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Horror and grief: a nation besieged

Text by Rahnuma Ahmed

Photos by DrikNews

One of the factors that is said to have contributed to the rebellion. The previous government (under emergency rule) had initiated a programme of providing subsidised food to tackle the unprecedented increase in food costs. The army is said to have whisked away huge amounts of money through the programme, while BDR staff complain of not even receiving legitimate payment for extra work. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 03 2008. Muniruzzaman/DrikNews

One of the factors that is said to have contributed to the rebellion. The previous government (under emergency rule) had initiated a programme of providing subsidised food to tackle the unprecedented increase in food costs. The army is said to have whisked away huge amounts of money through the programme, while BDR staff complain of not even receiving legitimate payment for extra work. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 03 2008. Muniruzzaman/DrikNews

The military cordoned off parts of Dhanmondi in an effort to quell the uprising. Soldiers in Satmasjid Road. Dhanmondi. 9:30 am. 25th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

The military cordoned off parts of Dhanmondi in an effort to quell the uprising. Soldiers in Satmasjid Road. Dhanmondi. 9:30 am. 25th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

BODIES of army officers had been found, they had been dumped in the sewage canals that lay underneath the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. Two dead bodies had been the first ones to surface, far away, in Kamrangirchar.

Three civilians had died too, on the very first day. But as news of fifteen more dead bodies of army officers surfaced the next day, the civilian deaths seemed to pale away.

While the extent of the conflict was unclear bodies of slain police and civilians were found. Many lay unattended as sniper fire prevented medical help from reaching. 25th February. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Adnan/DrikNews

While the extent of the conflict was unclear bodies of slain police and civilians were found. Many lay unattended as sniper fire prevented medical help from reaching. Later bodies of soldiers were found, in water bodies near Dhanmondi as well as in mass graves. 25th February. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Adnan/DrikNews

And then a mass grave was discovered in the BDR grounds. Thirty-eight dead bodies were unearthed, including that of the director general Shakil Ahmed. A couple of other bodies were found, killed and dumped in ponds, drains, and sewage lines.

Many innocent civilians got caught up in the fight. Bus helper Muhammad Babu talks of his near escape. One of his compatriots died while two others were hit by bullets. 25th February 2009. Dhanmondi. Noor Alam/DrikNews

Many innocent civilians got caught up in the fight. Bus helper Muhammad Babu talks of his near escape. One of his compatriots died while two others were hit by bullets. 25th February 2009. Dhanmondi. Noor Alam/DrikNews

As the long hours passed, the whole nation seemed to be holding back its breath, aghast at the enormity of what had happened. At the carnage that had accompanied the rebellion. People gathered around to listen to the radio, watched breaking news spots on television, read aloud newspapers. News travelled through word of mouth. Collective sighs of relief were heaved when family members who had been held hostage were released. But the discovery of more mass graves, the news of family members also having been killed, of the many scores still missing, leave people speechless.

The conflict spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The BDR of Baitul Izzat BDR Training Centre, Satkania, rebelled on the 26th February. There was heavy gunfire inside the camp 9.30 am spreading panic in the area. After the shooting BDR took control of the training centre. BDR claimed that army started the gunfire. Trainee BDRs discarded their uniforms and ran away to nearby villages. Chittagong, Bangladesh. February 27 2009. Raj Aniket/DrikNews

The conflict spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The BDR of Baitul Izzat BDR Training Centre, Satkania, rebelled on the 26th February. There was heavy gunfire inside the camp 9.30 am spreading panic in the area. After the shooting BDR took control of the training centre. BDR claimed that army started the gunfire. Trainee BDRs discarded their uniforms and ran away to nearby villages. Chittagong, Bangladesh. February 27 2009. Raj Aniket/DrikNews

As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh. A H Arif/DrikNews

As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh. A H Arif/DrikNews

Horror, incredulity, and a sort of numbness have set in. Scores still remain missing, as the gagging stench of decomposing flesh hangs over Pilkhana grounds.

After the military was initially kept back, tanks were deployed. More than 10 tanks and one APC (armed personnel carrier) took position in front of Abahani sports ground, while soldiers took position inside the field. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

After the military was initially kept back, tanks were deployed. More than 10 tanks and one APC (armed personnel carrier) took position in front of Abahani sports ground, while soldiers took position inside the field. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

How could the jawans go on such a killing spree to right the wrongs done to them? What on earth could have possessed them? These are questions that are repeated endlessly by people in all parts of the country. Yes, they did have grievances (over not being given full rations, not being sent abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, over low pay, unpaid daily allowances promised for extra duties rendered, recruitment from the army to the higher, decision-making positions, etc, etc) but surely, their course of action was disproportionate by all accounts. Not to mention, suicidal (as I write, the idea of disbanding the BDR is being considered).

Is there more to it than meets the eye? In a crisis as grave as the one that faces the nation now, where does one seek answers to the truth? It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers. But what if some of the questions being raised are seen, especially by powerful sections, as blaming the victims of the tragedy? Do we have the resources, the intellectual capacity, the political will, and above all, the courage, to raise the right questions? Will these be tolerated, in moments of such deep grief, where passions rage high?

Were unseen forces at work? Wild conspiracy theories are doing the rounds. Do these not block off hard-headed attempts at understanding whether unseen forces were really at work? Surely we need to know the truth, in the interests of the nation-state, and in the interests of the survival of the many millions who live within its boundaries. It is a nation whose citizens are proud of their hard-earned and fought-for independence, and of their sovereignty, notwithstanding the deep fractures that cause long-standing divisions.

A girl just released from the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

A girl just released from the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

I see women and children seated on the pavement or standing outside the BDR gates, keeping long hours of vigil, for news of their loved ones. I see a few faces break down in tears as yet another body is identified. I see some women reach out to console, while others, who still have shreds of hope, lower their heads in shared grief. Hoping against hope that their husbands, or fathers, or brothers or sons will return. Alive.

