Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Political crisis 2015 - No clean hands

See also in the 'Political Crisis 2015' series:
Analysis of the deaths (updated to 1 Feb)

There is only one truth when its comes to violent killings and Bangladesh politics. None of the country's two main political parties have clean hands.

Lets first consider the violence since 5January 2015.

By just about any definition of the crime,  the violence perpetrated by men throwing petrol bombs at vehicles around the country amounts not only to homicide but to the offence of terrorism.

It is violent conduct against a civilian population and seeks to influence the policy of a government – in this case to get it to hold elections. However legitimate many in the country may feel this demand to be, this does not excuse or justify the killings.

So Sheikh Hasina, and other members of her government are right when they decry as 'terrorism' the recent deaths of over 30 members of the public  – as indeed they had done about a similar number of deaths a year ago during the previous opposition protests before the 5 January 2014 election.

Were this kind of violence to happen in any Western capital, there would be outrage and every attempt would be made to bring to justice all those involved with it.

It is therefore perfectly reasonable for the Bangladesh government to take all lawful steps to both quell the violence and to bring the bombers and those who aided and abetted them to account

Who is responsible?
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other opposition parties of course deny any involvement, but looking at the current situation the most likely explanation is that most of those carrying out the violence are either BNP or opposition party activists, or those paid for them, and that party leaders have either instructed them to do it or given them a green light or they knew that it would happen and did nothing to stop it.

Whilst there is a significant section of the country who, if given a chance, would vote for the BNP in an election (some conjecture even a majority) such a pool of support is not enough in itself to make national strikes and sieges successful. This requires that the wider general public are scared to drive vehicles on the roads or be driven in then – and this means violence becomes essential. And it is those organizing the strikes and seiges who make sure that happens. And this time around, it is the BNP (and Jamaat) again.

And buttressing this argument are the recent reports that a number of BNP and Jamaat activists have been injured apparently in the course of actual bomb making or throwing,

Of course, the argument laid out above is supposition, and would not in itself amount to reasonable suspicion justifying the arrest of opposition leaders. For this, credible evidence of the involvement of particular leaders is required. However, one would imagine if it is the case that BNP leaders are complicit in this violence, evidence should be available – in communication records, telephone surveillance and in statements from amongst the thousands of opposition activists who have been arrested.

A traditional law and order approach?
Whilst it may be the case that the BNP is involved in terrorism, the party itself is not a terrorist organization. 

Moreover, it is a popular political party with widespread country wide support oscillating around between 35 to 45 per cent of the population. In addition, its basic demand of holding a free and fair election is also popular – and whilst some will argue against the need to hold an election now, it is not an unreasonable demand to be making in the context of the inadequacy of the 5 January polls. This creates difficulties in dealing with the current situation simply through a ‘law and order’ approach.

If one looks solely at the situation from a law enforcement perspective, assuming there is sufficient evidence, arresting and prosecuting leaders of the BNP (and the Jamaat) may well seem justified - bringing justice to those who have been killed in the picket arson. But in the current political situation it is uncertain how wise a move this would really be. It will be perceived as  (and may well in fact be) politically driven. Moreover, it makes a solution to the political problem which is at the heart of the conflict much more difficult. Arresting the leaders is also unlikely to bring an end to the violence, which could well continue with the involvement of more unconstrained and radical political elements within the country.

It is a difficult conundrum. Whilst there should be no impunity to those involved in the killing of members of public in the bus, and violence should not be allowed to gain political concessions, at the same time few will have faith in the integrity of any prosecutions taken against opposition leaders, and the action would not result in a solution to the crisis.

State violence
Moreover, whilst the Bangladesh government is right in much of what it says about the apparent BNP violence, they do not come with clean hands. Far from it.

During its period of government, the human rights organizations Ain-O-Salish Kendra and Odhikar, along with the country’s media, have reported hundreds of forced disappearances and extra judicial killings on the part of Bangladesh law enforcement authorities. A considerable number of the victims are opposition political activists.

In a two week period, just before the 5 January 2014 elections,  New Age identified the disappearances of 19 Dhakabased BNP activists, all of whom remain untraced. Eye-witness evidence to each of these incidents point to the involvement of law enforcement authorities.

Over a year had gone by and the whereabouts of these men are unknown. Whilst families must hope that these men remain held somewhere in state custody, it must be more likely that these men have been killed.

If this is so, then the law enforcement personnel who killed them are clearly guilty of murder in the same way as the ‘opposition pickets’ discussed above.

And much the same can be said of recent incidents of apparent ‘extra judicial killings’ in which opposition activists have been killed after having being picked up by law enforcement officials.

And just as it seems improbable that the opposition pickets threw their firebombs without direction or a green light from their leaders, it is equally unlikely that those who killed opposition activists did so without a green light or direction from their political masters.

Indeed the Prime Minister’s recent statements have been criticized by Amnesty International of ‘carrying a high risk of being seen as an open invitation for the police to use unnecessary and excessive force against demonstrators or even to carry out extrajudicial executions.’

It could be argued, of course, that there is something particularly heinous about the killing of members of the public (which opposition activists or those under their control appear to be doing now) when compared to state killings of opposition activists who may well have been involved in serious crimes themselves.

There may be some truth to this. However, state killings are also chilling because the government has clear legal responsibilities towards its citizens and is on trust not to abuse the state's coercive powers under its control. 

No principles
In all this, it is particularly concerning how those in Bangladesh who support, or are more sympathetic, to one party or the other, are willing to condemn the acts of violence perpetrated by the party they oppose, but are silent about the violence conducted by the party that they support.

Those who support the BNP, will either deny their party’s involvement in the violence or point to the way the Awami League government behaved over last years elections, and the constant harassment of the opposition parties including filing cases against their leaders, preventing them from holding meetings and finally barricading Kahleda Zia into her office, as justifications. Or they will point to the extra judicial killings and disappearances under her government.

And those who support the Awami League will also deny their party’s involvement in the extra judicial killing and disappearances, claim that any action taken by law enforcement officials was perfectly legal, or will argue that the men killed were criminals anyway.

At the end of the day, each party gets away with its violence because of the silence of its members and supporters. This is why nothing much will change until BNP supporters  criticize the BNP, and AL sympathizers criticize it. Until this happens, the parties know that whatever they do, they have the support of their very sizeable base – and they an get away with their crimes.

No comments:

Post a Comment