SPEAKING FREELY Democracy in peril in Bangladesh
By Hasan Mir
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Bangladesh's nascent democracy suffered another blow recently with the arrest of the editor of one of the most popular daily newspapers, The Daily Amar Desh (My Country). The government, led by Sheikh Hasina, provided only flimsy reasons for the arrest of Mahmudur Rahman and the closure of the newspaper.
Rahman, it said, committed treason by exposing a Skype conversation between a corrupt judge and a cohort living in
Belgium. Attacking the sanctity of the free press is nothing new for this regime, and its pattern of brutal attacks on civic institutions, traditions and opposition leaders does not bode well for the country.
Since coming to power in 2009, Hasina and her government have demonstrated a ruthless streak through extrajudicial killings and torturing citizens belonging to opposition forces. Complete disregard for basic tenants of a democratic society can be seen in these killings and other unsavory activities.
Human-rights organization Odhikar documented 57 such killings throughout Bangladesh in 2012 only. This is in addition to the disappearance of numerous opposition politicians over the past few years. Ilyias Ali, one of the prominent leaders of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was picked up by the detective branch last year along with his driver without any warrant. Nobody has heard from them since then.
While harassing opposition politicians is one of the most common themes of successive Bangladeshi governments, the scale and intensity of torture and repression have seen a worrisome uptick during the present government.
Bangladesh's economy has been on the cusp of achieving great things over the past few years, only to be hindered by widespread corruption and political upheaval yielded from ineffective and tainted government. Corruption has reached the pinnacle of the ruling class more than ever.
Corruption has reached such a level that the World Bank recently backed out of the plan to finance one of the largest infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. During its investigation, the World Bank unearthed that ministers of the current government along with a financial adviser to the prime minister had been involved in siphoning money away from the project.
Despite repeated requests by World Bank and other international financial organizations to bring the alleged perpetrators behind these scandals to task, the government has refused to do so.
Myriad other corruption scandals involving members of the current government have propped up the notion that government bigwigs are all in the business of swindling funds from people before the term of the present government expires.
The police recently apprehended a chief of staff and driver of the influential minister, Suranjit Sen Gupta, with a bag full of cash collected from people who had been promised employment in lieu of money. Sheikh Hasina not only choose to ignore this scandal, but kept Gupta in government despite repeated calls for his ouster.
The Daily Amar Desh was one of the very few remaining voices in Bangladesh to bring into light rampant violation of human rights, corruption and illegal killing by government of Bangladesh. Therefore, Sheikh Hasina's government had been trying to silence the newspaper for few years now.
Mahmudur Rahman was arrested on fictitious charges and tortured a few years ago for speaking out against Sheikh Hasina's government. The Daily Amar Desh was closed as well. When he was released from prison after languishing for 8 months, Amar Desh started publishing again with incisive, thought provoking articles about corruption and the dismal state of human rights in Bangladesh.
As we read this article, Mahmudur Rahman has been arrested and he Daily Amar Desh forcibly closed again by the government. Rahman's 70-year-old mother has also been charged with conspiring to publish the newspapers in his absence.
International organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights commission have expressed their apprehension about the brutal treatment Mahmudur Rahman might get from Hasina's government. The AHRC recently revealed that Mahmudur Rahman was exposed to brutal torture by the government.
According to recent medical reports, Rahman's weight came down to only 54 kg from 71 kg before he was taken for questioning.
On the heels of myriad issues prevalent in Bangladesh, a nine-storey garments factory in Savar (located on the outskirts of Dhaka) collapsed resulting in over 700 deaths and injuring thousands of other employees. The mass casualty rate from this tragic incident has been attributed to the building owner's insistence on continuing work despite cracks appearing on the building structure a day before the collapse. The owner of the building belongs to the youth front of Sheikh Hasina's political party and is very close to the local parliament representative, a known collaborator of the prime minister.
The government responded to this tragedy with sheer indifference and a barrage of lies. Sheikh Hasina kept her daily appointments, including organizing a lavish banquet for the newly inaugurated president. The home minister went as far as to blame opposition parties for the collapse of the building. He made laughable claims like opposition party members shaked the building so hard that the building collapsed. And he was not joking. Local newspapers and blogs cited poor construction materials and complete disregard of the local government building rules as the reasons for collapse.
Mired in numerous self inflicted crisis, the government is desperate to deal with the deteriorating situation in Bangladesh by suppressing opposition forces, killing and shutting down newspapers. While the deafening silence from US and EU is nothing but disappointing, one has to wonder how Sheikh Hasina's government sees the end game to play out. Not to mention precedence this Awami League regime setting with its gruesome brutality.
The fallout from these brutal and undemocratic practices has been abundantly clear and turned the population against government. Time is running out for International community to take clear stand for basic democratic rights of the people of Bangladesh. Time has run out for Sheikh Hasina to prove her sincerity about upholding democratic norms.
Hasan Mir is an American-Bangladeshi IT Professional from Minnesota
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.