Sunday, April 25, 2004

Heading Towards a Fascist State?

The government, faced by an opposition ultimatum to quit before April 30, has been resorting to indiscriminate arrest. According to an unofficial estimate, around 10,000 people, mostly innocent, have so far been arrested within days by the Home Ministry and its faithful. While sheer arrogance runs high in the ruling coalition; the question remains is, are we heading towards a fascist state?

The dingy custody room of Motijheel Police Station on April 23 resembled a Pakistani-era concentration camp. The air of the small room was filled with the agony and trauma of hundreds of citizens, mostly young men, arrested from different places of the city.

It was not any different elsewhere on the following day. Twenty-five policemen lined up outside the Kamlapur Railway Station (KRS) in two rows as Jayantika Expresse had just arrived from Sylhet. The team spotted Sujon, a student of Akhaura Degree College, walking about outside KRS, along with his cousin Pavel. Moments later both were arrested and hauled up to the van to be produced later to the court. By evening, some 1,000 youths were picked up from the railway stations, launch and bus terminals and different city points under the section 54.

The treatment is, however, quite different for a lucky few; police have been sparing the active members of the ruling party. A young activist of the Jatiatabadi Chatra Dal, student wing of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party BNP, was arrested, and later released after the police received a phone-call from the BNP high command. Encouraged by his release, a Daily Star (DS) reporter says, Sharif, a welder and one of the other picked up youths, begged for his release, saying he went to the railway station to pass his day-off at the KRS. “After hearing this, the police on duty took a sneaky look at me and said, ‘Don’t you have any other place to go?’”

The police have customarily been abusing the infamous Section 54 of Criminal Procedure, which allows the law enforcers to arrest practically anyone on suspicion. But this time, while the wholesale arrest goes on, the Police are violating a High Court order that says that the arrested must be produced before the court within 24 hours and their relatives be informed about the arrest. But, according to newspaper reports, none of these dictums are followed when police swing into indiscriminate arrests.

Advocate Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendro has termed police highhandedness as a gross violation of human rights, the constitution and the High Court ruling. But, to rub salt on the wounds of those who still believe in the rule of law, the court itself has violated the law when it has sentenced scores of people to a three-day imprisonment without the people arrested being produced before the court, a DS report says.

While the number of arrests has reached five figures, the government and its intelligentsia have so far remained unmistakably silent. The home ministry has not found it necessary to let us know the reasons for this mindless act of state terrorism. “We have nothing to do; we’re doing what our higher authorities have instructed us to do dutifully,” reasons a police officer, when being asked the reason for the indiscriminate arrests.

The mass arrest, however, has given the police a chance to make “a windfall in bribes”. Kahinur Begum, a private tutor, has told the DS how she was picked up and then later freed by the police in exchange of a bribe on April 21. “I was picked up from the Maghbazaar residence of an Awami League leader where I stay. I begged them for mercy. But they said they would only let me off if I paid them money. Even then I had to pay Tk 500 to get myself free,” she claims.

Kahinur’s is not the only case. The police even did not spare a 16-year-old, whom they had arrested on “suspicion” at the Airport Police Station that day. His brother had to bribe the officer on duty to get the boy free. The boy and his brother want to remain anonymous, fearing police reprisal.

Meanwhile, mindless arrests, in the name of so-called national security continue. The courts had worked into whole nights to convict those arrested on April 20 and 21. “The huge pressure of cases have dragged the procedures on, leaving the people waiting in the intense heat without food and water in cramped lockups,” a newspaper report says.

The arrested were also made to sit outside the court prison cells, which can only hold 96 persons, because of space constraints. The General Records section of the court prepared files against the people arrested without any documents. The authorities of the already crammed jail are struggling to accommodate the newcomers. With a capacity of 2500 inmates, the jail usually houses 10,000 prisoners, the report informs.

Commenting on such gross violations of human rights, Shadin Malik, a legal expert and rights activist, says, “Mass arrests at launch and bus terminals and other entry points into Dhaka indicate that they are not based on suspicion, but on arbitrary presumption.” He describes the arrests as illegal and unconstitutional.

The trauma through which thousands of innocent young men have been going will surely haunt them for the rest of their lives. Jewel, Fazal and Murad, three HSC examinees came to Dhaka for shopping when they were arrested on April 23. “Do you know brothers, what will be our fate? Our examinations will begin on May 11; will we be released before that or will we languish in jail?” Jewel asks.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Whose Arms are They Anyway?

While the country’s law and order has been deteriorating sharply, a huge cache of arms has been seized in Chittagong. According to Shubid Ali Bhuiyan, a retired Major General of Army, the retrieved arms and ammunition are almost equivalent to the ones of Comilla Division of the Bangladesh Army. “A regular battle can be fought with such amount of armoury,” he says. While the government and its intelligence remain as indifferent as ever, the recovery of weapons like assault rifles and rocket-launchers sends a chilling message to those who still believe in a happy and stable Bangladesh.

Rumours have been raging across the country as to the identity of the owners and the destinations of the weapons. Shocked and confused, the citizens have been asking themselves the fateful question, whose arms are they anyway?

The story began on April 1, at around 11:45, when a crane truck appeared on the jetty of the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Factory (CUFF). The night of an otherwise silent state-owned jetty became noisy with sounds of around 150 porters offloading wooden boxes from two ships, MV Khawja and FT Amanat in a synchronised precision. Though the Chittagong Metropolitan Police (CMP) have claimed to have recovered the cache, largely credited to a tip-off from a foreign intelligence, Kazi Abu Tayeeb, the Ansar commander at the CUFF, has a different story to narrate.

