Justice and Force in Bangladesh

A soldier stands guard in front of a theater where a bomb exploded on Dec. 8 in Bangladesh
A soldier guards a movie theater in Mymensignh, Bangladesh, after a bomb ripped through it, Dec. 8, 2002. At least 17 people were killed as four bombs went off in separate movie theaters across the country (Photo: AFP).

To say that Bangladesh is facing a crisis in public order and the rule of law would be an understatement. The violent crime rate—which includes rapes and murders, but also politically motivated assassinations, bombings, acid attacks against women, and the pillaging of entire villages—has never been higher.

Bangladesh is getting a reputation as a lawless and violent place abroad. In September 2002, the United Nations issued a voluminous report expressing “mounting concern over the breakdown of law and order in the country.” International donors are threatening to hold foreign aid if the situation is not improved. Soon after the U.N. report was released, the World Bank representative to the country declared there was a “high level of human insecurity in the country and an ‘anti-poor’ criminal justice system,” and warned that the deterioration of law and order now poses the greatest threat to the country’s continued development.

Even more serious for a country traditionally regarded by the West as “a moderate Muslim nation,” is that many Western civil-society groups and media outlets have recently warned that the country is home to growing Islamist extremism. Amnesty International and other human-rights organizations have charged that the government has been persecuting religious minorities, which tend to favor the opposition Awami League. Two Dow Jones publications, The Wall Street Journal and the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, have run a series of reports questioning whether Bangladesh is becoming the next “Cocoon of Terror” (to use the Far Eastern Economic Review’s headline). Last week the Indian government claimed to have conclusive proof that Pakistan’s intelligence service is funding Al-Qaeda operations out of Bangladesh to support insurgents on India’s northeastern border.

Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina has been meeting with heads of state and making similar charges for some time. According to Hasina, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)—which came to power in October 2001, in part through its alliances with fundamentalist Islamic parties—contains “members of the Taliban.”

BNP officials and most Bangladeshi newspapers have denounced the allegations as politically motivated. But the Awami League’s criticisms of the breakdown in law and order in Bangladesh have proved harder to dismiss. For past two years, Bangladesh has ranked the world’s most corrupt country in the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International’s annual survey. Bangladeshi journalists frequently charge that political parties are hiring thugs to intimidate or kill opponents and to terrorize hostile constituencies. Worse, the papers allege, the police force is underpaid, understaffed, ill-trained, highly susceptible to bribes, and completely incapable of waging Bangladesh’s battle against domestic terrorism.

On Oct. 16, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia unveiled her response. Operation Clean Heart, as the program was dubbed, set out to coordinate the efforts of the country’s military, paramilitary, police, and civil administration to crack down on corruption, violent crime, and domestic terrorism. Within hours after Zia signed her name, 50,000 soldiers were deployed across the country and told to get to work. Their task: to round up all suspected domestic terrorists and violent criminals on the government’s list and recover all illegal weapons.

Within the first day of the campaign, the army killed at least one person and arrested more than 200 others. Within a month, according to the Nov. 18 edition of Dhaka’s left-wing Ajker Kagoj, 5,772 people had reportedly been arrested, including 3 elected representatives. Twenty-five people had died in custody. Eight hundred fifty-eight illegal weapons had been collected.

The conduct of the operation quickly raised concerns abroad. Amnesty International reported they had found evidence that 23 prisoners may have been tortured to death. On Nov. 21, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the Bangladeshi government’s lack of respect for human rights in carrying out the anti-crime mission. A spokesperson from the U.S. State Department told reporters that while the United States is encouraged by the Bangladeshi government’s resolve to curb crime, it is concerned that the army also needs to respect human rights.

In a Nov. 4 editorial, the editors of Dhaka’s independent New Nation penned their response. The U.S. State Department’s platitudes are all fine, the editors wrote, “But it is important for the United States to realize that it… reacts no differently when faced with a threat to its national security. For example, faced with the terrorist threat, the U.S. government recently created new laws that infringe quite a lot on the fundamental rights and liberties that immigrants as well as mainstream U.S. citizens have always enjoyed. The new laws now permit the detention of individuals and [allow law enforcement-officials] to keep their identities secret for an indefinite period—just on suspicion, without trial. Many people are languishing in U.S. prisons as victims of the new law. Most of them could not be found guilty after thorough investigation into their activities.”

