Thursday, February 10, 2005

BANGLADESH: The aftermath of Habiganj grenade attack

+ Immediately after the August 21 carnage, demands were made to mount international investigation. The government first dragged its feet thereby confirming suspicions of those who made such a demand. Eventually, government called in the aid of Interpol and later the FBI. The progress is not known even after the second round of visits by the Interpol team. The need to keep the progress of investigation secret is well-understood. However, press briefings from time to time, on the general status are more likely to establish the credibility of actions than deepen fears and suspicious in public mind. Can thus be done? So far a number of persons have been lifted by the police/RAB for interrogation. The investigating committee is tight-lipped on the issue but as clues are found, there is no harm in briefing the press. +

10/02/2005

The aftermath of Habiganj grenade attack
AMM Shawkat Ali

The tragic assassinations of SAMS Kibria and few others have once again brought to the surface the continuing deterioration in law an order situation in the country. The deadly attack had its impact on the on-going agitational politics demanding the fall of the government for its failure to ensure safety and security of citizens and not just important political leaders. In fact, the continued attacks on important political leaders, in particular those belonging to the main opposition parties, have been used to reinforce the argument that if the government fails to ensure their security, what happens to the ordinary citizens.

Oust government

Following the carnage of August 21, other political parties such as the alliance of 11 parties also joined hands with the Awami League (AL) yet retaining their own separate identities. Peaceful demonstration in the form of ‘human chain’ was collectively organised by all these parties as a show of unity for ‘oust government’ programme earlier spearheaded by the AL. It was through this process that age-old politics of agitation seemingly has gained momentum. The moment jointly organised by the Bikalpadhara and Gonoforum also made some noises providing evidence of their solidarity with the main programme. This could not make much impact but it brought to surface the intolerance of any opposition to government. This intolerance found expression in the Rangpur incident when Bikalpadhara and Gonoforum leaders could not hold a dialogue on political issues with the local residents. If anything, this incident served to sharpen public perception of the repressive measures that are being organised to stop any criticism of government’s policies and programmes. The media have questioned, on more occasions than one, this type of occurrences.

New forms of protest

Immediately following the ghastly grenade attack that killed Kibria and few others on January 27, 2005, the movement against the government got off to a fresh start with more than 36 hours of hartal, political meetings and processions all over the country. It was met with strong resistance by the police. The police action was criticised by the press not only because some journalists were wounded but also because a number of women activists were taken into custody in a manner which was described by a section of the media as barbarism of the medieval age. A new form of protest, different from the usual run of processions and hartals, was organised by the wife and the other members of the family of late lamented Kibria. Although it was largely in the form of human chain, but it was different. For the first time in Bangladesh’s political history, citizens of all descriptions lined up in the streets in silence demonstrating not only their respect and admiration for Kibria but also protesting the failure of the government to provide security to him and to others.

The uniqueness of the silent protest so organised has been widely published by the media. The next step taken by the members of the bereaved family, as newspapers reports indicate, is to organise apolitical committees across the world to bring the criminals to justice. Plans are underway to organise silent human chain on February 12 in all the districts of Bangladesh followed, on February 13, by similar programme abroad. To this end, an e-mail contact point has also been established. The whole idea is to put in place non-political organisation for strengthening the movement.

International dimensions

Immediately after the tragic event of January 27, the leaders of nations including the Secretary General Kofi Anan have condemned the killing and urged the government to take speedy action to punish the perpetrators of the crime. Regionally also, it appears to have created significant impact in that the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Dhaka on February 6 and 7 were called off. The Indian government conveyed, through a press conference in Delhi, that due to (a) lack of security in Bangladesh and (b) the dismissal of cabinet in Nepal, the Indian Prime Minister would not be able to attend the summit.

Much has been published in the media on the issue. Pakistan openly and categorically stated that it did not support such a move. Bangladesh foreign secretary, acting as the official spokesmen for the government, termed such a decision ‘unwarranted’, among others. There is a clear convergence of views between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a right to be shocked. On the other hand, as first Bangladeshi Secretary General of SAARC pointed out, India is free to take its own decision based on her assessment of the situation prevailing in Bangladesh. One good thing said by the Bangladeshi leaders is that such cancellation of SAARC summit would not affect the friendly lies between the two countries. Back in India, a section of the Indian media had also criticised Indian government decision not to participate in the summit on grounds of lack of security.