According to Tayeeb, smugglers were offloading the largest ever arms cache recovered in the country with active “help from local police”. Tayeeb alleged 10 truckloads of arms were being offloaded in the presence of Karnaphuli Police Station’s Officer-in-Charge (OC) Ahadur Rahman, Sergeant Alauddin, Havilder Golam Rasul and Constable Mohiuddin. The crane truck, Tayeeb said to the national dailies, rammed into the vehicle of an Ansar member Minazur Rahman; heated altercations followed; and by this time a trawler moored to the jetty, two young men appeared, too, constantly talking on their cell phones. Minazur became suspicious.

“I rushed to the jetty after receiving a phone call from Minazur,” Tayeeb said. He in turn, according to newspaper reports, informed the incident to his boss, Mobin Hossain Khan, assistant security officer of CUFF. Mobin immediately sought help from the top officials at the CMP. In the meantime, Mobin went to the crime scene and demanded an explanation from OC Ahadur for what was going on in his presence. Ahadur in a show of indifference, asked Mobin if he would like to have some tea from the nearest tea-stall.
Tayeeb, Minazur and Mobin’s hard work, however, did not go in vain. A huge contingent of police led by the CMP Deputy Commissioner, Abdullahil Baki arrived before the early dawn of April 2. Interestingly, porters, along with two young men, were allowed to melt away in front of police reinforcement.
The recovery was huge--1, 290 SMGs, 100 Tommy guns, 400 semi-automatic spot Rifles, 150 rocket launchers with 40-mm barrels, 2000 grenade launchers, 840 rockets (40mm), 25,020 hand grenades, 6, 392 magazines of SMGs and 18,40 lakh bullets.

The colossal nature of the arms retrieved has shocked many. “The weapons hauled are generally used in classical wars against a regular army,” said Brigadier General (retd) Shahidul Anam Khan, a national security expert. “Bombs were exploded in some of the recent deadly incidents in the country such as the ones in at the Udichi’s cultural programme in Jessore and Bangla New Year’s celebration in Ramna Green in Dhaka,” Shahidul said. But, he continued, rockets or AK-47 rifles or Uzi submachine guns have never been used in any sort of terrorist activities here, he continued.

Major General Shubid Ali Bhuiyan agrees. He supports a long-standing allegation, which claims that huge caches of arms have regularly been smuggled to different South Asian insurgent groups through Bangladesh. “There is no big underground party in Bangladesh, which could possibly bring such a huge consignment of arms,” he says.

Meanwhile, on April 3, the police lodged two cases with the Karnaphulli Police Station (KPS) in connection with the arms haul. Interestingly, Ahadur Rahman, alleged to have linked with the gunrunners, has been made the plaintiff; if that is not all, the beleaguered OC of the KPS has been assigned as the investigative officer.

Bangladeshis are, in fact, no strangers to arms smuggling. A series of arms hauls in the last 10-years have made Bangladesh one of the safest places for arms smugglers in South Asia.
Actually subsequent governments have remained suspiciously indifferent in the face of an onslaught of allegations. In fact, last year, the General Manager (Admin) of the CUFF, ABM Nowsher, had asked the higher police authorities to take action against illegal berthing. “Apart from posing a serious threat to the security and safety of the port city, illegal berthing was also harming the jetty and the movement of vessels by blocking the river channel,” Nowsher wrote in a letter. Nothing has done to improve the situation; even after the general manager quite openly described it grave and a threat to national security.
It is a long list though. In June last year, the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) hauled a huge cache of arms, ammunition and high-frequency communications devices from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which has a 172km porous border with neighbouring India.

The BDR, along with the army, later, seized another huge cache of arms and explosives in 10 hauls in the three districts of CHT. This time the armoury included antiaircraft machineguns, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, Chinese and US made AK-47, M-79, M-16 rifles and grenades.

The latest recovery in Chittagong dwarfed even the arms haul in Bogra; then dubbed as the biggest ever arms haul in independent Bangladesh. June 27 last year, the police retrieved over 1-lakh bullets and about 200kgs of explosives from an abandoned truck in a remote village. The truck-owner, Jogesh Dev Burman--allegedly closely associated with the Tripura Co-operative Association--was later arrested in a forest in Habiganj.

The incidents of arms recovery, however, continued. November 30 last year, four AK-47 rifles, two revolvers, 20 hand grenades, four time bombs, 1,000 AK-47 bullets, 2kg plastic explosives and sophisticated walkie-talkies were recovered after a gunfight with a criminal outfit in Dhaka, near the US Embassy Building.

In fact several police reports indicate that illegal arms are regularly being smuggled in through the Chittagong port. At least 37 illegal arms-smuggling syndicates are active in the region, a police report mentions.

An Arakan rebel, known by the pseudonym Selim, was arrested in Chittagong in mid-2000. In his confessional statement Selim admitted his involvement in gunrunning; “Arms from Thai and Burmese insurgents are smuggled into Bangladesh through Chittagong and the CHT. These are then sold out in the underground market,” he said.

Major General (retired) Ibrahim, a security expert, has more to add. “The sources and destinations of the smugglers are not clear. But this is an old story that Bangladesh is being used as a transit point for its geographical location,” the former army-man tells the United News of Bangladesh. “Because of the political instability over the years; and the government’s failure to give enough attention to the issue, the arms smugglers have gained enough courage,” Ibrahim says. For us the statement spells a national security nightmare.