Jun 182013
 

50 int’l retail & fashion brands of Europe & Canada sign

Dhaka, June 18, 2013: The US House of Representatives has approved a defense authorization bill that will require the military-branded garments made in Bangladesh and sold at base retail stores owned by the Department of Defense comply with an enforceable fire and building safety accord.

 The accord will improve conditions in Bangladesh ready-made garment factories. The amendment was authored by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), according to a web press release of Representative Jan Schakowsky.

 “We thank Chairman Buck McKeon and Ranking Member Adam Smith of Armed Services Committee for working with us to ensure that it was considered by the full House of Representatives,” said Schakowsky and Miller in a joint statement.

 “Military-branded garments made for sale at base retail stores operated by the Department of Defense should uphold our nation’s core values and meet international labor standards.”

 A number of garments and documents with Marine insignias were found in the rubble of the November 2012 Bangladesh Tazreen Fashions fire that killed 112 workers.

The rubble of Rana Plaza building that collapsed on April 4 2013 killing more than 1100 people at Savar in Bangladesh.

The rubble of Rana Plaza building that collapsed on April 4 2013 killing more than 1100 people at Savar in Bangladesh.

 Survivors have stated that the building’s exits were locked, forcing many to jump from the 3rd or 4th floor windows. Public data indicates that the Army-Air Force Exchange imported 124,000 pounds of garments last year from several garment factories in Bangladesh.

 Garment worker safety in Bangladesh came to international attention after the April collapse of the Rana Plaza complex, which housed several garment factories.

 More than 1,100 workers died and more than 2,500 were injured making it one of the deadliest industrial tragedies in history.

 So far, 50 international retail and fashion brands – mostly based in Europe and Canada – have signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

 While three U.S. brands have signed onto the accord, most other major U.S. companies like Wal-Mart and GAP have declined to participate in the international effort to improve building safety.

 Specifically, the amendment says, “Military exchanges that sell their own branded garments which are made in Bangladesh must join or abide by the conditions of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.”

 And military exchanges that license production of their own brands or sell at retail other branded garments shall provide a preference in selection of vendors to those which are signatories to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Jun 162013
 

WB to be with Bangladesh in Padma financing alternatively

 Staff Reporter

Dhaka, June 16, 2013: The World Bank is still interested to help Bangladesh implement the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project, its country director for Bangladesh Johannes Zutt told journalists on Sunday.

“The bank was still beside Bangladesh for implementation of the bridge,” he said at a media briefing on ‘WB’s Assessment on FY14 Budget’ at the bank’s office in the city.

He however clarified that the Bank would not finance the project directly. It can finance other projects in Bangladesh, so that the government can concentrate on building the bridge uninterruptedly.

 “The bridge can still be built. We’ll help in any way to build the bridge, though not directly,” he said as was asked to comment about Bangladesh’s stance to build the bridge of its own resources.

“We continue to think that it’s a very very important project for Bangladesh,” he said adding “Continuation of WB financing in other development programmes in the country can indirectly help the government implement the mega project.

The government will continue to receive assistance from the Bank for other development projects, provided the government can ensure that some of its development activities have not changed, he said. “Indirectly, the WB financing can make a progress – this part or that,” he said. Planned Padma bridge

Leaving Bangladesh by the buyers is not a solution to Bangladesh’s problem in the garments sector, he said in response to another question regarding RMG compliance and a looming threat in its retailing stage as well as the US review of GSP.

He however added that the failure of the government and the RMG factory owners in ensuring the safety standards in factories can largely affect the country’s overall export in the days to come.

Zutt said the reputation risk posed by the ‘unspeakable, preventable tragedies’ of Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse is going to stay in the way of the RMG export for a long time, if no serious attempt is taken by the government and the private sector to address the challenges of the safety issues.

The WB country director added that besides endangering the country’s RMG exports, which accounts for three-quarter of the total export earning, the reputation risk can have adverse impacts on other export-oriented manufacturing sector.

He said the Rana Plaza collapse or the Tazreen fire are not failures of individuals, but of all the employers and the system. If the safety issues are not properly addressed, the buyers can change their destination from Bangladesh to other countries, he said.

Zutt, however, said the country still remains an attractive destination for the retailers and buyers for its low-cost labour.

walmart

To become a middle-income economy, Bangladesh needs to focus on the proliferation of the export oriented industries. No country can achieve the middle-income status scale with only one grown up industry, he added.

WB Lead Economist Zahid Hussain made the presentation on ‘WB’s Assessment on FY14 Budget’ while Lead Economist Salman Zaidi was also present.

Zahid Hussain said the FY014 budget is a mixture of opportunities and challenges.

He said opportunities are increased capital spending and expenditure on repairs and maintenance, subsidy reduction, rationalization of social protection.

Besides, he said, the challenges are revenue mobilization, deficit financing and ADP implementation. The economist touched different macro economic issues including private sector investment, both food and money inflation, improved external balances exchange rates and external reserves Fiscal policy implementation will be challenges by political transition while administrative oversight will be need to be stronger, he suggested.

Jun 162013
 

Dhaka, June 16, 2013:  Bangladesh exported goods worth $35million or 0.72 percent of the total to the USA under its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) programme, commerce minister GM Quader told the country’s parliament on Sunday.

“As per the statistics of United States International Trade Commission (USITC) programme the Bangladesh’s total amount of export to the USA was $4,878million in 2012.

Of the items, goods worth $35million was exported to the USA under the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) facility,” Quader said replying to a tabled question of treasury bench member Nurul Islam B.Sc.

The US government has been threatening to cancel the facility in an apparent bid to sensitize Bangladesh in labor issues.

US President Barack Obama could soon decide to cut off trade benefits for Bangladesh, in a largely symbolic response to tragedies in Bangladesh’s garment sector that have cost more than 1,200 lives in the past eight months, it is reported.

The US Trade Representative’s office, with input from other government agencies, is completing its recommendations in preparation for a White House announcement by June 30.

Even though the trade benefits affect less than 1% of Bangladeshi exports to the United States, the Bangladeshi government has pleaded with the Obama administration not to be cut off.