At home, the major political parties gave opposing reactions, which is no surprise given the continuing state of politics of confrontation and perpetual politics of blame game. What appears significant is the cancellation of the proposed visit by prime minister Badabi of Malaysia to Bangladesh. Newspaper reports indicate that he was scheduled to pay a two –day visit to Bangladesh on February 27. The visit was cancelled due to “unavoidable reasons”.

Situation at home

Leaving aside the question of visits by foreign leaders, the law and order situation at home do provide strong evidence that all is not well in Bangladesh. Khulna has long been a scene of deadly attacks on journalists. Four journalists were wounded, some of them grievously, by a bomb attack on February 5, 2005. It is said that in the place of occurrence which is near to the police station, there was no presence of police although such bomb attacks took place earlier also. Of these incidents, the killing of Manik Saha on January 15, last year was the most important one. The officer-in-charge of Khulna police station explained that because of hartal, their was no deployment of police in and around the press club. What a naïve explanation?

Facing the issue politically

In the meanwhile, in order apparently to a show of popular support, the BNP high-ups have decided to face politically the continuing agitation against the government. Already, such an approach has led to violent clashes between hartal supporters and those in BNP in a number of places. This approach is part of Bangladesh political culture. It implies: face the opponents in the streets which simply aggravates the situation making it difficult for the police to control unruly crowd. In an ideal situation, when such an occasion arises, the police issues prohibitory orders banning all assemblies and processions of political nature. Surely this is not to be the case because there is nothing called an ideal situation. In the past, on similar occasions, the citizens had seen the police either as bystanders or joining the party in power in clubbing opposition forces. In the process, the image and authority of the government are eroded. The distinction between regular lawfully established machinery of the state and that of the party in power is lost making way for bad governance.

Concentrate on investigation

Bengali daily, in one of its editorials, had rightly drawn attention to the imperative and urgent need for speedy completion of investigation instead of indulging in political blame game. It had rightly asserted that if for similar crimes committed earlier, investigations and trials were completed, the summit could have been held because people at home and abroad would have complete confidence in the government. The editorial had unequivocally called upon the government not to politicise the overriding issue of maintenance of public order.

Outlook for the future

In respect of speedy and neutral investigation of the dastardly crime committed in January 27, the prospects appears to remain bleak. The statement issued by the spokesman of the US government and published in the media appears to confirm this impression. In his view, if full access to evidence and witness were provided, the similar crimes committed earlier could lead to successful investigation. That is why FBI had set some conditions for their participation. For many citizens, such a statement comes as no surprise. It is regrettable, however, that we have to get this elementary view on successful investigation from abroad. A retired Inspector General of Police (IGP) once mentioned in a private conversation that what was happening was arrest of persons on suspicion to find out the criminals. In his view, the right course is to nab the criminal based on the evidence gathered at the scene of crime and immediately thereafter. To quote “you go from crime to the criminal”. Indeed the case of Nunu Mia’s remand in one of the cases in Sylhet bears apple evidence of such an assertion. Nunu Mia was taken on remand, tortured but no successful investigation could be completed.

International versus national investigation

Immediately after the August 21 carnage, demands were made to mount international investigation. The government first dragged its feet thereby confirming suspicions of those who made such a demand. Eventually, government called in the aid of Interpol and later the FBI. The progress is not known even after the second round of visits by the Interpol team. The need to keep the progress of investigation secret is well-understood. However, press briefings from time to time, on the general status are more likely to establish the credibility of actions than deepen fears and suspicious in public mind. Can thus be done? So far a number of persons have been lifted by the police/RAB for interrogation. The investigating committee is tight-lipped on the issue but as clues are found, there is no harm in briefing the press.

Despite any official disclosure, the press has not failed to provide some details much of which are speculative in nature but based on interviews with local people at and around the place of occurrence. The substance of what some of these people had said appears to be connected with what is known as ‘motive of crime’. The details so far published tend to show that motive may be political. At this stage, however, we have to suspend our judgement until more incriminating evidence comes to light.

Preventive and corrective measures

In criminal administration, there is always a two-pronged attack on criminals or likely crimes. One is preventive and the other is corrective. The latter consists of fair and impartial investigation leading to trial and punishment. The former is no less important in that it acts as a deterrent to commission of crimes as much as trial and punishment. It appears that our police are failing on both counts which itself merits serious consideration and appropriate action. This failure is believed to be aggravated further by politicising issues relating political terrorism.