Family members of the hostages were released in front of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

Family members of the hostages were released in front of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

Army tanks moved into the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. After 33 hours the rebel BDR soldiers surrendered and went back to their barracks, and police and army took over the BDR headquarters. A woman waited outside the headquarters for news of missing relatives. 27th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

Army tanks moved into the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. After 33 hours the rebel BDR soldiers surrendered and went back to their barracks, and police and army took over the BDR headquarters. A woman waited outside the headquarters for news of missing relatives. 27th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

I see a mother holding up a wedding photograph of her missing son and his newly-wed bride. I grieve for them, just as I grieve for much-respected inspector general of police Nur Mohammad’s daughter, widowed, at two months. Scores remain missing, still.

I read of the Indian government’s offer to send a peace mission to give security to the Calcutta-Dhaka-Calcutta Moitree Express that runs between the two cities on Saturdays and Sundays, to be manned by Indian paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force, the Railway Protection Force, maybe, even the Border Security Force (The Telegraph, February 27).

I listen to balance in reporting being urged, particularly in the case of the electronic media, since the accusations of the BDR jawans had been highlighted on the first day of the rebellion in some of the private TV channels. It is being said, the other side’s version, that of the army officers, had not been sought, that it had not been reported. But surely the lack of press briefings, either from the government or the Home Ministry, or from the ISPR, contributed to this situation? I listen to a discussant argue that command failure, intelligence failure and corruption should not be mentioned. I cannot help but wonder, how does one seek out the truth where such a besieged mentality operates, where collective grief, horror and condemnation can be offered and accepted but only on terms that are acceptable to the recipient? Where narratives of grief and pain and horror seem to be overlaid with other narratives, that of the right to rule.

A candlelight vigil to mourn the dead in a park opposite the BDR headquarters. People of all religions offered silent prayers for the victims. 1st March. Dhaka Bangladesh. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

A candlelight vigil to mourn the dead in a park opposite the BDR headquarters. People of all religions offered silent prayers for the victims. 1st March. Dhaka Bangladesh. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

The dead cannot be brought back to life, nor can the brutal happenings be erased from the nation’s history. We can only console the bereaved. We can only learn lessons from it, as a nation.

It is the nation – as a whole – that grieves for the army officers, and their family members. It is the nation that must stay united, since the crisis seems grave enough to threaten our existence. It is the nation that must come together to seek answers, and to discover the truth. A unity of interests must prevail, rather than that of any particular institution. Or else, I fear, we would be doing injustice to those who lost their lives at Pilkhana.

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Written 1 March 2009, published in New Age 6 March 2009

Earlier coverage:

March 6, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

No tax on words

Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.

My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.

An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.

Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.

The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008.

The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.

In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.

In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then

As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.

Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.

Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad.

Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad. He had painted on his back "Let Democracy be Freed". © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.

Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.

Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.

Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.

Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.

At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.

Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.

Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.

BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.

Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

More election pictures at DrikNews.

Current election photos from www.driknews.com

Current election photos from http://www.driknews.com

December 27, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, elections, governance, Major Features on Bangladesh, My Photo Essays | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Re-constructing the nation. Imperial designers at work

Rahnuma Ahmed

After all, one cannot permit the feud between the two parties to destroy the nation. We must dedicate ourselves to higher causes instead. Our bodies and souls must be dedicated to the defense of empire, and to its interests.

`Shamorik, Beshamorik o Jameson’er Ccholke Pora Totto,’ Shomokal, July 4, 2007.

I had written these words nearly a year and a half ago. I wish I had been wrong.

The words were based on my readings of the `universalisation’ of the US empire’s interests throughout the world by means of armed coercion and ideological hegemony, and my interpretation of political events at home. At the sudden installation of the military-backed caretaker regime on 11 January 2007, and at the Chief Advisor’s vows: to crackdown on corruption and establish the rule of law, and to initiate strict reforms aimed at ensuring long-term stability and restoring democracy in national politics.

Before the installation of the Fakhruddin-led government, before the scheduled January 2007 national elections, even before late 2006 when some of the streets of Dhaka city had turned into battle-fields of opposing political parties, Western diplomats in Dhaka had been frenziedly active. Particularly the US Ambassador Patricia Butenis, and the British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury. But I must not fail to mention other western diplomats, those from the EU and from western European nations, from Canada, and from Australia. And how can one ever forget Ms Renata Dessalien, the UN’s Resident Coordinator? Even the blind, I felt, could not fail to notice the fury and madness that seemed to possess these western diplomats: holding discussions and meetings with politicians, some of these closed-door, making off-the-cuff statements to press and television reporters, constantly advising and preaching to the politicians, to the nation at large. On occassions, the Indian High Commissioner too, had joined in the fray.

It was a frenzy that did not abate with the installation of the interim government. It is a frenzy that still continues. Later entrants to this proselytising club have been the diplomats of some of the Muslim nations, happen-chance choir boys to western soloists.

I have friends who are cynical, who think that western diplomats posted in Dhaka — for them ‘outposts’ — are from far worse outposts themselves, that they do not possess much in the way of education, culture, and refinement, that they have probably not read the Vienna Convention and hence are totally unaware of the norms of diplomacy that are obligatory. One of them even said, maybe they don’t know of it’s existence? Hey, what about doing a questionnaire survey…? Another friend chipped in, you know, in some ways they are quite similar to our politicians, these diplomats are also surrounded by sycophants, by our politicians, writers, university teachers, lawyers, journalists, NGO and development-wallahs, they seem to hang on to every word that they say.

But I think these `reasons’ let them off too easily. I also see no reason to deny the bitter hostility between the two main political parties, a hostility that was aggravated by the 2004 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina outside the Awami League party office in Gulistan. One that was further deepened by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s accusation that the `militants’ behind the grenade attacks were `accomplices’ of the AL. Of gnawing suspicions of poll-rigging, ones that became increasingly clearer as the parliamentary elections to be held under the caretaker government of president Iajuddin Ahmed in January 2007 approached. Accusations and counter-accusations have been heaped on to fractures that divide the nation, that are deeply embedded in the nation’s political history of autocratic civilian governments, preceded or followed by military dictators. A nation that faced a threat at birth when the US Seventh Fleet entered the Bay of Bengal in 1971, days before independence, and yet again, suffered more grievously, in August 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, and most of his family members, were assassinated. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s name has forever remained linked with the coup’s conspirators.