The AFL-CIO, the largest US labour organisation, first filed a petition to suspend Bangladesh from the US Generalised System of Preferences programme in 2007.

The US government has put off that decision for six years, hoping the threat would be enough to encourage Bangladesh to make long-needed labour reforms.

But after the Tazreen factory fire in November that killed 112 people and the Rana Plaza building collapse in April that killed 1,129 more, it seems likely that Obama will eliminate or reduce the trade benefits, Celeste Drake, the AFL-CIO’s lead on trade issues, told Reuters this week.

The past year has been so horrendous that unless the United States acts the labour provisions of the GSP program will be seen as meaningless, she said.

The GSP programme is aimed at helping create jobs in poor countries by waiving US duties on thousands of goods.

Bangladesh has been in the programme since it began in 1976. But its main export, clothing, is not eligible for GSP tariff cuts, in deference to the US textile and apparel industry, which employed some 2.4 million workers four decades ago compared to less than 300,000 now.

Mother of a garments worker wailing as she could not identify her daughter from the mutilated bodies piled at a makeshift morgue in Dhaka on May 9, two weeks after the 'Rana Plaza' building collapse in Savar.

Mother of a garments worker wailing as she could not identify her daughter from the mutilated bodies piled at a makeshift morgue in Dhaka on May 9, two weeks after the ‘Rana Plaza’ building collapse in Savar.

Last year, the GSP programme spared Bangladesh about $2 million in duties on $35 million worth of tents, golf equipment, plates and other items it exported to the United States, said Ed Gresser, a trade analyst with the GlobalWorks Foundation.

But Bangladesh paid about $732 million in duties on $4.9 billion worth of clothing to the United States. That is almost twice as much as the $383 million in US tariffs collected on $41 billion worth of French goods in 2012, Gresser said.

In the past, some lawmakers have proposed changing the GSP programme to provide duty-free benefits for clothing from Bangladesh and Cambodia, but US textile manufacturers lobbied to prevent action on the legislation.

At least 13 countries have lost some or all of their GSP benefits since workers rights protections were added to the eligibility criteria in the 1980s. Most have been reinstated after making progress on the concerns.

While Bangladeshi clothing manufacturers would not be directly affected by a decision to suspend the GSP programme, Drake said she expected other Bangladeshi companies hit with increased duties to join the international community in lobbying the government for labour reforms.

“It’s a small stick, which is perhaps right, given that it is a developing country. Nobody wants to do something that would be an earthquake to their economy,” Drake said.

Sanchita Saxena, associate director of the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said revoking Bangladesh’s GSP benefits would not help workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

“If the US wants to help improve conditions, international brands and international NGOs can help in building capacity to monitor the thousands of factories that need monitoring and help to enforce some of the laws that are in the books,” she said.

US retailers should also sign an agreement embraced by European retailers to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, Saxena said.

New RMG Markets

To another question from treasury bench member M Abdul Latif, the Bangladesh Commerce Minister informed the House that the government had taken measures to create new markets of readymade garments (RMG) abroad.

He hoped that the country’s new export policy (2012-2015) would bring qualitative change in export trade and ensure a competitive edge in the risky world trade.

He said adding the government took part in nine international trade fairs organized by Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) in the fiscal year 2011-12 aimed at expanding the RMG markets worldwide.

Quader said steps have also been taken to take part in the international trade fairs in Russia, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, China, India, South Korea and send delegations there to explore market.

Initiatives have been taken to expand business among the SAARC countries and reduce trade imbalance under the agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), he added.

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Jun 162013
 

Dhaka, June 16: Like ordinary trial courts, frequent adjournment plea by both the prosecution and the defence counsel cause inordinate delay in the trial against those who committed the crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971.

War victims demand capital punishment of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971

War victims demand capital punishment of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971

Nobody judiciously follows the mandatory section 13 of the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973, restricting the adjournment of trial for speedy disposal of the cases, reports UNB.

The relevant ICT Act says, “No trial before a tribunal shall be adjourned for any purpose unless the tribunal is of the opinion that the adjournment is in the interest of justice.”

Besides, in respect of producing prosecution witness (PW) before the tribunal for evidence against the accused, the prosecution does not usually care to comply with the tribunal’s standing order that asked both the prosecution and the defence to keep one witness in the dock and another waiting outside the courtroom for providing evidence to ensure speedy trial.

Corpses were dumped at Rayer Bazar killing ground in Dhaka after genocide by Pakistan occupation army and their collaborators during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971

Corpses were dumped at Rayer Bazar killing ground in Dhaka after genocide by Pakistan occupation army and their collaborators during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971

As the tribunal began the sitting Sunday, designated prosecutor Mohammad Ali prayed for adjournment in the case of war crimes accused Jamaat-e-Islami ameer Matiur Rahman Nizami, now in custody, as PW-11, who was supposed to be cross- examined by the defence counsel, remained sick.

The other day the prosecutor also made an identical plea for adjournment as the tribunal pointed out.

The tribunal, however, allowed the prosecution’s adjournment plea and re-fixed June 20 for the cross-examination of PW-11.

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Jun 152013
 

Joint body to deal with it proposed, Myanmar assures to resolve

Dhaka, June 15: Bangladesh at a foreign office consultation (FOC) in Myanmar on Saturday called for early resumption of repatriation of the already cleared Myanmar refugees, reports UNB.

Addressing the 7th round of the FOC in Naypyitaw, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque also proposed forming a Joint Committee to exclusively deal with the issues of repatriation of refugees and undocumented Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh as the process was deferred due to the breakout of communal violence in its Rakhaine State.

The June 14-15 consultation meeting reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral political, economic and security cooperation between the two countries.

Myanmar took note of the proposal for active consideration and assured of starting the process as soon as the situation is stabilised in Rakhaine, according to a message received here.

Acknowledging the utmost importance of having the best of neighbourly relations, Bangladesh and Myanmar pledged to begin a new era of partnership based on trust and confidence for stronger economic ties and stability along the common borders.

