A rule of law meltdown is behind the murder of bloggers in Bangladesh
Published : 22 Jun 2016, 10:33:59
Students in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka protest after the murder of law student Nazimuddin Samad on April 7, 2016.AFP
A series of gruesome attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh has shocked the country and the world. But they are only one element in a years-long cycle of mounting violence. Large-scale political repression has created a climate of injustice that extremist groups have easily exploited in their war against secularists and liberal thinkers.
Unfortunately, political violence is nothing new in Bangladesh. Much of it is the result of the unrelenting, intense rivalry between the country’s two major parties, the governing Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and its Islamist ally Jamaat-e-Islami. But the violence has worsened as repression peaks. The government, in its attempt to silence political dissent, has politicized and dangerously overstretched the country’s law enforcement institutions. Bangladesh’s prisons are overflowing with political opponents and activists, while extremists, thriving in an atmosphere of impunity, intimidate ordinary citizens.
Successive governments have used state machinery to suppress the opposition, which in turn mobilized violent party workers to undermine the government. This political conflict between the Awami League and the BNP has been aggravated by brutal government actions against political opponents and critics, including enforced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings.
Zia and her son Tarique Rahman, the BNP’s vice chair, currently face corruption and other criminal charges that could send them to prison for life. Their trial comes at a time when the BNP has apparently decided to shun violence and instead re-enter the political mainstream, offering an opportunity for long-overdue dialogue between the rival parties. But Hasina’s government has so far failed to seize it. Given the fragility of the political system, a single spark, such as Zia’s conviction, could reignite the violence that has brought the country to a virtual standstill twice since 2013.
All this has fueled resentment and provides a perfect breeding ground for Bangladesh’s hard-line and extremist Islamist groups—including Hefazat-e-Islam, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and a new jihadi organization, the Ansarullah Bangla Team—and their anti-state agenda. They depict the Awami League-led government as anti-Islam and a threat to Bangladesh’s Muslim identity, while attacking the country’s liberal thinkers and secular voices. In 2013, extremists reportedly issued a hit list of 84 bloggers they deemed “atheists.”
The Ansarullah Bangla Team, which has espoused al-Qaida’s ideology, marked its appearance three years ago with the brutal killing of a blogger and attacks on two others. Overall, 12 secular bloggers, publishers and editors have been killed since 2013. The killing of two publishers was claimed by al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The so-called Islamic State has claimed several other attacks, raising concerns about new entrants to Bangladesh’s jihadi landscape—even though the government disputes that the group is present in the country.
From late last year, sectarian attacks have also intensified, including on a Shiite procession, Shiite and Ahmadi mosques and shrines, Hindu temples, and several minority religious and community leaders. These appear to be the actions of a new generation of extremists, particularly from the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team, who are more sophisticated and more linked to transnational jihadi networks. According to a senior police official, “from 2003 to 2005, militant suspects were either illiterate or poor madrasa-educated students. We are worried, as most of the suspects this time are educated and technologically sound.”
On June 7, the government launched a massive week-long crackdown, ostensibly to counter extremist violence, reportedly arresting around 12,000 people. Many civil society actors describe the action as a pretext for silencing dissent and for police extortion. Brutal attacks continued, including the hacking to death of a Hindu monastery worker on June 10.
Combating political violence and religious extremism instead requires an effective and accountable justice system—something that is dangerously missing in Bangladesh. The current criminal justice regime is based on the outdated colonial-era framework of the 1860 Penal Code, the 1872 Evidence Act and the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure. That these continue to serve their original purposes of punishment and suppression, rather than prevention, reform and rehabilitation, is reflected in a high prison population: 75,000 to 80,000 prisoners in 68 jails with a capacity of only about 30,000.
Periods of political turmoil, such as today’s, have further strained the prison system, with the number of inmates often doubling, in some cases forcing authorities to set up tents or lay out mats on open porches to accommodate them. Given the case backlog and mass arrests of opposition activists, only one-third of prisoners are convicted, let alone tried; detainees often remain behind bars without trial beyond the maximum sentence for the crimes charged.
This problem is compounded by a police force that is widely perceived as corrupt and inept. Police recruitment and appointments are largely partisan, and parliamentarians regularly interfere in postings and transfers of officers in their constituencies. Most senior and mid-level positions are filled by officers who demonstrate party allegiance. A senior official of the National Human Rights Commission says that many top officials—such as the inspector general, the Dhaka police chief, national police spokesperson, and heads of elite forces—all have direct links to the prime minister or her office. The police force is also grossly understaffed, with an estimated 161,000 officers serving a population of 160 million—roughly one officer per 1,000 people.
When cases go to trial, the procedure for prosecutions is weak. Prosecutions were under police remit until reforms in 2007 transferred them to the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. Nine years later, prosecutors have yet to develop an institutional identity or gain public credibility. The ministry generally appoints them on political affiliation, not merit, with the only professional requirement being two years with a local bar. Prosecutors have allegedly harassed judges for granting bail to opposition activists or for making rulings deemed biased.
Multiple steps are needed to restore political stability and ensure security in Bangladesh. The main responsibility to break the cycle of violence is with Sheikh Hasina’s government. As a first step, it must stop using the criminal justice system to target political critics and respond positively to the BNP’s decision to refrain from violence. Dialogue with the BNP is essential to end the destabilizing stalemate.
The judiciary also has an important role to play. It should develop a consistent doctrine that upholds the right to a fair trial and restrains the executive branch from undermining fundamental constitutional rights. This includes respecting civil society institutions to function freely. This will also require judges to refrain from issuing contempt of court citations to media and other civil society representatives for criticizing court judgments, and to overturn unjustified contempt convictions in other courts, including Bangladesh’s deeply flawed International Crimes Tribunal, established in 2010 to prosecute individuals responsible for atrocities committed during the 1971 Liberation War.
And there needs to be greater respect for dissent. The government should begin by withdrawing the 2014 national broadcast policy and removing restrictions on online expression in the Information and Technology Act. It should also withdraw cases against journalists, human rights groups and others that are based on vague and dubious grounds, such as expressing views against the “public interest.”
Politicians should stop interfering in cases and instead help modernize the criminal justice system. The government can encourage this by establishing a more transparent, consultative appointment process to rule of law institutions; introducing merit-based selection and recruitment; building better programs to help train personnel and allocate resources, particularly for the Police Bureau of Investigation; and developing specialized investigation units for policing on the national and district levels.
The international community, for its part, should not stand idly by. It should link some development assistance to demonstrable improvements in human rights, free speech and association, and fair trial. The world’s continued indifference will only breed more instability in Bangladesh.-world politicsre view
The writter is senior South Asia analyst and regional editor at the International Crisis Group.