I do not know whether any of the western diplomats had stoked the fires of intolerance that was on display on either side, in late 2006. But I do know from newspaper reports that Ms Butenis had been present at a luncheon meeting organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership, where a video film on the violent events of 28 October 2006 was screened.

A question that is hardly raised, let alone discussed in `civil society’ forums, deliberating endlessly on the urgent need for national unity, is: is the unity to be forged against the west’s imperial interests, or is it to be accomplished to serve these interests further? What paths are open to us? What are the consequences of the paths that we tread upon, for us and for our future generations?

Footprints in the sand

The cat was let out of the bag by the World Bank’s Vice-President Praful C Patel, on a visit to Dhaka, in December 2007. “What [had] looked possible before,” said Patel, “like the minus-two approach,” no longer seems possible. The leaders of AL and BNP have a “very strong and powerful power base.” Rumors that the caretaker government was attempting to apply the minus two formula had been circulating for months, only to be vehemently denied. The government had insisted that it only sought to create a level playing field, one in which all political parties could participate freely and fairly. Strategies for restoring democracy to Bangladesh, it seems, were being planned most undemocratically.

And, of course, there was the slip made by the more-than-voluble British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who had commented on the Dhaka university student protests of August 2007, protests that had spread to other public universities and educational institutions, and was later brutally put down by the army with the imposition of curfew. “Initially spontaneous,” these protests, said Mr Choudhury, had signalled “something much bigger, something much sinister.” He had felt obliged to inform us, “A lot of money and co-ordination came into the equation.”

Ms Butenis has been succeeded by James Francis Moriarty, in the words of the well-known Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, “an American cowboy in a Nepali china shop.” Dixit should know since Mr Moriarty had been the US ambassador to Nepal (2004-2007), before being posted to Bangladesh. In response to reports of the infamous killings and destruction of property in Kapilavastu in the Terai by death squads, based on Latin American paramilitary “death squad” models, Moriarty is reported to have said, it was a reason for “optimism.” Later, when confronted with this report and asked for further comments, he had said, his main concern was that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was running out of bullets. As US ambassador to Nepal, Mr Moriarty is reported to have visited army camps, to have frequently given speeches about domestic political affairs, to have visited Nepal’s Terai region, to have instigated Madhesi leaders to take actions against the Maoists, and to have machinated to get the Seven Party Alliance to break their pact with the Maoists.


The US ambassador to Bangladesh, James F Moriarty, at a meeting with the foreign adviser to the military-controlled interim government, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury… Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomatic activity seems to have fallen on Mr Moriarty.
— Focusbangla photo

The US military involvement in Nepal is said to have increased considerably after Christina Rocca was appointed the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia in 2001. (Ms Rocca is familiar to many Bangladeshis, too). Millions of dollars have been pumped into building-up Nepal’s security forces, military exchange programs have been expanded, the Royal Nepalese Army has increased in numbers, from 35,000 before 2001, to 100,000 in 2005, with further increases of up to 150,000 projected for this year. Permanent headquarters have been built for US `advisers’ adjacent to RNA headquarters in Kathmandu’s city centre. The US army has trained Nepalese security forces in `special operations’ through its International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program. In 2003, Ms Rocca is reported to have tabled the proposition that RNA troops be sent to Iraq. This was politely declined by the Nepalese government, but it had gone on to request for “more weapons, helicopters, surveillance equipment that would enable the army to find and kill the revolutionary leadership, and the continuation of counter-insurgency training.”

Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomat-ic activity has fallen on Mr Moriarty, who has made visits from madrasas in Rangpur to the Kumudini Welfare Trust complex in Tangail, to holding meetings with AL, BNP, Jatiya party and Jamaat’s local-level politicians in Rangpur, discussing their present organisational structures, all in the interests of `strengthening democracy.’ There are other newspaper reports too. Recently, representatives of US Department of Homeland Security, US Pacific Command, and US Border Patrol completed a survey on border security in Bangladesh. According to reports, the Bangladesh government has not yet been informed of the details of the survey.

National unity? Of course. But in whose interests?

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First published in New Age on 22nd December 2008

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed, World | , , , , | Leave a comment

The 11th Commandment

Reinhard Siekaczek was half asleep in bed when his doorbell rang here early one morning two years ago. Still in his pajamas, he peeked out his bedroom window, hurried downstairs and flung open the front door. Standing before him in the cool, crisp dark were six German police officers and a prosecutor. They held a warrant for his arrest.

At that moment, Mr. Siekaczek, a stout, graying former accountant for Siemens A.G., the German engineering giant, knew that his secret life had ended. “I know what this is about,” Mr. Siekaczek told the officers crowded around his door. “I have been expecting you. “To understand how Siemens, one of the world’s biggest companies, last week ended up paying $1.6 billion in the largest fine for bribery in modern corporate history, it’s worth delving into Mr. Siekaczek’s unusual journey.

A former midlevel executive at Siemens, he was one of several people who arranged a torrent of payments that eventually streamed to well-placed officials around the globe, from Vietnam to Venezuela and from Italy to Israel, according to interviews with Mr. Siekaczek and court records in Germany and the United States. What is striking about Mr. Siekaczek’s and prosecutors’ accounts of those dealings, which flowed through a web of secret bank accounts and shadowy consultants, is how entrenched corruption had become at a sprawling, sophisticated corporation that externally embraced the nostrums of a transparent global marketplace built on legitimate transactions.