Emphasising the importance of enhancing security and stability at their common borders at land and sea, the two sides agreed to address jointly and comprehensively the entire range of trans-boundary crimes along the borders, including illegal trafficking in persons, drugs and arms as well as money-laundering and discussed Bangladesh’s proposal for a ‘security dialogue’ within the framework of the FOC.

Both the governments reaffirmed the commitment of their ‘zero tolerance’ policy against the use of their respective territories by any person or group for subversive activities against the other.

The two sides also agreed to intensify regular interactions between the two border forces as well as civil administrations of the bordering districts of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

With regard to Bangladesh’s willingness to import natural gas, the Myanmar Deputy Minister apprised about the ongoing process of floating bids for offshore and onshore gas blocks and assured of giving priority to Bangladesh after meeting their domestic demand.

Shahidul Haque led a 14-member Bangladesh delegation to the consultations, while his counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister of Myanmar, U Thant Kyaw, led a 20-member home side to the meeting.

rohingya-refugee-camp-in-bangladeshThe Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh also called on Myanmar’s Deputy Ministers for Commerce, Home and Electric Power. The delegation also met the officials in the Ministry of Transport.

Both the countries also acknowledged the importance of multimodal physical connectivity among them and expressed satisfaction that the revised air service agreement would be singed soon.

They also take stock of the ongoing negotiations on the establishment of direct coastal shipping link and agreed to conclude the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) at the earliest.

It was also agreed to renew the expired Agreement on Cultural Cooperation and to conclude an MoU on Cultural Exchange Programme.  Bangladesh offered to arrange short diplomatic training courses for the mid and junior level diplomats of Myanmar. Both sides appreciated the present level of defence cooperation between the two armed forces.

Bangladesh invited Myanmar to send a delegation to an international conference on peace, tolerance and non-violence proposed to be held at Ramu, Coxs Bazar in later part of this year. Bangladesh also proposed greater exchanges between Buddhist scholars to deepen inter-cultural understanding between the two countries.

The meeting also discussed cooperation under the regional framework like Bimstec and BCIM.

Congratulating Bangladesh for hosting the Bimstec Secretariat in Dhaka, the Myanmar side also informed that Myanmar is looking forward to host the next Bimstec Summit in early September 2013, as its current chair.

Both the delegations also discussed the pending visit of the President of Myanmar in near future. Bangladesh proposed hosting the first round of the meeting of Joint Commission to be held at the Foreign Ministers’ level.

The meeting ended with a high note of optimism with common resolve to take the relations to a newer height. “It’s my conviction that this consultation will strengthen our goodwill, confidence, mutual trust and understanding,” said the Myanmar delegation leader.

The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary said, “We need to remove all the obstacles to fast-track political, cultural and economic cooperation between the two countries.”

The meeting also decided to hold the next round of FOC in Bangladesh at a mutually convenient time.

Jun 142013
 

By Miriam Ross, 14 June 2013

British company GCM Resources was dealt a serious blow on Friday as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agreed to consider complaints regarding severe human rights violations associated with the company’s planned coal mine in Bangladesh.

GCM wants to open a massive open-pit coal mine in Phulbari in the north-west of Bangladesh, displacing up to 220,000 people and threatening the Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest remaining mangrove forests and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The complaint by the International Accountability Project and the World Development Movement claims that the mine planned by the AIM-listed company would breach OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. It would violate the human rights of indigenous people from 23 different tribal groups, and destroy nearly 12,000 acres of Bangladesh’s most fertile and productive farmland.

Eighty per cent of local people depend on the land for their survival, but GCM will not replace their land and its project plans state that “most households will become landless.”

Phulbari's fertile farmlands are Bangladesh's rice bowl. (Photo courtesy of JACSES)

Phulbari’s fertile farmlands are Bangladesh’s rice bowl. (Photo courtesy of JACSES)

GCM appealed to the OECD to reject the complaint, but the UK National Contact Point, the governmental body that addresses violations of the OECD guidelines by British companies abroad, has agreed to pursue the issue.

The investigation will evaluate whether GCM has breached obligations to ensure meaningful and adequate consultation about the project, or to carry out appropriate due diligence to ensure that its project does not violate people’s human rights.

GCM has faced repeated protests in Bangladesh against the mine. Three people were killed and many more injured when paramilitary officers opened fire on a protest against the project in 2006. In January this year, further protests forced the company’s CEO Gary Lye to abandon a visit to the area.

Seven UN human rights experts have called for an immediate halt to the project.

Kate Hoshour from the International Accountability Project said: “The UN’s most senior human rights experts have warned that the mine threatens the fundamental human rights of hundreds of thousands of people, including their rights to food and water. GCM’s response has been to redouble aggressive efforts to force the project forward. We welcome the OECD’s decision to investigate.”

Christine Haigh, campaigner at the World Development Movement, said: “This is a clear sign that extractive companies cannot disregard the rights of the people whose land they take and expect to get away with it. The people of Phulbari do not want this coal mine. GCM should listen to them and abandon the project.”

Rumana Hashem, an eye witness to the violence carried out against the people of Phulbari during protests against GCM’s plans in 2006, said: “I am pleased that the OECD has recognised the threats posed by the proposed Phulbari project, although some of the points in its statement should have been stronger. I thought the mine would be cancelled after the violence I saw in 2006. I hope that now it will be, and that GCM will no longer be allowed to operate in Bangladesh.”

Read the Initial Assessment of the OECD’s UK National Contact Point

Contact the World Development Movement’s press office

Source : World Development Movement

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Jun 142013
 

Barack-ObamaWashington, 14 June 2013: US President Barack Obama could soon decide to cut off trade benefits for Bangladesh, in a largely symbolic response to tragedies in the country’s garment sector that have cost more than 1,200 lives in the past eight months.

The US Trade Representative’s office, with input from other government agencies, is completing its recommendations in preparation for a White House announcement by June 30.

Even though the trade benefits affect less than 1 percent of Bangladeshi exports to the United States, its government has pleaded with the Obama administration not to cut them off.

The AFL-CIO, the largest US labour organisation, first filed a petition to suspend Bangladesh from the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences program in 2007.

