When zero tolerance amounts to zero

Shahdeen Malik | Update:

Illustration : Niaz Chowdhury tuliOn 2 February, Prothom Alo published a piece by Mizanur Rahman Khan about taking ‘zero tolerance’ down to a ‘minus’. The day before that, the Daily Star published a write-up by Sakhawat Liton, about ‘democracy versus graft’. My piece here is more or less on the same lines, but perhaps a bit blunter. Obviously the recent Transparency International (TI) corruption index and then the prime minister’s declaration of ‘zero tolerance’ against corruption, has sparked off debate and discussions on the issue.

After the 1 July 2016 Holey Artisan massacre, the government declared zero tolerance against militancy and that has displayed significant success. The law enforcement agencies carried out raids on various militant dens, either killing or arresting the militants within. All eight of the accused in the Holey Artisan case are behind bars and the trials are about to begin. This is undoubtedly a success.

It has been six months since the government also declared zero tolerance against drugs. When this drive began, reports repeatedly appeared in the media about the drug dealers killing each other in shootouts. Perhaps they took up these gunfights to render the government drive a success. And countless of these drug dealers were also killed in encounters with the law enforcement. The media has recently been replete with pictures of palaces of drug lords in Teknaf. There is also the news of drug dealers surrendering to the authorities. And now zero tolerance is being taken up against corruption.

When it was learnt that students of an expensive private university were involved in the Holey Artisan killings, it created reverberations throughout the country. There were discussions on the TV talk-shows at the universities and private schools as to how children of higher middle class families got involved in such terrorism. However, I don’t quite recall if any ‘wealthy’ ones were among those who were later caught or killed in the subsequent law enforcement drives. The media said they were all ‘small fry’. The big fish and the godfathers remain out of reach.

Recently the billion taka corruption of an accountant created quite a sensation. But presumably it is the big fish who are mostly involved in the big corruption. After all, how much can an accountant or a cashier of a bank actually get away with? For the bank chairman, a billion taka is nothing. The owner of a company who gets government contracts worth millions, will hardy dabble in mere thousands of taka. In other words, the big time corrupt persons are of a different class than militants and yaba dealers. There is zero here and zero there, but all zeros are not the same in circumference. 

Recently we hear that the anti-corruption commission has been on a drive to detect truant doctors and teachers in the small towns. Many of them were absent from their posts and quite a noise was made about all this. TV talk-shows went wild over the small town physicians. That’s why I was trying to say, all zeros are not the same.

The names of our neighbouring countries aren’t noticeable on the TI index. Somalia appears to be the most corrupt according to the index. Then comes Syria. Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria since 2000, winning three elections in a deluge of votes. His father Hafez al-Assad ruled there before him from 1971 to 2000. After Syria in the index is the relatively newly independent South Sudan. After that is Yemen where there’s a Saudi versus Iran proxy war on at present. Innocent people are being killed there every day. Next on the list is South Korea. Then Sudan. Next on the corruption index is Equatorial Guinea. At 149 is Uganda. Togo has fared a bit better than us.

And all these countries have their own anti-corruption commissions. In Togo it is the called National Corruption for Fighting Corruption and Economic Crime. The word ‘fighting’ conjures up images of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, finishing off dozens of villains on the cinema screen.
The Economist Intelligence Unit categorises democratic countries into four divisions. To make it simple, I have named these first division, second division, third division and failed division. We are in the third division. The World Justice Project has an index regarding rule of law. We rank at 102 there, among the 113 countries on its index.

Where the votes were being counted even before being casted in the last election, confidence in the judiciary has plummeted. Where the police and officers of the administration are more of party workers than government officials, where the anti-corruption commission is more focussed on small fry than the big fish, can ‘zero tolerance’ amount to anything more than a political slogan?

* Dr Shahdeen Malik is a lawyer of the Supreme Court and teaches law at the University of Asia Pacific. This piece appeared in Bangla in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir

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