Mr. Siekaczek (pronounced SEE-kah-chek) says that from 2002 to 2006 he oversaw an annual bribery budget of about $40 million to $50 million at Siemens. Company managers and sales staff used the slush fund to cozy up to corrupt government officials worldwide. The payments, he says, were vital to maintaining the competitiveness of Siemens overseas, particularly in his subsidiary, which sold telecommunications equipment. “It was about keeping the business unit alive and not jeopardizing thousands of jobs overnight,” he said in an interview. Siemens is hardly the only corporate giant caught in prosecutors’ cross hairs.

Three decades after Congress passed a law barring American companies from paying bribes to secure foreign business, law enforcement authorities around the world are bearing down on major enterprises like Daimler and Johnson & Johnson, with scores of cases now under investigation. Both companies declined comment, citing continuing investigations. Albert J. Stanley, a legendary figure in the oil patch and the former chief executive of the KBR subsidiary of Halliburton, recently pleaded guilty to charges of paying bribes and skimming millions for himself. More charges are coming in that case, officials say. But the Siemens case is notable for its breadth, the sums of money involved, and the raw organizational zeal with which the company deployed bribes to secure contracts. It is also a model of something that was once extremely rare: cross-border cooperation among law enforcement officials.

German prosecutors initially opened the Siemens case in 2005. American authorities became involved in 2006 because the company’s shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In its settlement last week with the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Siemens pleaded guilty to violating accounting provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which outlaws bribery abroad.

Although court documents are salted throughout with the word “bribes,” the Justice Department allowed Siemens to plead to accounting violations because it cooperated with the investigation and because pleading to bribery violations would have barred Siemens from bidding on government contracts in the United States. Siemens doesn’t dispute the government’s account of its actions.

Matthew W. Friedrich, the acting chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, called corruption at Siemens “systematic and widespread.” Linda C. Thomsen, the S.E.C.’s enforcement director, said it was “egregious and brazen.” Joseph Persichini Jr., the director of the F.B.I.’s Washington field office, which led the investigation, called it “massive, willful and carefully orchestrated.”

MR. SIEKACZEK’S telecommunications unit was awash in easy money. It paid $5 million in bribes to win a mobile phone contract in Bangladesh, to the son of the prime minister at the time and other senior officials, according to court documents. Mr. Siekaczek’s group also made $12.7 million in payments to senior officials in Nigeria for government contracts. In Argentina, a different Siemens subsidiary paid at least $40 million in bribes to win a $1 billion contract to produce national identity cards. In Israel, the company provided $20 million to senior government officials to build power plants. In Venezuela, it was $16 million for urban rail lines. In China, $14 million for medical equipment. And in Iraq, $1.7 million to Saddam Hussein and his cronies.

The bribes left behind angry competitors who were shut out of contracts and local residents in poor countries who, because of rigged deals, paid too much for necessities like roads, power plants and hospitals, prosecutors said. Because government contracting is an opaque process and losers don’t typically file formal protests, it’s difficult to know the identity of competitors who lost out to Siemens. Companies in the United States have long complained, however, that they face an uneven playing field competing overseas.

Ben W. Heineman Jr., a former general counsel at General Electric and a member of the American chapter of Transparency International, a nonprofit group that tracks corruption, says the enforcement of some antibribery conventions still remains scattershot. “Until you have energetic enforcement by the developed-world nations, you won’t get strong antibribery programs or high-integrity corporate culture,” he said.

Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia are the five countries where corporate bribery is most common, according to Transparency International. The S.E.C. complaint said Siemens paid its heftiest bribes in China, Russia, Argentina, Israel and Venezuela. “Crimes of official corruption threaten the integrity of the global marketplace and undermine the rule of law in the host countries,” said Lori Weinstein, the Justice Department prosecutor who oversaw the Siemens case.
All told, Siemens will pay more than $2.6 billion to clear its name: $1.6 billion in fines and fees in Germany and the United States and more than $1 billion for internal investigations and reforms.

Siemens’s general counsel, Peter Y. Solmssen, in an interview outside a marble-lined courtroom in Washington, said the company acknowledged that bribes were at the heart of the case. “This is the end of a difficult chapter in the company’s history,” he said. “We’re glad to get it behind us.” Mr. Siekaczek, who cooperated with German authorities after his arrest in 2006, has already been sentenced in Germany to two years’ probation and a $150,000 fine. During a lengthy interview in Munich, a few blocks from the Siemens world headquarters, he provided an insider’s account of corruption at the company. The interview was his first with English-language news outlets.

“I would never have thought I’d go to jail for my company,” Mr. Siekaczek said. “Sure, we joked about it, but we thought if our actions ever came to light, we’d all go together and there would be enough people to play a game of cards.”

Mr. Siekaczek isn’t a stereotype of a white-collar villain. There are no Ferraris in his driveway, or villas in Monaco. He dresses in jeans, loafers and leather jackets. With white hair and gold-rimmed glasses, he passes for a kindly grandfather — albeit one who can discuss the advantages of offshore bank accounts as easily as last night’s soccer match. SIEMENS began bribing long before Mr. Siekaczek applied his accounting skills to the task of organizing the payments.

World War II left the company shattered, its factories bombed and its trademark patents confiscated, according to American prosecutors. The company turned to markets in less developed countries to compete, and bribery became a reliable and ubiquitous sales technique. “Bribery was Siemens’s business model,” said Uwe Dolata, the spokesman for the association of federal criminal investigators in Germany. “Siemens had institutionalized corruption.” Before 1999, bribes were deductible as business expenses under the German tax code, and paying off a foreign official was not a criminal offense. In such an environment, Siemens officials subscribed to a straightforward rule in pursuing business abroad, according to one former executive. They played by local rules.

Inside Siemens, bribes were referred to as “NA” — a German abbreviation for the phrase “nützliche Aufwendungen” which means “useful money.” Siemens bribed wherever executives felt the money was needed, paying off officials not only in countries known for government corruption, like Nigeria, but also in countries with reputations for transparency, like Norway, according to court records. In February 1999, Germany joined the international convention banning foreign bribery, a pact signed by most of the world’s industrial nations. By 2000, authorities in Austria and Switzerland were suspicious of millions of dollars of Siemens payments flowing to offshore bank accounts, according to court records.