The US government has put off that decision for six years, hoping the threat would be enough to encourage Bangladesh to make long-needed labor reforms.

But after the Tazreen factory fire in November that killed 112 people and the RanaPlaza building collapse in April that killed 1,129 more, it seems likely that Obama will eliminate or reduce the trade benefits, Celeste Drake, the AFL-CIO’s lead on trade issues, told Reuters this week.

The past year in Bangladesh has been so horrendous that unless the United States acts the labor provisions of the GSP program will be seen as meaningless, she said.

The GSP program is aimed at helping create jobs in poor countries by waiving US duties on thousands of goods as long as the countries meet certain eligibility requirements.

Bangladesh has been in the program since it began in 1976. But its main export, clothing, is not eligible for GSP tariff cuts, in deference to the U.S. textile and apparel industry, which employed some 2.4 million workers four decades ago compared to less than 300,000 now.

Last year, the GSP program spared Bangladesh about $2 million in duties on $35 million worth of tents, golf equipment, plates and other items it exported to the United States, said Ed Gresser, a trade analyst with the GlobalWorks Foundation.

But Bangladesh paid about $732 million in duties on $4.9 billion worth of clothing to the United States. That is almost twice as much as the $383 million in U.S. tariffs collected on $41 billion worth of French goods in 2012, Gresser said.

In the past, some lawmakers have proposed changing the GSP program to provide duty-free benefits for clothing from Bangladesh and Cambodia, but U.S. textile manufacturers lobbied to prevent action on the legislation.

At least 13 countries have lost some or all of their GSP benefits since workers rights protections were added to the eligibility criteria in the 1980s. Most have been reinstated after making progress on the concerns.

While Bangladeshi clothing manufacturers would not be directly affected by a decision to suspend the GSP program, Drake said she expected other Bangladeshi companies hit with increased duties to join the international community in lobbying the government for labor reforms.

“It’s a small stick, which is perhaps right, given that it is a developing country. Nobody wants to do something that would be an earthquake to their economy,” Drake said.

Sanchita Saxena, associate director of the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said revoking Bangladesh’s GSP benefits would not help workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

“If the US wants to help improve conditions, international brands and international NGOs can help in building capacity to monitor the thousands of factories that need monitoring and help to enforce some of the laws that are in the books,” she said.

US retailers should also sign an agreement embraced by European retailers to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, Saxena said.

Source: Reuters

Apr 062013
 

Saleem SamadSaleem Samad

Pro-Sharia Islamist group Hifazat-e-Islam activists attacked media personsduring their rally in downtown Dhaka, injuring eight journalists including a woman reporter.

Womenreporters and TV crew were denied entry to Hifazat’s rally in Dhaka. The Hifazat-e Islam not onlybarred women from entering its rally, but also harassed physically and mentallyseveral female journalists covering the rally event.

Private channel Ekushey Television’s (ETV)reporter Nadia Sharmin was attacked who were demanding cancellingthe women’s policy and banning public mixing of men and women. Sharmin wasattacked around 3pm when she went to cover the rally.

“Some Hifazat activists came to me and told me that admission of women to therally is not allowed.

They said, ‘You resort to falsehood. You’re the agents ofGanajagaran Mancha’ (youths protest against Islamist at Shahbag Square). At one point of the conversationthey assaulted me. I took shelter in a car nearby and then they even tried tovandalise the car,” she said.

“I asked why I can’t go just because I amnot wearing headscarf (hijab)? It’s my personal business whether I wear scarfor not. Who’re you to talk about this? Then they got locked in argument withme. At one stage I started for my office again ignoring their obstruction.”

The activists interrupted Financial ExpressReporter Arafat Ara at Paltan while she was going to office.

Nadira Sharmin, a TV reporter was beaten mercilessly, while she was covering a huge gathering of Islamist fanatics in the capital Dhaka. The Mullahs attacked her, because she is women.

Nadira Sharmin, a TV reporter was beaten mercilessly, while she was covering a huge gathering of Islamist fanatics in the capital Dhaka. The Mullahs attacked her, because she is women.

On Friday, Mohona TV Chief Reporter Sumi Khan faced obstruction from the Hifazat activists in Chittagong, the second largest city in thesouth.

DainikIttefaq’s photographer Sujon Mondol was attacked. Both Mondol and Sharmin were admitted at a state medical college hospital.

The journalists were dubbed as ‘dalals’ (stooge) and ‘nastiks’ (atheists) duringthe assault by the Hifazat activists.

Foyzul Alam Siddique was severely beaten up by the Hifazatactivists. A freelance photographer Nazrul Islam was also critically injuredin the assault.

Two more journalists of SATV were assaulted near the venue and their camera were vandalised.

On Friday, the aggrieved Hefajat men physically assaulted four journalists ofprivate television channel Ekattor television (Channel 71) in the afternoon,while they were covering the rally.

The fournewsmen are: Mohim Mizan, Mainuddin Dulal, Babul Paal and Rajib Barua.

** Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), correspondent of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

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Mar 222013
 

Myanmar Refugees

Jason Motlagh

SITTWE, Burma — Abu Kassim clutched his stomach and heaved forward, replaying the moment his uncle was shot dead last summer, one of scores of people who were killed as sectarian violence engulfed western Burma.

Abu Kassim, 26, and his ethnic Rohingya family have since survived on handouts in a makeshift camp on the fringe of this coastal city, unable to return home or look for work beyond military checkpoints. “There are no opportunities here for us, no hope,” he said. “We are prisoners.”

Now, he’s convinced there is only one way out: to cross the Bay of Bengal by boat to join fellow Muslims in Malaysia.

Abu Kassim is far from alone. Eight months after unrest between Arakanese Buddhists and Burma’s Rohingya minority displaced tens of thousands from their homes, tension and despair are driving greater numbers of stateless Rohingyas to tempt fate on the open sea.

While precise figures are hard to come by, Rohingya community leaders and business managers involved in the exodus say the number of boat migrants has climbed to several thousand each month, with two to three wooden vessels leaving area shores each night, at times loaded to almost twice their capacity.

