Friday, February 04, 2005

BANGLADESH: Get the killers, now!

+ Apparently bubbly due to this success, Lutfozzaman Babar, the young and dapper State Minister for Home Affairs, quietly egged on his friends to raise a demand that he be wafted upstairs and made the full home minister. But, unfortunately for Babar and more so for the entire nation, the criminals struck just the day after such demands were printed in some newspapers. The grenade attack on 27 January at Boidder Bazar in Habiganj killed five, including former Finance Minister Kibria. The picture changed rapidly. From its exalted messianic image, the ruling party has slid overnight down to the status of a villain. Time has come for Babar and his gurus to realise that enough is enough. It is high time the government struck back at the criminals with telling force. If it doesn't, well, common sense will tell you that the ruling party is inviting hara-kiri of dreadful proportions. Kibria, in that case, is not going to be the last victim to fall. Many others may be targeted. The killers, buoyed by such indifference, may one day turn the barrels of their guns at those who are presently wallowing in the luxury of transient safety. +

04/02/2005

Get the killers, now!

India has done exactly what Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina wanted. It has pulled out of the SAARC summit with what can only be called a ruse, not reason. The 'security situation' in Bangladesh has deteriorated in recent days following the fatal attack on former finance minister SAMS Kibria.

Dhaka has dismissed the Indian pretext as 'unacceptable', but the damage is done. There will be no 13th summit of the seven-nation regional body in Dhaka on 6-7 February. The glee on the face of Hasina, who brags that India listens to her more seriously and respectfully than it does to the present Bangladesh government, is strongly evident.

'How can they (government) hold a conference when they cannot guarantee the security of the guest' - Hasina asked journalists last Sunday. In order to up the ante, and perhaps to help India make its pretext for withdrawal stronger, her party decided to enforce a 36-hour hartal that would cover the day the SAARC summit was to begin.

Euphoria and triumph erupted in the inmates soon after the news of postponement reached Sudha Sadan, Hasina's residence. Some party apparatchiks saw it as the first success of their campaign to overthrow the four-party alliance government. 'We are close to our target,' a mid-level AL activist told the pro-party journalists in a fit of smugness.

India does not explain how the security situation had deteriorated despite the fact that Dhaka had imposed foolproof security around the conference venue and the places where the leaders and their aides were scheduled to stay. It does not say if the situation was worse than what happened when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi or Rajiv Gandhi was bombed to death in Chennai. If India behaved normally at that time and arranged at least three regional conferences (not SAARC) then, why can't Bangladesh hold the SAARC summit despite the fatal attack on Kibria?

Whilst the postponement of SAARC summit must sadden Bangladeshis, the need for an effective and credible investigation into the recent bomb attacks can by no means be ignored.

Why hem and haw about a truly independent probe to track down the criminals responsible for a string of grenade attacks that killed, among others, SAMS Kibria, one of the illustrious sons of the soil? Why um and ah about inviting the FBI and Scotland Yard with full powers to hound the assassins out? What is this government afraid of? Is there something wrong somewhere?

These are just a few of the umpteen questions that are haunting all sane citizens of this country, regardless of whatever side of the political divide they belong to. More dejected are the ones whose support to the present government is terribly shaken by the events but not wholly eroded, not yet. As far as they are concerned, the performance of this government vis-?-vis transparency is under close scrutiny. The longer the government will dither in giving the international investigators a free hand, the greater will be the doubt of the genuineness of its intention of unveiling the perpetrators of this dastardly act. Gossip already abounds that the government is unwilling to launch a fully-fledged probe lest the cat is out of the bag and some party thugs are caught in the net at the end of the day. Only truly transparent action can prove that this is not the case.

So fast does the moonscape change just because of one tragic incident! Until 27 January, this government was simply waltzing on a popular endorsement of its successful crime-busting campaign, spearheaded mainly by the newly formed Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). People generally praised its plusses, overlooking the obvious contravention of human rights caused by the 'crossfire' deaths at its hands. The reason is that it helped get the terrorists their comeuppance. It helped restore peace in many areas across the country where terrorists killed people at will year after year by ensuring that the hand of the law was not long enough to reach them. Came the time for peace after a long nightmare. People began sleeping well in their homes.