Rather than comply with the law, Siemens managers created a “paper program,” a toothless internal system that did little to punish wrongdoers, according to court documents. Mr. Siekaczek’s business unit was one of the most egregious offenders. Court documents show that the telecommunications unit paid more than $800 million of the $1.4 billion in illegal payments that Siemens made from 2001 to 2007. Managers in the telecommunications group decided to deal with the possibility of a crackdown by making its bribery procedures more difficult to detect.

So, on one winter evening in late 2002, five executives from the telecommunications group met for dinner at a traditional Bavarian restaurant in a Munich suburb. Surrounded by dark wood panels and posters celebrating German engineering, the group discussed how to better disguise its payments, while making sure that employees didn’t pocket the money, Mr. Siekaczek said.

To handle the business side of bribery, the executives turned to Mr. Siekaczek, a man renowned within the company for his personal honesty, his deep company loyalty — and his experiences in the shadowy world of illegal bribery. “It had nothing to do with being law-abiding, because we all knew what we did was unlawful.” Mr. Siekaczek said. “What mattered here was that the person put in charge was stable and wouldn’t go astray.” Although Mr. Siekaczek was reluctant to take the job offered that night, he justified it as economic necessity. If Siemens didn’t pay bribes, it would lose contracts and its employees might lose their jobs. “We thought we had to do it,” Mr. Siekaczek said. “Otherwise, we’d ruin the company.”

Indeed, he considers his personal probity a point of honor. He describes himself as “the man in the middle,” “the banker” or, with tongue in cheek, “the master of disaster.” But, he said, he never set up a bribe. Nor did he directly hand over money to a corrupt official. German prosecutors say they have no evidence that he personally enriched himself, though German documents show that Mr. Siekaczek oversaw the transfer of some $65 million through hard-to-trace offshore bank accounts. “I was not the man responsible for bribery,” he said. “I organized the cash.”

Mr. Siekaczek set things in motion by moving money out of accounts in Austria to Liechtenstein and Switzerland, where bank secrecy laws provided greater cover and anonymity. He said he also reached out to a trustee in Switzerland who set up front companies to conceal money trails from Siemens to offshore bank accounts in Dubai and the British Virgin Islands. Each year, Mr. Siekaczek said, managers in his unit set aside a budget of about $40 million to $50 million for the payment of bribes. For Greece alone, Siemens budgeted $10 million to $15 million a year. Bribes were as high as 40 percent of the contract cost in especially corrupt countries. Typically, amounts ranged from 5 percent to 6 percent of a contract’s value.

The most common method of bribery involved hiring an outside consultant to help “win” a contract. This was typically a local resident with ties to ruling leaders. Siemens paid a fee to the consultant, who in turn delivered the cash to the ultimate recipient. Siemens has acknowledged having more than 2,700 business consultant agreements, so-called B.C.A.’s, worldwide. Those consultants were at the heart of the bribery scheme, sending millions to government officials.

MR. SIEKACZEK was painfully aware that he was acting illegally. To protect evidence that he didn’t act alone, he and a colleague began copying documents stored in a basement at Siemens’s headquarters in Munich that detailed the payments. He eventually stashed about three dozen folders in a secret hiding spot. In 2004, Siemens executives told him that he had to sign a document stating he had followed the company’s compliance rules. Reluctantly, he signed, but he quit soon after. He continued to work for Siemens as a consultant before finally resigning in 2006. As legal pressure mounted, he heard rumors that Siemens was setting him up for a fall. “On the inside, I was deeply disappointed. But I told myself that people were going to be surprised when their plan failed,” Mr. Siekaczek recalled. “It wasn’t going to be possible to make me the only one guilty because dozens of people in the business unit were involved. Nobody was going to believe that one person did this on his own.”

The Siemens scheme began to collapse when investigators in several countries began examining suspicious transactions. Prosecutors in Italy, Liechtenstein and Switzerland sent requests for help to counterparts in Germany, providing lists of suspect Siemens employees. German officials then decided to act in one simultaneous raid. The police knocked on Mr. Siekaczek’s door on the morning of Nov. 15, 2006. Some 200 other officers were also sweeping across Germany, into Siemens’s headquarters in Munich and the homes of several executives. In addition to Mr. Siekaczek’s detailed payment records, investigators secured five terabytes of data from Siemens’s offices — a mother lode of information equivalent to five million books. Mr. Siekaczek turned out to be one of the biggest prizes. After calling his lawyer, he immediately announced that he would cooperate. Officials in the United States began investigating the case shortly after the raids became public. Knowing that it faced steep fines unless it cooperated, Siemens hired an American law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, to conduct an internal investigation and to work with federal investigators.

As German and American investigators worked together to develop leads, Debevoise and its partners dedicated more than 300 lawyers, forensic analysts and staff members to untangle thousands of payments across the globe, according to the court records. American investigators and the Debevoise lawyers conducted more than 1,700 interviews in 34 countries. They collected more than 100 million documents, creating special facilities in China and Germany to house records from that single investigation. Debevoise and an outside auditor racked up 1.5 million billable hours, according to court documents. Siemens has said that the internal inquiry and related restructurings have cost it more than $1 billion.

Siemens officials “made it crystal clear that they wanted us to get to the bottom of this and follow it wherever the evidence led,” said Bruce E. Yannett, a Debevoise partner. At the same time, Siemens worked hard to purge the company of some senior managers and to reform company policies. Several senior managers have been arrested. Klaus Kleinfeld, the company’s C.E.O., resigned in April 2007. He has denied wrongdoing and is now head of Alcoa, the aluminum giant. Alcoa said that the company fully supports Mr. Kleinfeld and declined to comment further.