Tensions have simmered for decades between the Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with both groups claiming to have been marginalized by Burma’s government, which is dominated by another ethnic group, the Burman. Rohingya Muslims are officially considered illegal “immigrants” from Bangladesh and denied the rights of citizenship, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations.

To critics who have cast doubts on Burma’s efforts to help a minority it refuses to recognize, even at a time while the country takes first steps toward democracy, the gathering wave of departures is no surprise.

“The government wants to make us miserable, to push us out,” said San Shwe Maung, 30, an unemployed teacher. Many Rohingya-owned businesses, he points out, have been appropriated by the state. “We are like the second Jews.”

Burmese officials counter that they are protecting Rohingyas from further harm following widespread sectarian violence in June, when it was reported that an Arakanese woman had been raped and killed by three Rohingya men. Mobs from both sides overran villages with swords, iron rods and torches, targeting women and children. A second round of clashes in October drove more into camps.

Just one Muslim district remains in the once-diverse capital, Sittwe, its entry points choked by barbed wire barricades. On a recent morning, a line of monks in maroon robes walked past the charred remains of empty homes and a neighborhood mosque reduced to a concrete slab.

The sprawling camps west of the city now hold more than 100,000 people. Armed guards stand at checkpoints to ensure that those who have left do not return. Most families uprooted by the violence receive a monthly supply of rice, palm oil and chickpeas from the United Nations, but the funding that supports that effort will run out by April and must be renewed before the summer rains arrive.

Rohingya community leaders say it’s natural that more and more people are taking matters into their own hands. Only a limited window remains for sea travel ahead of the monsoon storms. Travelers often head out without navigational equipment for a crossing that could span hundreds of miles and take up to two weeks.

“This appears to be the intended outcome of a dire situation in which Rohingyas have been consolidated, denied free movement and a means of earning a living,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Would-be passengers are charged more than $100 for a space on rickety, 40-foot-long vessels. Charity is shown to those who can scarcely afford the trip, the operators add, but some payment is required to cover the hefty bribes owed each week to border guards at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

The journey south can last as long as two weeks. About one in 10 boats, carrying between 80 to 150 people, either veer off course or disappear. “Of course we are very concerned about the risks, but the people are insisting, they want to go,” says Shamshir, 42, one of the boat builders.

The United Nations, which calls the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, says that of the 13,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled Burma and Bangladesh last year, at least 485 were known to have drowned.

For refugees, the peril does not end at sea. In January, more than 800 Rohingyas were rescued in raids on trafficking networks in southern Thailand, according to Thai media reports. An army colonel and another high-ranking officer are under investigation for suspected involvement, along with a local politician. Several Rohingya traffickers have also been arrested.

With two days left before he was scheduled to leave Sittwe, Abu Kassim, the young man who witnessed his uncle’s murder by paramilitary thugs, assembled his provisions: biscuits, chocolate bars, bottled water and oral rehydration salts.

He said he was sober about the risks ahead. “Of course we are afraid of the traffickers, but the suffering may still be less than this life, so we must try,” he said. “God willing, we will reach Malaysia.”

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Mar 222013
 

Garment workers

Jason Motlagh

Dhaka, Bangladesh: Rajina Aktar was sewing pockets into a pile of winter jackets bound for Europe when the fire’s toxic smoke knocked her out on a second-story floor.

In a pitch-dark panic that saw more than 350 people bolt for a single exit, someone carried the 15-year-old girl to safety. Eight others were trampled to death on the staircase, a few steps shy of daylight, in the Jan. 26 blaze at Smart Export Garments, an illegal factory on the outskirts of Bangaldesh’s capital.

Once again, foreign-brand labels were found among the burned-out wreckage, just as they had been in other episodes among a flurry of tragic fires that have set passions alight over the ugly underbelly of the country’s ready-made garment industry.

Garment making is the backbone of Bangladesh’s cash-strapped economy, accounting for annual exports worth $24.3 billion last year, about 80 percent of the country’s earnings. But the staggering frequency of lethal factory fires — which have claimed more than 500 lives since 2006 — shows that rising profits have not led to improvements in safety.

Most of the deaths have been in unlicensed factories that depend on subcontracted orders from bigger plants. Industry watchdogs say that fire-related deaths are an inevitable result of cost-cutting measures taken by garment makers under intense pressure from Western apparel companies to produce ever-larger quantities of clothes at rock-bottom prices.

Despite angry protests and pledges of reform, activists say that what remains in place amounts to risky business as usual.

“We expected big changes, and very quickly, but the reality is that nothing meaningful has happened,” says Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor leader and former child factory worker. “So far the government and foreign companies are all talk, no results; the unnecessary deaths continue. ”

Little outside pressure

The majority of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment exports go to Europe, but nearly 25 percent are sent to the United States. Rights groups contend that major Western companies know that high-volume, low-cost orders will be farmed out to sweatshops that have no incentive to respect fire codes or workers rights.

“Bangladesh is the way it is because they have been rewarded by the industry,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, said of the country’s garment makers. “It has the worst labor rights record, lowest wages and most dangerous factories. And the response of big western retailers has been to pour more business into the country.”

“The message to factory owners: keep doing what your doing,” he said.

After a deadly fire swept through the Tazreen garment factory on Nov. 24, big-box retailers Wal-Mart and Sears sought to distance themselves from the situation, claiming that orders had been subcontracted by local contractors without their knowledge.

Labor rights groups have urged top foreign buyers to sign an agreement that includes a binding commitment to ban subcontracting to at-risk facilities, finance renovations and fire-safety training and make audit results public.

So far, however, only PVH Corp., an American company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German retailer Tchibo have signed on. But the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has said it is weighing possible sanctions on Bangladesh’s duty-free benefits under a World Trade Organization rule that allows special treatment to poorer countries.

It’s widely agreed that efforts to improve conditions at the bottom of the chain in Bangladesh are complicated by official corruption, limited state resources and an excess of cheap labor in the world’s most-densely populated country. Despite a minimum wage of 18 cents an hour, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis are willing to work for even less money.