Apparently bubbly due to this success, Lutfozzaman Babar, the young and dapper State Minister for Home Affairs, quietly egged on his friends to raise a demand that he be wafted upstairs and made the full home minister.

But, unfortunately for Babar and more so for the entire nation, the criminals struck just the day after such demands were printed in some newspapers. The grenade attack on 27 January at Boidder Bazar in Habiganj killed five, including former Finance Minister Kibria. The picture changed rapidly. From its exalted messianic image, the ruling party has slid overnight down to the status of a villain.

Time has come for Babar and his gurus to realise that enough is enough. It is high time the government struck back at the criminals with telling force. If it doesn't, well, common sense will tell you that the ruling party is inviting hara-kiri of dreadful proportions. Kibria, in that case, is not going to be the last victim to fall. Many others may be targeted. The killers, buoyed by such indifference, may one day turn the barrels of their guns at those who are presently wallowing in the luxury of transient safety.

The news of Kibria's death triggered furious protests across the nation. Activists of the Awami League and its allies damaged shops, offices and banks and torched public and private vehicles across the country before enforcing a 60-hour nationwide hartal. The second phase of the shutdown is already underway; we have seen a dawn-to-dusk one on Thursday, and there will be a non-stop 48-hour rerun beginning on Saturday.

The AL leaders, rather than helping in any way to initiate an honest inquiry, see a great opportunity to turn this national grief into a campaign for unseating the government. They hold the BNP government responsible for the violence. They said a series of grenade and bomb attacks has taken place since its coming to power three years ago, but no effective steps are yet in sight to stem these killings and bring the perpetrators to justice.

AL chief Sheikh Hasina did not spare this grave moment to play her known political roulette. She said she had information that the attack had been pre-planned and that it had been launched under government patronage as part of its systematic move to exterminate opposition. Her allegations lose weight because she never cares for her responsibility as a former prime minister and chief of one of the country's biggest political parties. She loves conjecture, but not evidence.

Kibria's children, apparently to toe the Awami League line, have blamed the government for what they called 'pre-planned murder' of their father. They and their mother, Asma Kibria, demand an international probe to ferret out the culprits because they have no confidence in the present government.

His son, Reza Kibria, said his mother would lead a 'non-violent' movement demanding punishment of the killers of his father. So far so good. No one has lost more than the family has at this tragic death. Their emotional outburst, therefore, is quite understandable and must be respected. But, by the same token, they are also indulging in rhetoric that is somewhat disconcerting. They must be cautious that they do not play into the hands of the politicians who are out to exploit them. They must be careful that they do not utter words that are prone to challenge. Controversy will certainly undermine the stature of the man who is no longer in the land of the living but who will be revered for a long time to come for his outstanding contribution to this nation.

A group of 97 retired government officials has also denounced the government for what it called failure of the rulers to arrest the criminals responsible for bomb attacks. Although most of the officials are known as Awami Leaguers, their statement, printed in last Wednesday's newspapers, was measured and circumspect. Unlike Awami League, they didn't directly blame the government for the carnage, but ended up in saying that it is the government which must bear the ultimate responsibility for it. Among the group was Nurul Huda, the last IG of Police under Awami League, during whose time the nation saw the spate of bomb attacks that killed at least 50 people, including veteran leader Kazi Aref.

President Iajuddin Ahmed and Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia were among leaders across the entire political spectrum to denounce the attack and condole the death of Kibria. The Bangladesh president termed the attack 'barbaric' and 'cowardly'. He recalled the contribution of Kibria towards ?institutionalising parliamentary democracy in the country?.

Khaleda Zia said she was as much shocked at the death of Kibria as the entire nation is. But she said the task at the moment is to go after the criminals who are guilty of the dastardly murder. They must be smoked out of their holes, come what may, she said, and added that no efforts would be spared to bring international investigators and crime-busting buffs into the picture.

Perhaps as a follow-up to this promise, Babar unveiled the government's plan to get to the bottom of the heinous crimes that have claimed some 137 lives over the last six years, the latest being Kibria's.