Last year, Siemens said in S.E.C. filings that it had discovered evidence that former officials had misappropriated funds and abused their authority. In August, Siemens said it seeks to recover monetary damages from 11 former board members for activities related to the bribery scheme. Negotiations on that matter are continuing. Earlier this year, Siemens’s current chief executive, Peter Löscher, vowed to make Siemens “state of the art” in anticorruption measures. “Operational excellence and ethical behavior are not a contradiction of terms,” the company said in a statement. “We must get the best business — and the clean business.” Siemens still faces legal uncertainties. The Justice Department and German officials said that investigations were continuing and that current and former company officials might face prosecution. Legal experts say Siemens is the latest in a string of high-profile cases that are changing attitudes about corruption. Still, they said, much work remains.

“I am not saying the fight against bribing foreign public officials is a fight full of roses and victories,” said Nicola Bonucci, the director of legal affairs for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is based in Paris and monitors the global economy. “But I am convinced that it is something more and more people are taking seriously.” For his part, Mr. Siekaczek is uncertain about the impact of the Siemens case. After all, he said, bribery and corruption are still widespread.

“People will only say about Siemens that they were unlucky and that they broke the 11th Commandment,” he said. “The 11th Commandment is: ‘Don’t get caught.’ ”————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Source: Robin Khundkar and Pedro Meyer

Original in The New York Times

December 21, 2008
At Siemens, Bribery Was Just a Line Item
By SIRI SCHUBERT and T. CHRISTIAN MILLER
MUNICH

This article is a joint report by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, PBS’s “Frontline” and The New York Times. A related documentary will be broadcast on “Frontline” on April 7.

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Global Issues, governance | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mumbai 2008, India’s 9/11?

Rahnuma Ahmed

He couldn’t wait, he SMS-ed me from Dhaka airport soon after the plane had landed.

My media activist friend had returned from the annual South Asia Media Summit 2008, in Goa. ‘These guys are crazy. They were not interested in my presentation on cultural diversity but in the existence of jihadi terrorist camps in Bangladesh. That is all they wanted to know.’ We met up later, and he went on, You need at least a dose of scepticism when handling terror claims, but it’s become political football for the Indian media, the intelligence agencies and the politicians. It’s parallel to post-9/11 hysteria. It’s the same ‘fear politics’ that are at play in India.

This was two days before the 62-hour carnage in Mumbai began on November 26 night.

A fire breaks out of the dome of the Taj hotel in Mumbai on November 26. AFP

A fire breaks out of the dome of the Taj hotel in Mumbai on November 26. © AFP

India’s 9/11?

And, before the carnage had ended, before the dead had been counted, before the injured had been rushed to hospitals, the 9/11 framework was in full swing on most Indian TV channels. Montage after montage of smoke-encased buildings dubbed ‘Ground Zero’ were shown while wartime captions declared, ‘India at War’, ‘Another 9-11’.

A day later, in his first reaction to the attacks in Mumbai, India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh pointed the finger of blame beyond India’s borders. He did not mention Pakistan by name, but the inference was clear. The external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee was more explicit. Preliminary and prima facie evidence, he said, indicated a Pakistani connection.

Secularist nationalist warmongers not to be outdone in expressions of patriotism, joined extremist Hindutvas in clamouring for ‘tough action’, the need to teach the evil perpetrators ‘a lesson they will never forget’, launching punitive raids across the border, destroying jihadi camps, bombing Muridke in Lahore, capturing the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Some went further and said a full-scale war needs to be declared against Pakistan. So did guest panellist Simi Garewal who ranted on the NDTV, ‘We need to carpet bomb parts of Pakistan. Shock and awe. That is why America has not had an attack since 2001. That is what we need to do.’

But there are also voices of courage such as Shuddhabrata Sengupta who writes in Outlook that the Indian state and elements within the state have sinned as much as they have been sinned against. Criticising national amnesia, he reminds readers of the brutal slaughter of one hundred and twenty unarmed and peaceful Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka in May 1984 by the LTTE, an organisation that was ‘housed, armed, funded and nourished by the Indian state led by Indira Gandhi,’ and wonders should Sri Lanka then have carpet bombed Delhi and Chennai. And, he goes on, if a professional investigation into the horrific attack on the Samjhauta express reveals that the perpetrators were Hindu radicals assisted by rogue elements within the Indian military intelligence, would Pakistan be justified in ‘carpet bombing’ Pune, Indore, Jammu and other places that are linked to the cluster of organisations and individuals around outfits such as Abhinav Bharat?

Mumbai-based author-columnist Farzana Versey writes of class amnesia. Those who claim that there is no time for resilience anymore forget another dome that was broken down in 1992, they forget Gujarat in 2002. Those who rail against the government now had kept quiet earlier when the government and the police had backed local lumpens. The elite, says Versey, are unconcerned at other deaths in the Mumbai carnage, at the 58 deaths that occurred at the local train station, or the 10 others who died at the hospital, or the taxi driver who got burnt along with his vehicle. They protest now only because their cocktail party circuit at the Oberoi and the Taj are affected.

The Indian government’s accusation needs to be ‘taken with a grain of salt’, says Ayesha Ijaz Khan, London-based lawyer and political commentator. This is not the first time that the Indian government has blamed Pakistan, only to discover later that the accusation was false. Investigations have revealed that four earlier incidents – the Chattisinghpura massacre in March 2000, the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, the Malegaon blasts, and the Samjhauta express in February 2007 – when the Indian government had directly accused Lashkar-e-Taiba of having sponsored the violence, and Pakistan indirectly for harbouring the militant group, were caused by groups from within India. The Samjhauta express incident, which killed 68, mostly Pakistanis, is the most troubling as four months of investigation revealed that it was not Lashkar-e-Taiba but Lt Col Purohit, who was serving in the Indian army, and had links with Hindu militant groups was responsible for the attack. Also involved was Pragya Singh Thakur, member of ABVP, an RSS inspired youth group.

Others have pointed out that India should not tread on the US government’s post-9/11 path. That the passing of more draconian anti-terror legislation, curtailing of civil liberties, expansion of police powers, and the dismantling of democracy in the defence of democracy is not the answer to terror attacks. That the Indian government would be better advised to turn attention towards the real grievances of 800 million Indians, the routine discrimination of India’s Muslim minority, real economic disparities that are blinded by the spectacular consumerism of its upwardly mobile middle classes.

