Bangladesh is under a cloud

More than 50 people were gunned down by security forces in May during a crackdown against drug traffickers in Bangladesh, raising the spectre of Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines. Many of those killed may have been genuine drug peddlers. But there are reports that quite a few of these killings were 'set-up'. Misuse of security forces in Bangladesh is not uncommon, if not rampant: the Narayanganj killings of seven people are an example of how the Rapid Action Battalion can be paid to kill. Allegations that such set-ups were put in place during the anti-drug crackdown have now surfaced.

These come at a time when questions have been raised over the fairness of the impending parliamentary elections and the future of democracy in Bangladesh. Cases of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture have been reported regularly by human rights groups within the country and outside. Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation has even downgraded Bangladesh (along with Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Uganda) to the list of "new" autocracies. Even a commentator in India's Observer Research Foundation has described Bangladesh's upcoming election as a challenge to regional stability.

When rampant human rights abuses surface alongside the prospect of a less-than-fair election, questions are inevitably raised over the future of democracy in Bangladesh. The country has had regular elections since the fall of the Ershad-led military junta in 1990. Till 2014, the elections produced a change of regime every five years. The polls were held under a neutral caretaker until the system was abolished in 2009. There were good reasons to do away with the caretaker system, which had exceeded its brief to conduct free and fair polls and tried to rule Bangladesh without an electoral mandate for a good two years. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies wanted the caretaker restored and hit the streets in a violent agitation before the parliamentary elections in 2014 to have their way. When the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government went ahead without going back to the caretaker system, the BNP-led alliance boycotted the polls.

That was a tactical mistake because the BNP-led alliance could have well won the polls. The stink of winning an election boycotted by the leading Opposition alliance stuck on Wajed's government, which has otherwise accomplished major achievements on the socio-economic front. The West remained critical of Wajed's government, and as the countdown begins to the next election, the envoy of the United States of America, Marcia Bernicat, has called upon the government to ensure free and fair elections. In other words, Wajed is expected to walk the extra mile to get her bête noire, Khaleda Zia, to contest the polls even if it means restoring the discredited caretaker system that had degenerated into an unelected government run by the military by remote control.

The fact that Zia and her son, Tarique Rahman, stand convicted in criminal cases (and may even be convicted in some more) does not go down well with the West. The human rights groups there tend to link the criminal cases to political vendetta, and the convictions are seen as the handiwork of a politically motivated judiciary. There is not much that Wajed can do about this.

Should one expect the Bangladesh prime minister to put the brakes on the investigations into the 2004 grenade attack in Dhaka that nearly killed her? If enough evidence is found against Rahman and his complicity is proved beyond doubt, would the West still keep questioning the verdict that would follow, as has happened in the cases of the war-crime verdicts that have led to the hanging of a few Opposition leaders belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami and the BNP? Should one expect Wajed to stop the judicial proceedings into the Chittagong arms seizures that have led to the conviction of some former ministers and Opposition leaders?

The West and the self-declared custodians of democracy are making a critical mistake over Bangladesh. They overlook the campaign of violence that was unleashed against the Awami League when the BNP-led alliance was in power. That top BNP and Jamaat leaders risk conviction in some of the murder and arms-trafficking cases of the time is being ignored deliberately. It was during the BNP-Jamaat government that Awami League leaders, including a former finance minister and a labour leader, were assassinated. Punishing the culprits responsible for these attacks is as important as punishing those responsible for the war crimes. This is important to end the culture of impunity that threatens democracy in Bangladesh.

The Awami League proudly claims credit for the socio-economic progress in Bangladesh during Wajed's tenure as prime minister. The party should also put an end to the alleged impunity enjoyed by the security forces that has now led to rampant killings during the anti-drug crackdown.


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