Benazir-Aziz: Govt in discomfort all of a sudden

Benazir Ahmed and Aziz AhmedFile Photo

After the 12th Jatiya Sangsad election, the government has faced no  political pressure within the country from the opposition camp and things were running smoothly for the government in this fourth consecutive term.

Then all of a sudden, from outside of the political arena, the allegations of corruption against Aziz Ahmed and Benazir Ahmed disrupted that complacence to an extent.

Both of them, after all, were known to be particularly close to the government. Allegations arose against both of them for using their power to commit corruption while they were in the top positions of two forces.

Former army chief Aziz Ahmed has been accused of using his influence to get false IDs and passports for this brothers.

And evidence has arisen of the former police chief Benazir Ahmed amassing huge amounts of wealth outside of known income. 

Several persons within Awami League feel that the Aziz-Benazir incident has harmed the government's reputation and created a sense of unease. It has also had an effect in the area of international relations.

The US sanction slapped on the former army chief Aziz Ahmed four and a half months after the elections, created fresh doubts and discomfort within the ruling camp concerning the US attitude towards the government. Immediately after this sudden sanction on this former army chief, the government support was removed from the former police chief. Back in 2021 when the US imposed sanctions on seven officers of RAB and the police, Awami League and the government had been vocal in protest. That has not been so in the case of the sanctions on Aziz. Meanwhile, many Awami League leaders are puzzled at why the protection for Benazir was suddenly withdrawn. Some feel this is an attempt to show America that the government is taking an important stand against corruption.

This line of thinking was evident when talking to 11 district and central leaders of Awami League. They believe that that the sanction against General Aziz Ahmed is political and most of them also believe that the US government still remains displeased with the government of Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh's good relations with China may also be a reason behind this development.

However, within just days of Donald Lu's departure, the US sanctions were placed on the former army chief Aziz Ahmed. Awami League leaders said they were taken aback by this behaviour of the US. Many within the party and the government grew suspicious about the actual US stance

Why the suspicions?

The US has official relations with the Awami League government. However, these relations have not reached a level of close friendship. On the contrary, these relations have been fraught with tension at various times. On 10 December 2021 the US imposed sanctions of seven officers of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the police, including Benazir Ahmed, on charges of human rights violations. The government and Awami League at the time displayed an angry reaction to this. Even after this, the US at various times and put pressure on the Bangladesh on the question of human rights and good governance.

Then the US visa policy centering the 7 January elections created bitterness in relations. Several leaders at a policymaking level in Awami League say that BNP and other opposition parties had taken up a movement against the government, and boycotted the election. The US visa policy went in favour of the opposition movement, according to them. However, in the past few months after the election, an understanding was forged between the government and the Americans.

In mid-May, four months after the election, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu, paid a visit to Bangladesh. During his meetings at various levels of the government, he gave the message that the US was focusing on furthering its relations with Bangladesh. The country was wanting to put aside past bitterness and strengthen relations anew.

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Aziz Ahmed (L) and Benazir Ahmed (R)
File Photo

However, within just days of Donald Lu's departure, the US sanctions were placed on the former army chief Aziz Ahmed. Awami League leaders said they were taken aback by this behaviour of the US. Many within the party and the government grew suspicious about the actual US stance. That is why a minister remarked that this move was political and that the US had taken this measure to keep the government under pressure. This is one speculation within the government and ruling party circles.

Benazir issue at govt's behest

While the speculations ran abound around the country regarding the sanctions on Aziz Ahmed on grounds of corruption, the issue of former police chief Benazir Ahmed cropped up. The government hadn't taken any steps against him before. Now they are actively doing so.

A policymaking leader of Awami League, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo that after the sanctions on Aziz Ahmed, apprehensions arose among those in power that the US would take such measures against other persons close to the government too. Also, during his Dhaka visit, Donald Lu had stressed that the US would place priority on anti-corruption matters in its work with the Bangladesh government.

Awami League leaders feel that the US wants to further is "working relations" with Bangladesh. It was in this backdrop that that the allegations of corruption against Benazir Ahmed were raised. The government took initiative to display that initiatives were being taken to crack down on corruption. The Awami League leader said that this was a move to placate the US.

However, several other sources within the party say that even though Benazir Ahmed was close to the government, his corruption was so extensive that it was no longer possible to ignore. Also, there was the matter of silencing critics by showing that the government spared no one, no matter how powerful or influential  they may be.

Meanwhile, a minister told Prothom Alo that by undertaking these steps, the government was also delivering a message to certain other controversial elements. But news hit the headlines that Benazir had left the country before any steps were taken against him. The ruling coterie has no explanation for this.

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The government wants to shrug off the negative image that has been created. A minister said that they are now attaching priority to creating a positive image within the country and in international relations. They are placing importance on improving relations with the US while, at the same time, maintaining a balance in relations with India and China.

Many analysts, however, are doubtful about how far the government's steps on corruption, human rights and good governance will generate confidence at home and abroad.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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