In reply to those Indians who argue that America is safe after the war on terrorism, there are many who point out that the world is much less safe, and that Americans too are much less secure. Scores of terrorist attacks have been carried out against American institutions in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific, more than a dozen in Pakistan alone since the first American strike was carried out on Afghanistan in October 2001. And, as William Blum has pointed out, since there was no terrorist attack in the US during the six and a half years prior to 9/11, one may conclude that the ‘absence of terrorist attacks in the United States is the norm.’

As accusatory fingers point at Pakistan, strengthened by the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s assertion that the terrorists in Mumbai were Pakistani nationals and members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, both Pakistani and Indian journalists, those who do not belong to the ask-no-questions camp, express doubts and raise questions. Nasim Zehra of Pakistan’s Duniya TV says: an Indian TV network interviewed one of the terrorists holed up in a hotel surrounded by commandos. Why was his phone not jammed? How did the terrorist call the TV reporter? Or did the latter call the terrorist? If yes, how did the she or he get the latter’s number? How was it possible for Pakistani terrorists to travel in fishing boats for over 500 nautical miles? And, as Ayesha Ijaz points out, India has 22 separate radar systems that monitor the coastal line between Karachi and Mumbai, it is a heavily patrolled area, one in which hundreds of Indian and Pakistani fishermen are regularly apprehended and arrested for illegal intrusion. Indian journalist Neelabh Mishra remarks on the strange coincidence of Pakistani terrorists finishing off the top leadership of the Anti-Terror Squad, including Hemant Karkare, involved in probing a supposedly Hindutva terrorist cell. Wondering about the circumstances in which the ATS leadership was led into a position of extreme vulnerability to terrorist fire, Mishra writes, ‘how is it that whenever the Hindu rightist extreme seems to be in dire straits as with the current Sadhvi-Purohit-Pandey terror investigations, some violent action undertaken supposedly on behalf of Muslims or Pakistan, as the case may be, comes to their aid and also vice versa?’

What is needed is a thorough investigation, one that is conducted without assigning premature blame on any organisation or country. And, as Sengupta urges, what is needed is for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis to join hands across the Indo-Pak divide, to say that they will not tolerate the nurturing of terror, hate and division through covert and overt acts of rogue elements both within their governments, which have a vested interest in continuing conflict and enmity, and that of non-powerful state actors.

Post-script: As I write, I come across the news that Dar-ul-Uloom, the most respected school of Islamic teaching in the subcontinent, has suggested that Indian Muslims avoid slaughtering cows on Eid-ul-Azha as a mark of respect to the religious beliefs of Hindus, and to pray for the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks and express solidarity with Mumbaikars.

But I come across another news item that reminds me of the fear politics that my media activist friend, back from the Goa conference, was talking about. Ten SIM cards were bought a month ago from three different locations in Kolkata and sent to Pakistan via Bangladesh, three of these were used by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in Mumbai. I do not harbour any illusions about the present military-backed caretaker regime in Bangladesh, nor of the past governments either. None of the terror attacks that have occurred in this country has been credibly investigated. Public doubts exist that cannot be easily brushed off, doubts about the involvement of elements within the government, or of forces outside the government that were emboldened by state inaction. That is not my point, instead I wonder, how credible is this discovery of SIM cards? And in the absence of courageous officers like Hemant Karkare, DIG Ashok Kale and encounter specialist Vijay Salazar, who had been tasked with finalising the findings of both the Samjhauta Express incident and the Malegaon blasts, will thorough investigations of the Mumbai terror attack take place?

———————–

First published in New Age, 8th December 2008

December 7, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, governance, Media issues, Rahnuma Ahmed, World | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Violence against Women and Girls: Breaking Taboos

rahnuma ahmed

She jumped down from the police van and tried to escape. It stopped, they hunted her down by torchlight, dragged her back and drove off. Men, gathered around the tea stall, wondered why the car had stopped. Curious, they walked up to the spot. A golden coloured sandal, a handkerchief, and broken bits of bangle lay there.

Yasmin: raped and murdered by the police

She was only fourteen years old, her death was brutal. Gang-raped by policemen, and later, killed. Yasmin, a domestic wage worker, employed in a Dhaka city middle class home, longed to see her mother. Leaving her employers home unannounced, she caught the bus to Dinajpur, got down at Doshmile bus stoppage, hours before dawn on 24 August 1995. A police patrol van driving by insisted on picking her up. Yasmin hesitated. One of the police constables barked at those gathered around the tea stall, We are law-enforcers, we will drop her home safely. Don’t you have any faith in us?

Hours later, a young boy discovered her bloodied dead body, off the main road. The police who came to investigate stripped her naked. Bystanders were outraged. Recording it as an unidentified death, they handed over her body to Anjuman-e-Mafidul Islam for burial.

The dead girl was the same girl who had been picked up by the police van, when this news had spread, a handful of people took out a procession. In response, the police authorities held a press conference where a couple of prostitutes turned up and claimed that the dead girl Banu, was one of them, she had been missing. District-level administration and local influentials joined in the police’s attempts to cover up.

Spontaneous processions and rallies took place demanding that the police be tried. Yasmin’s mother recognised her daughter from a newspaper photo, lifeless as she lay strewn in an open three-wheeled van. As a peoples movement emerged, police action, yet again, was brutal. Lathi-charge, followed by firing, killed seven people. Public outrage swelled. Roadblocks were set up, curfew was defied, police stations were beseiged, arrested processionists were freed from police lock-ups by members of the public. Outrage focused on police superintendent Abdul Mottaleb, district commissioner Jabbar Farook, and member of parliament Khurshid Jahan (‘chocolate apa’), the-then prime minister Khaleda Zia’s sister, perceived to be central figures in the cover-up. Shommilito Nari Shomaj, a large alliance of women’s organisations, political, cultural and human rights activists joined the people of Dinajpur, as Justice for Yasmin turned into a nationwide movement.

