It is only in exceptional situations that an army is called in to restore order in civilian life. But to give the army unrestricted powers or to permit it not to account for its actions is fraught with dangers. By issuing an indemnity ordinance to protect the army against criminal charges or human rights abuses, the Bangladesh government has courted avoidable risks. Worse, while shielding errant army officers, the ordinance has taken away the people’s right of appeal in a court of law. This is clearly an attack on personal freedoms and civil liberties, which, ironically, has come from a democratic government. The government’s action seems to validate the complaint that the army’s excesses during the recent anti-crime drive throughout Bangladesh resulted in many custodial deaths. The ordinance now makes it impossible to seek legal redress for those complaints. It also revives bitter memories of the other indemnity ordinance the country had issued in its 31-year history. The first ordinance was issued after the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder and first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, in 1974 by a group of conspirators in the army. The ordinance not only exonerated the killers but also paved the way for future army coups and the country’s long and unhappy encounter with army rule. Although the first ordinance was revoked and a trial for Rehman’s assassination began after his daughter, Ms Sheikh Hasina Wajed, led the Bangladesh Awami League to power in 1996, the long years of indemnity made it extremely difficult to bring the guilty to book.
The dangers of such laws are, however, not limited to individuals or political parties, although the government was accused of using the army against its political opponents. The real threat is to democracy and to the civil society. Bangladesh’s history of military regimes should make its leaders particularly careful in protecting and upholding its hard-won democracy. Last week’s ordinance suggests that the leader of the ruling coalition, Ms Khaleda Zia, is compromising on the people’s democratic aspirations in her anxiety to keep the military on her side. It cannot be anybody’s argument that all army officers involved in the operation had transgressed laws or committed human rights abuses. Punishing the errant officers could have done the army’s image much good. The anti-crime drive itself was welcomed by the people who had suffered badly from widespread lawlessness that marred Ms Wajed’s regime too. But the indemnity ordinance will now make the people suspicious of both the government’s motives and the army’s involvement in other civilian issues.