Quiet crushing of democracy, or a fair election?

Amid all the speculations concerning Bangladesh's elections, The New York Times on 2 September came up with a detailed report ('Quietly Crushing a Democracy: Millions on Trial') on all the adversities being faced by members of the main opposition to the party in power. Several newspapers in Bangladesh have published the Bangla translation of the New New Times' online report.

Ittefaq online ran the headlines in Bangla as 'Quietly Crushing a Democracy', leaving out the 'Millions on Trial' part. They quoted BNP as saying that about half of the 5 million members of the party faced legal cases. Some had a dozen or so cases against them, some even face a few hundred. They spend their time either in the court verandas or in the dock. The report describes the experiences of quite a few persons in this regard.

Exactly four days later, the Dhaka newspaper Samakal came up with a report 'Old cases revived, new ones being added'. The report said that there are 141,000 cases against BNP leaders and activists with 4,940,492 accused in these cases. This is double the 2.5 million mentioned in the New York Times report. They said even this year 331 new cases have been filed, the accused in these cases totalling 4000. They gave certain district-wise figures too, from BNP sources.

Neither the ruling party nor the government has given any official explanation about these figures. Party supporters have randomly questioned the veracity of the figures. But such abnormal inflated figures are actually not impossible, given the hundreds of cases, even thousands of cases filed against unidentified persons, by overly enthusiastic loyalist police officials, who benefit from such partisan obeisance.

Meanwhile, the doors are also shut on anyone coming up with facts and figures on behalf of BNP to prove these reports. Nasir Jamshed, who would keep record of the BNP members being arrested, himself was picked up by police from the party office at midnight on 19 August and named as an accused in a case filed in Jatrabari, reports the New Age.

No matter how wide the gap is between the two newspapers, even the lowest number is disturbing enough. On top of that, as reported by several newspapers recently, in view of the elections up ahead, the police have been instructed to speed up the trials of the accused and they are readily carrying out these orders. The flurry of activities among the police, the public prosecutors and the courts, clearly indicate that the hearing of many of these cases will be finished before the election and the accused will find themselves behind bars.

Some highlights of the New York Times' report include, police during the 14-year rule, manning various institutions of Bangladesh including the courts with loyalists and establishing control on these, and so on. The report says that various institutions have been used to suppress dissenting voices. Quoting political leaders and analysts, the newspaper says there is an effort to transform the country into a one-party state.

Meanwhile, 181 eminent persons including Nobel laureates and persons proving their excellence in various areas on an international scale, who have stood in support of Bangladesh's Nobel laureate Professor Yunus, have expressed their concern about human rights, and free and fair elections in Bangladesh. In their statement they too have expressed apprehension concerning the rule of law.

On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk also spoke about legal harassment of dissenters. He said, "The legal harassment of civil society leaders, human rights defenders and other dissenting voices, is a worrying sign for civic and democratic space in Bangladesh."

The bottom line is, a political understanding is a must for a competitive and inclusive election. The understanding can be at their own initiative or mediated by someone else.

The government contends that it has no intention of harassing the political opposition, and that these cases were simply to control crime. But these reports and statements from various quarters reflect that the government's claims are questioned. There are two main reasons behind this - the stupendous number of cases and accused, and the huge number of cases against single individuals. These are being seen as legal harassment. The question that will possibly loom large is whether the legal obstacles being raised to block possible candidates of the major opposition party from contesting in the election, will be effective at all.

Over the past decade it has been proven time and again how the ruling party and our close neighbouring state have tried relentlessly to establish Jatiya Party as the alternative opposition in lieu of BNP. But all the attractions that lured Jatiya Party to unconditional support of those in power, have now proven to be a threat to their very existence.

Even now the leader of the party lacks the personality and the freedom to openly speak about his trip to India, about who invited him, who he met, what they discussed and so on. The results of by-elections and local government elections over the past five years reveal they are not even the third major political party of the country. They decide on their party stand depending on the direction in which the political crisis swings. What can this be termed as other than political bankruptcy and opportunism?

The bottom line is, a political understanding is a must for a competitive and inclusive election. The understanding can be at their own initiative or mediated by someone else. It is undoubtedly not an easy task to resolve the stalemate over the caretaker government question. Awami League's general secretary and many in the cabinet have been asking why the foreigners have such a headache over our election. But they do not want to look back.

In 1996 when they took up a movement demanding a caretaker government, they went all out for foreign mediation. At that time too, the US ambassador David Merrill took lead among the foreign diplomats and the US state department spokesperson Nicholas Burns even announced this in Washington. At the time, Khaleda Zia pointed to constitutional obligations and held a one-sided election on 15 February.

During that election, BNP and Awami League held talks behind the scenes and the diplomats had a role to play. Influential US Congressman Bill Richardson, later governor of the state of New Mexico, visited Dhaka at the time. Even after he left, the western diplomats kept up their efforts and finally Khaleda Zia accepted the demand for a caretaker government and after passing a law, announced fresh elections.

In the meantime, through Bill Richardson's diplomatic moves, American girl Eliadah McCord, imprisoned for life on drug trafficking charges, was released and her sentence was remitted. Later, during Sheikh Hasina's first term in government, Bill Richardson in 1998 was made the US energy secretary.

After Bill Richardson passed away on 1 September, when the details of his Bangladesh visit were dug up, events of the violent movement for the caretaker government and the way this was resolved, came to the fore. With the political conflict emerging over the same caretaker government issue, why do our politicians not take a lesson from the past?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column 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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