In 1997, the three policemen, Moinul Hoque, Abdus Sattar and Amrita Lal were found guilty. In 2004, they were executed.

Yasmin of Dinajpur is, for us, an icon symbolising female vulnerability, and resistance, both her own (she had tried to escape), and that of people, both Dinajpur and nationwide. She serves as a constant reminder that the police force, idealised in state imaginings as protector of life and property should not be taken for granted, that women need to test this each day, on every single occasion.

In the nation’s recent history of popular struggles, Yasmin’s death helped to characterise the police force as a masculine institution, it gave new meanings to the Bangla proverb, `jey rokkhok shei bhokkhok,’ he who claims to protect women, is the usurper, the aggressor. A taboo, sanctioned by state powers, was broken.

Bidisha in remand: sexual abuse

`Go and get a shard of ice. Insert it. It will all come out.’

In her autobiography, Bidisha, second wife of ex-President Hussain Mohd Ershad, later-divorced, writes, I wondered, what will they do with that? Insert it where? (Shotrur Shonge Shohobash, 2008).

Under the influence of what she assumes was a truth serum, injected during remand at a Joint interrogation cell housed in Baridhara, Bidisha writes, the pain was unbearable. A horrible burning sensation coursed through my body, my eyes threatened to burst out of their sockets. If I opened them, it felt like chilli powder had been rubbed in. If I closed them, balls of fire encircled my pupils. My breathing grew heavy. I felt like I was dying, but I couldn’t, I was falling asleep, but I couldn’t. My tongue grew thick. I wanted to say everything that I knew, and things that I didn’t. Questions flew at me from all directions, some of them pounded me from inside my head.

But, Bidisha writes, I stuck to what she knew. I stuck to the truth. Her interrogators got tired. One of them ordered the ice, and ordered someone to leave the room. Was it the policewomen, Bidisha wonders. A strong pair of hands gripped her shoulders, another climbed up her legs, up her thighs, ‘like a snake.’ But they stopped, disappointed. `I don’t think we can do it. She’s bleeding.’

She writes, but my periods had ended days earlier, why should there be blood? I remembered, it must be the beatings at the Gulshan police station, by the officer-in-charge Noore Alam. She was pushed and as she fell, someone grabbed hold of her orna. Pulled and pushed, her orna soon turned into a noose, she could no longer breathe, her tongue jutted out. She was hit hard with a stick on her lower abdomen, through the daze she could see that he was uniformed. I fell on the floor like a sack. I was barely conscious. I was kicked and trampled with boots on my chest, head, back, and lower abdomen.

During interrogation, the chief interrogator Joshim had repeatedly shouted at her, Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you? Ten-twelve men had been present when the truth serum was injected. Well-dressed, fashionable clothes, expensive watches. Whiffs of expensive after-shave. Trim hair, cut very short. As she repeatedly stuck to the truth, Joshim threatened to hang her upside down, like Arman, he said, who was being tortured in the next room. She was threatened with rape by members of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion). During another round her left thumbnail was prised open and torn away, by something like a pair of pliers. They held my eyelids open so that I could see. Relief came only when the call for prayers sounded, since the men scurried away to pray.

Interrogation sessions were video-recorded, each interrogator had an audio recorder. I remember hearing, be sure to get all the details on camera. I remember someone adding, Who’ll think she’s had three kids? What a figure! The cassette’ll make him happy. Make who happy? she wonders. Toward the end of the three-day remand, one of the men entered and said, It’s over. I’ve talked. To who? asked one of the interrogators. One of the Bhaban men. (I presume, Bidisha means Hawa Bhaban). She was forced to declare on camera that she had not been tortured, to sign written declarations, and also blank sheets of paper.

She was in custody for 23 days in June 2005, because of two cases filed by her husband, and two by the government. What were the allegations? Her husband, the ex-President, first accused her of stealing his cell phone, money from his wallet, and vandalising household furniture. Then she was accused of having different birth dates on two different passports. And lastly, of having stashed away large amounts of money in foreign bank accounts.

Interested quarters tried to make light of the incident, they said, it was a ‘purely family affair.’ Those in the political know, for instance Kazi Zafarullah, Awami League presidium member, claimed that the ruling BNP had masterminded the event to prevent Ershad from forging unity with opposition political parties since elections were due next year (New Age, 6 June 2005). I was repeatedly asked during interrogation, writes Bidisha, why had I said that the Jatiya Party should form an alliance with the Awami League? Why not with the BNP? (`because they were unable to govern properly, people were furious, Jatiya Party popularity was bound to fall’). Bidisha was expelled from Jatiya party membership, she lost her post of presidium member.

Parliamentary elections under the present military-backed caretaker government are scheduled to be held in December 2008. Jatiya Party (JP) has joined Awami League (AL) led grand alliance for contesting the elections. According to newspaper reports, Ershad is eyeing the presidency.

Pahari women: rape under occupation

Even after the signing of the 1997 Peace Treaty between the government and the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti), the Chittagong Hill Tracts remains one of the most militarised regions of the world. During the period of armed conflict, according to international human rights reports, sexual violence was inflicted on indigenous women and their communities as part of military strategy. Bangladesh Army personnel have been accused by paharis of having committed extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and abduction. In August 2003, over 300 houses in 7 pahari villages of Mahalcchari were razed to the ground by the army, aided by Bengali settlers. Paharis claim, ten Chakma women were raped, some of them gang-raped. This includes a mother and her two daughters, aged 12 and 15, and two daughters of another family, aged 14 and 16 years. Victims allege, armed personnel alongwith Bengali settlers took part in the rapes. Paharis claim, state-sponsored political and sexual violence still continues.

There is no public evidence that the Bangladesh army has investigated those claims in any way. Nor do we know if the Bangladesh army has charged any soldier as a result of the alleged assaults. Nor is there any public evidence that any military personnel has been punished for any of the alleged rapes.

Tomorrow, November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We need to break more state sanctioned taboos.

November 24, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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