Trapped in blaze

A Washington Post reporter gained access recently to what is left of the Smart Export Garments factory. Found there were tags for several well-known European brands, including Bershka, a retailer owned by the Spanish firm Inditex, the world’s largest fashion group.

Subarna Begum, 28, a sewing-machine operator who escaped the January fire with her 5-year-old daughter via the roof, said many underage workers were present in the factory. Fire alarms and extinguishers were not, she and other witnesses said.

On the afternoon of the fire, they said, the main door to factory floor was locked, driving everyone toward a narrow emergency exit that was also locked. It was choked with bodies by the time guards arrived to open the gate.

The charred walls remain streaked with hand marks.

According to the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO training office in Dhaka that tracks fire-related accidents, the Smart Exports blaze was only one among 39 that have taken place in the three months since the Tazreen fire.

For the legions of mainly women who toil at the bottom of the industry, the risk of returning to factory work is trumped by urgent needs.

Rajina, the 15-year-old survivor, is a case in point: One month on, her eyes are bloodshot from the head trauma that occurred when she fell unconscious. Her memory is impaired, she said, and her lungs burn.

But pressure to make rent on the dank basement room she shares with four family members means she’ll have to start sewing again, and soon.

“I can’t go back to school now,” she said. “This is the only kind of work I can find.”

Source: Washington Post

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Mar 182013
 
REASONS FOR CONCERN: Though there is much in the protests to support, the extreme demands being made do not fit in.

REASONS FOR CONCERN: Though there is much in the protests to support, the extreme demands being made do not fit in.

Instead of the death penalty, the protesters at Shahbag should be demanding fair trials for those accused of war crimes in 1971

David Bergman

A peaceful mass secular protest involving people from all walks of life, spearheaded by a tech savvy young generation, apparently independent from political parties, seeking accountability for war crimes committed in 1971.

This has been Shahbag, a square in the centre of Dhaka, Bangladesh, an (almost) non-stop protest since February 5.

The positive aspects are obvious to all those interested in a secular Bangladesh, who support accountability for the terrible atrocities committed during the nine-month-long war.

Hundreds of thousands are estimated to have died in the war, many allegedly with the assistance of pro-Pakistani militias whose members are said to have included Jamaat-e-Islami party members and leaders at the time.

Four decades later the Jamaat is the country’s fourth largest party and a key ally of the main Opposition party with many of its leaders and activists powerful social actors wielding significant influence in a country, much of which still remains overwhelmingly conservative.

The focus of the Shahbag protests, on accountability for 1971 war crimes and a secular politics, has understandably received significant positive media coverage both nationally and internationally.

However there are also reasons for concerns.

These start from the protesters’ central demand to hang Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami recently sentenced to life imprisonment following conviction for five offences involving crimes against humanity, as well as nine other leaders of the party who are being prosecuted for similar offences.

This demand is however being made with little consideration to the fairness of the trials which are taking place in two locally established courts called the International Crimes Tribunals.

Three aspects of Mollah’s trial

Late last year, the Economist magazine published excerpts from the hacked Skype conversations and e-mails between the chairman of one of the two tribunals and an expatriate Bangladesh lawyer, who was working closely with the prosecution. The excerpts showed that this particular judge was in close contact with the prosecutors. Drafts of court orders were being passed between the judge, the prosecutors and this Bangladesh lawyer — including one relating to the proposed actual judgment on one of the accused.

The judge, Mohammed Nizamul Huq resigned. A new court was constituted, but applications by the defence to seek retrials were rejected — on the basis that since the conversations and e-mails were illegally obtained, the court would not take any cognisance of it.

Although Mollah was dealt with by a court that was not contaminated by these underhand dealings, those calling for his hanging fail to recognise three aspects of his trial.

First, while the court found the evidence sufficiently credible to convict Mollah for complicity in mass murder (involving a village of over 300 people) and rape, the evidence was nonetheless far from overwhelming, as anyone who has followed the trial and read the verdict will know. Excluding the testimony of two investigation officers, the court depended on only eight witnesses to convict him on five counts — each of which involve offences alleged to have taken place at different locations and dates.

In three of these counts, the only evidence was hearsay testimony, with most of it coming from witnesses who could not attribute their knowledge to anyone in particular. Another count, concerning rape and murder, was based wholly on the testimony of a woman who was 13 years old at the time, hiding under a bed, where there was no additional corroborating evidence.

The second issue concerns the decision of the tribunal to only allow the defence to call six witnesses (when there was no limitation on the prosecution) simply on the basis that it thought this was a sufficient number. This would seem to be a significant restriction on the rights of the accused to present their case.

The third issue is of the extent of Mollah’s participation in the crimes, an important determinant of sentencing. While there is some lack of clarity in the tribunal’s exact findings, it appears that in none of the five counts was Mollah convicted of personally undertaking or ordering the acts of murder or rape. He was found guilty of “complicity” in or “abetting” an offence, “accompany[ing] the gang to the crime site having rifle in hand” or facilitating mass murder and rape by being “present” at the scene.

While these findings are undoubtedly extremely serious, it is notable that they are less serious than the findings by the same court a couple of weeks earlier in the (in absentia trial) of Abul Kalam Azad, sentenced to hanging for “physically participat[ing]” in the offence of genocide and other offences.

These three factors, along with the wider concerns about the fairness of the tribunal process, should at the very least raise serious questions about the legitimacy of demanding a death penalty for Mollah.

Case for no release

Reasons for not supporting the hanging of Delawar Hossain Sayedee, whose death penalty sentence on Thursday was greeted to huge cheers at Shahbag (and the unleashing of unacceptable violence by the Jamaat) are even more acute.

The demands coming from Shahbag show little interest in the subtleties of due process or matters of evidence. The protesters seem convinced that all the men currently before the tribunal are guilty, that any evidential weaknesses evidence are simply due to the long 40 years they have waited for justice, and that if the men do not get the death penalty, they will be released by a future sympathetic government.