The New Nation has been an outspoken supporter of Operation Clean Heart. In an earlier report (Oct. 19), The New Nation answered the charge that the government’s program was marked by political favoritism, writing that Zia’s orders to the army included a list of suspected terrorists and criminals from both major political parties. “The inspirational side to the army’s role in restoring law and order is the evenhanded nature of their operation…It appears that the instruction from the highest level of government has been to spare no one, and that this order has been carefully obeyed,” an accompanying commentary cheered.

Not all Bangladeshi papers were as convinced. The Nov. 18 edition of Ajker Kagoj drew a distinction between political workers and political leaders. “Mainly political workers of the ruling party have been arrested…[But] none of the top BNP party leaders have been arrested. Instead, all the leaders are from the opposition,” the paper wrote, referring especially to the arrest of former ministers Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Sheikh Fazul Karim Selim, both prominent leaders in the Awami League.

But Bangladeshi journalists from across the political spectrum seemed desperate for any measure to stop the violence, and cheered Operation Clean Heart as a welcome start. “Faced with deteriorating law and order, marked by unabated murders and other heinous crimes, the government was left with no alternative but to call out the army in aid of the civil administration to come down heavily on terrorists irrespective of their political hue and to recover illegal arms,” the editors of Dhaka’s Independent wrote on Oct. 19. The conservative Manabzamin called Zia “sincere” and “far-sighted” (Nov. 14).

The Nov. 4 New Nation also applauded the program: “The sway of criminals over society, their possession of huge firearms…degraded life…in Bangladesh. People overwhelmingly were begging for deliverance from the situation. Thus, the army actions could not have come sooner as far as the people are concerned.” A week and a half later, a report in the Daily Jugantor confirmed this assessment of the popular mood. “People have been happy,” the paper reported. “Immediately, things have been quiet.”

Few seemed troubled by the prospect of the army cracking down on corruption in the political class per se. In an Oct. 25 editorial, Dhaka’s independent weekly Holiday cheerfully observed, “All in all, the political class… is the casualty in both reputation and standing, on both sides of the government-opposition divide.” A week earlier, on Oct. 18, the Daily Ittefaq had blasted that same political class as “a complete failure in maintaining the rule of law. The deployment of the army has proved that the government, the administration, and the ruling party have fostered the terrorists over the last year.”

By Nov. 3, the paper had sharpened its criticisms. “The creation and development of terrorism has taken place in this country in a special political climate,” Daily Ittefaq’s editors wrote. “Its creators are a class of politicians. They have used the state to grab millions of dollars. And terrorism has spread its branches under their protection. These terrorists have also helped themselves to great wealth like their creators. In a nutshell, the birth and propagation of this terrible politics of terrorism has established this complete lawlessness and uncontrollable crime crisis.”

But while the Bangladeshi press was largely in agreement that the civilian administration and the police were incapable of dealing with violent and political crime, there was debate as to how long the army should be allowed to act as a domestic police force. Dhaka’s Daily Jugantar (Nov. 18) argued that the military campaign should continue “until [crime] is completely eradicated,” whereas The Daily Inquilab (Nov. 3) argued that, “In a democratic setup, the fact that the army is relied upon should not continue for a long period. In the end, the police forces have to be resurrected and strengthened to handle the situation without requiring such drastic measures as these army operations.”

The New Nation (Oct. 19) agreed: “The army’s role may be good in the short term. But in the medium and long term there can be no substitute to carrying out very thorough reforms within the ranks of the police force.” The Holiday (Nov. 7) likewise argued that “the government must realize that the army cannot remain on the streets forever, and for any long term benefit to be had from the current anti-crime drive, the civil administration, and especially the police force, will have to go through ruthless bouts of reforms. Otherwise we will be back to square one.”

Worse, many media outlets have suggested that Operation Clean Heart’s successes may be mostly cosmetic. The Holiday noted (Oct. 25) that the program has “yielded more psychological comfort to the peaceful and the law-abiding vast majority of people than a substantial haul of men and lethal materials.” If this is true, as the Nov. 18 Daily Jugantor agreed it is, it may be because the “majority of terrorists and their illegal weapons are outside of the reach of the joint [command]….Many terrorists have gone underground. Many have fled the country. Even though the border and airports have been monitored closely, they have eluded them anyway.”