended Act allows admission of ‘any evidence [...] which it deems to have a probative value’ rather than evidence beyond any reasonable doubt as provided under the Evidence Act of Bangladesh. The evidence being gathered 40 years after the crimes is suspect and those who testified often say ‘Ami sunechi’ (I heard) rather than being witnesses to the crimes. Third, the chairperson of the Tribunal, Judge Nizamul Hoque Nasim, when a lawyer in 1994, had authored a report accusing the current suspects of war crimes and therefore, his independence and impartiality is suspect.
IN A major blow to the tribunal, in November 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that the holding of the war crimes accused ‘in pretrial detention in the absence of any reasoned and adequate explanation is unnecessary and disproportional to the aim sought’.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took another initiative — amendment of the Constitution — which left everybody except the Awami League bitter. While the removal of the Islam as the state religion gave further ammunition to the Jamaats, the description of the indigenous peoples as ‘khudra nigrosthi’ (small nationalities) has alienated the indigenous peoples from the Awami League. Yet, the main aim of the amendment of the Constitution has been to remove the system of ‘caretaker government’ to hold free and fair election. This has exposed the designs of the Awami League. The BNP has been on the war path on the issue while none in the international community, including the United Nations, European Union and United States support the removal of the caretaker government.
The Awami League has already possibly shot itself in the foot by removing the caretaker government that it obtained from the BNP after two years of street agitation and boycotting the BNP government-administered elections in February 1996. The BNP will now adopt the Awami League’s strategy: it will not participate in the elections unless the system of caretaker government is restored. An election without the BNP will have no credibility.
India, which has time and again expressed its preference for the Awami League government in Bangladesh, needs to assess the emerging developments. Ensuring free and fair election in Bangladesh is a key to stability in the South Asian region.
Suhas Chakma is Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights. The views expressed here are personal.