It is certainly true that a 40-year-interval makes obtaining credible evidence of guilt that much more difficult. I know that since I made War Crimes Files, the 1995 Channel Four documentary about three men alleged to have committed 1971 war crimes, a number of important eyewitnesses in the film have died. However, at the end of the day, and unfair though it may appear, rule of law and due process means that only evidence shown to be probative and presented in court can be considered.

And while there is a risk that conviction for life may, due to political accommodations, result in future inappropriate release from prison, this should not be a justification for putting someone to death. Instead it should result in placing pressure on all political parties and any future government not to release those convicted of these offences. The men currently before the tribunal may well be guilty of the offences for which they have been charged. Jamaat-e-Islami did collaborate with the Pakistan military and atrocities were committed in which some its leaders are likely to have been involved. But a fair process of justice is crucial to determining whether this is the case — and certainly before putting men to death. This is all the more important now that 40 years have passed.

There is much in the Shahbag protests to support. But demands for hanging these men following a rather blemished tribunal process would well be a serious blot on these wider aspirations.

(David Bergman, a journalist with The New Age newspaper in Dhaka, manages www.bangladeshwarcrimes.blogspot.com/)

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Mar 182013
 

The world mustn’t misinterpret a country’s fight for its syncretic soul

 Nazes Afroz

Several misconceptions are afloat around the war crimes trials in Bangladesh, as well as the Shahbag Square protests, that are putting pressure on the government to take concrete steps against the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh.

 Critics of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) have voiced reservations about the process of the trial, some have dubbed it ‘unfair’. Another allegation is that the trials are being used against political rivals and ‘opposition’ political figures. Such concerns have percolated through the western media, lobbied by a well-oiled PR machinery working on behalf of a few leading Jamaat figures.

 What these detractors fail to understand is that the country, after sending a powerful army back to the barracks through a popular uprising in 1989, is trying its best to get back to its founding principles—the syncretic secular values of the Bengali culture. It is also extremely important for them to have a closure to events surrounding the ’71 war of liberation—a massively emotive issue among a majority of Bangladeshis, both in the country and abroad. The ict is a major step towards these goals.

 The country and the state hasn’t created lynch mobs or death squads, or set up summary trials and simply kill opposition leaders, many of whom had admitted to have been involved in the atrocities committed in 1971. The ict is pursuing the rule of law—however flawed—based on established norms. Also, let us not forget that the establishment of such special tribunals have always been a matter of huge debate all over the world—hailed or abused depending on which side tends to be on trial.

 One sees mostly simplistic commentaries in the Indian and the international media. The huge gatherings at Shahbag Square are not about demanding death for a few Jamaat leaders. It is a lot more than that. It is going to decide which way Bangladesh will turn—towards its secular base founded on syncretism, or towards religious extremism, an alien concept imported by the Jamaat.

 Leading figures of the current movement that calls itself ‘Generation 70’ did not even witness the war of liberation in ’71 and the atrocities committed by the brutal Pakistani army and its collaborators—Jamaat-led groups like Razakars and al-Badar. Memories of those atrocities have been etched forever in the collective consciousness of the nation. But this younger generation is not just drawing inspiration from memories; one must keep in mind that many of them did lose near and dear ones, killed by the collaborators. Not surprisingly, their demand for justice for the 1971 atrocities resonated with Bangladeshis, and they spontaneously began converging on Shahbag Square.

 In a way, this younger generation has been able to rekindle the spirit of the 1952 language movement, which was  mounted against attempts by the ruling West Pakistani elite to impose Urdu as the national language on the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan. That year also laid the foundation for a dream of a secular nation, a dream fulfilled in 1971 after a mass uprising followed by a bloody, nine-month war. Similarly, a multitude poured on to the streets in December 1989, fought pitched battles with soldiers, and forced the military dictatorship to abdicate power.

 What these crucial events in the history of Bangladesh establish is that its people have a tremendous capacity to correct the path of its polity whenever it veered away from its core value of liberal syncretism.

 Jamaat, an extension of the Salafist doctrine, is a living refutation of these Bangladeshi ideals. Hence, throughout the ’80s and the ’90s, targets of Jamaat and its associated terror groups such as JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh), JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh) or HUJI (Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami) were the progressive, secular elements of society and rural women empowered by NGOs.

 The Jamaat is also in a desperate struggle. They can sense the rising public sentiment against them; thus they have embarked on a path of violent confrontation with the state. By blaming India, Hindus in Bangladesh and orchestrating attacks on minorities, they are merely trying to divert attention from the real issues.

 The Shahbag Square uprising, fuelled by the elite, middle class and subalterns alike—in sharp contrast to the Anna Hazare-led movement in India—finds Bangladesh in another watershed moment in its history. The world is witnessing a course correction of momentous nature, but unfortunately fails to grasp its importance. Like 1952 and 1971, this uprising appears to be the beacon that will decide Bangladesh’s future.

(The writer is former executive editor for South and West Asia of the BBC World Service)

Courtesy: Outlook India

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Mar 132013
 

It is hurting the national interest by indulging in petty politics over the Land Boundary Agreement.

India-Bangladesh
By Seema Sirohi
President Pranab Mukherjee boldly declared on his visit to Bangladesh that there was a broad consensus among Indian political parties on close relations with Dhaka. But a few days before he left for this politically significant trip, the BJP had equally boldly declared it was opposed to the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, calling it flawed and one-sided.

It further warned that it won’t support the amendment to allow implementation of the pact when the Bill comes up in Parliament this session. BJP president Rajnath Singh chose to strike an ‘opposition’ note, demanding to see details and protocols, raising fears that India was giving away more than it was getting. While he was at it, he also brought up the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh for good measure.

Let’s put the BJP’s threat in perspective – if the 2011 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement is blocked by the premier opposition party in the budget session, India will have broken a second promise to Dhaka, the first being the Teesta Waters agreement which was derailed by Mamata Banerjee. And all this is to a friendly neighbour led by a progressive government and a brave prime minister in Sheikh Hasina who is taking on the Islamists.

India-Bangladesh-border-map

India-Bangladesh border map

 What Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed in Dhaka in 2011 was a continuation of what the BJP-led government had started. It was not something he pulled out of thin air. It pinpoints boundaries – a restorative measure that would settle at least one of India’s outstanding border issues. The longer India takes to resolve this, the harder it will get with geography taking a toll and rivers changing course.