As was indicated in his press conference last Saturday, a two-man Interpol team, which arrived in the city last Monday, has taken up investigation into the series of grenade blasts in earnest. He also said that Scotland Yard would resume investigation into the bomb attacks on the British High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury, at the shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal in Sylhet on 21 May, 2004. America's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would also weigh in at some stage.

But the US has said that Washington would consider FBI involvement in the probe only if the Bangladesh government agreed to let the investigating team have full access to evidence and witnesses of the Habiganj grenade attack. US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, raised this condition during her meeting with Foreign Minister Morshed Khan on Sunday. She said previous FBI investigation into the 21 August attack fizzled out because Dhaka was not forthcoming with the evidence it possessed.

She also said the investigation into the Habiganj attack has already been 'greatly undermined' because inadequate protection has contaminated the crime scene.

The new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, telephoned Prime Minister Khaleda Zia last Tuesday to stress Washington's concern at the spate of bomb attacks and the need for an 'open and transparent' investigation into the crimes.

The government in the meantime has suspended the SP of Habiganj, AMM Fakhrul Islam Khan, and the Office-in-Charge of Habiganj Sadar police station, Inam Ahmed Choudhury, for the security lapse at the meeting that caused Kibria's death.

But a daily newspaper in Dhaka on Monday quoted some local Awami League leaders as saying that the two police officers were suspended in order to undermine proper investigation. They said the suspended officials had almost tracked down the culprits when they were withdrawn. Had the culprits been nabbed, they said, the government would have been embarrassed.

It's a catch-22 situation,' a senior police official said out of disgust. 'If you didn't take action against them for gross security lapse, the same people would have accused the administration of being soft towards those who faltered. Tell me which way we should go!'

He said nothing prevents those officials, if they have some genuine evidence to identify the criminals, from sharing it with their senior colleagues. 'Why couldn't they stop the blast if they knew so much about it' he asked. 'Instead of doing that, they are now trying to play politics.'

Kibria was an icon in his own right. The former finance minister was perhaps too educated a person for a country where men of wisdom and knowledge are simply thrown out of the window by those who cannot be proud of their academic background, sagacity and prudence. This land has not produced many to match his talent as a diplomat or an economist. This rarity was perhaps his undoing.

His entry to politics was rather too late. After finishing his career, spanning over 48 years ? as a diplomat and then as an international civil servant - Kibria joined politics in 1992 at the age of 62 and instantly became a key figure in the Awami League. Two years later he became political adviser to Sheikh Hasina. He was also the party's chief coordinator for the parliamentary election in 1996 that saw the Awami League clinch the victory and get installed in power. He was the country?s finance minister during the AL's rule.

Kibria had his share of supporters and critics in our body politic. But one quality that is acknowledged by both sides as rare is that he was an enemy of violence and hooliganism. Superior argument was his strong point, although partisanship at times drove him away from cold logic.

His assassination is doubtless a defining moment for the people of this country, particularly their democratic aspirations.

The government, therefore, can undermine the investigation at its own peril. It must cleanse the Augean stable here and now. Four steps, among others, stand out as paramount should it want to start the whole exercise on a clean slate.

First, pull out all stops and give the international probe agencies all the evidence and witnesses in order to start its own inquiry.

Second, give the home ministry a facelift by giving it more authority. Appoint a home minister immediately in order to improve the image of this most crucial arm of the government. Babar may be enthusiastic and sprightly, but he is inexperienced and too young to run the show. It?s like asking a midshipman to guide a warship.

Third, recast the police administration and put people in the right places strictly on a professional basis. Many of our police officials are highly talented and unquestionably patriotic. They must be utilised up to their full potential without exerting any political influence on them.

Fourth, forge consensus among the political parties for fighting the terrorists. If they can forget their party lines and speak up with one voice for extracting more and more personal benefits for the MPs, why can't they do the same in this case? Mutual blame game will only encourage the criminals, as it already has.

These are simple solutions, almost naive. But they will doubtless work, given the sincerity of all and sundry.