The BJP’s top leadership has already been thoroughly briefed on the agreement by senior officials of the external affairs ministry. Questions and doubts were addressed to satisfaction. Rajnath Singh was not in his current position then but that is nobody’s fault. For him to make declaratory statements opposing the agreement begs the question: Does he even know the details or is he merely playing the cynical game of denying the current government the benefit of concluding a pact that is clearly in the Indian national interest?

Under Sheikh Hasina, India has got unprecedented cooperation from Bangladesh on security issues. Dhaka has handed over men without an extradition treaty, it has uprooted training camps and disrupted networks of northeast insurgents operating form its territory, and taken action against terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Indian Mujahideen. In other words, it has acted to curb Pakistan’s ISI. What about this does the BJP not get? All this should be music to its ears.

Why punish a friendly neighbour repeatedly, especially one with whom India has a magical connection? The Land Boundary Agreement is a result of painstaking negotiations, consultations with people living in the affected areas and the state governments of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal. These state governments have already given their written consent. They want official boundaries realigned to maintain status quo on territories in ”adverse possession” to prevent uprooting large numbers of people who want to stay where they are. When the people most affected and the relevant state governments are agreeable, for the BJP to raise objections appears to be a needless exercise in useless politics.

The other aspect is the exchange of enclaves which are deep inside both countries and have no physical access from either; they have become a massive humanitarian problem. The people living there don’t have full legal rights from either India or Bangladesh. As a result, they suffer from poor schools, worse infrastructure and bad healthcare. It is important to address their hardship. Crime has also become a serious issue in some of the enclaves.

The agreement is eminently practical because it deals with the situation on the ground and does what the people want after extensive opinion surveys. Most significantly, it will not lead to displacement – a major plus for any thinking politician.

The BJP is miffed because India will transfer 111 enclaves with an area of 17,160 acres to Bangladesh while Bangladesh will give 51 enclaves spread over 7,110 acres. What is important to understand is that the exchange of enclaves is only a notional one since the protocol basically converts a de facto reality into a de jure one. Neither India nor Bangladesh is in physical possession of the enclaves which are being ”transferred”.

The BJP should help promote this historic resolution and use the gain that would accrue in its political accounting book instead of making predictable pronouncements that undermine India’s national interests. The party that hopes to come to power might remember that it is better to inherit a more amenable situation with one neighbour than not.

After all, India’s neighbourhood isn’t exactly brimming with friendliness. It has huge difficulties in the Maldives, it struggles with Sri Lanka, it fears China and as for Pakistan – well, that is another ball of wax and a very sticky one. Even Bhutan has shown streaks of defiance. So why alienate Bangladesh and give the anti-India elements another big stick to beat Hasina with?

The Land Boundary Agreement is a result of long bilateral negotiations and not of behind-the-scenes, secret parleys so typical elsewhere. It should be durable. Bangladesh has already ratified it. It would be wise for Indian political parties to come together to show that India’s democracy is mature and that it can separate wheat from chaff.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Courtesy: The Times of India

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Feb 232013
 

Jason Motlagh

A YOUNG girl’s call pierces through the din of the packed square. Like the macabre billboards that loom above featuring bearded old men in nooses, and the blood red headbands worn by scores of participants, her demands are direct and full-throated: “Hang the war criminals and long live Bangladesh!” The fact that she and most of her fellow protesters were not yet born when the crimes at issue were committed, more than four decades ago during the country’s bitter war for independence, is beside the point. “This is a shame on our nation,” says Nidhi Hossain, the 13-year-old girl holding the megaphone. “We must get rid of these criminals once and for all so we can move forward.”

Protests — even very, very large ones — are nothing new in the world’s most densely populated city. Tens of thousands are known to take to the streets to chant down rivals or the latest spike in petrol prices. The difference with the now two-week-old Shahbagh movement, say those old enough to know, is that it has managed to transcend Bangladesh’s stale party politics, religion and the age divide unlike any mass agitation in recent memory. While the ruling Awami League party has tried to co-opt some of the momentum and the opposition is crying foul, all have taken a backseat to a frustrated young generation that is finding its voice.

“The No. 1 thing about Shahbagh is that it’s political, yet nonpartisan,” says Toufique Imrose Khalidi, editor in chief of bdnews24.com, a leading online news outlet. In country where a maidservant is sure to get death for killing one person, he explains, young people are simply trying to figure out why convicted war criminals are not punished accordingly. “This is really about the rule of law and democracy, about justice in general. Nothing is fair in this country, and never has been.”

The protests began Feb. 5 after Abdul Kader Mullah, the leader of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), was sentenced to life in prison for murder and abetting Pakistani forces during the 1971 liberation war. JI members were among those who collaborated with Pakistan in a brutal campaign to quell a nationalist uprising that included widespread rape, systemic killings and a targeted push against Bangladeshi intellectuals. All these years later, JI remains a fixture in national politics with vast, lucrative business interests. As such, analysts say, many Bangladeshis took the belated verdict against Mullah to be emblematic of a broken legal system — and a possible way out for the convicted, should the party’s political allies gain the upper hand in the future.

In response, online activists organized a gathering at the capital’s Shahbagh Square. What they initially hoped would draw between 400 and 500 people has since swelled to over 100,000, with some estimates placing the number far higher. The protests continue to swell, in the capital and other major cities, despite the threat of violence and intimidation. And, grim effigies notwithstanding, they have taken on a carnival-like atmosphere: floats and drum circles, ice cream vendors and free food are on hand for the mix of students, teachers, café owners and rickshaw pullers who say they have come together to right a historic wrong.

“We fought and died for liberation, but the people have not seen the benefits,” says Shiraz ul-Islam, 76, a war veteran who bore shrapnel scars on his shins and wrist and a bullet graze across his forehead. He first heard about the protests while in the hospital recovering from surgery and says he was restless to “help support the youth who want to finish the revolution that we started.” On his seventh day out, ul-Islam was accompanied by three of his daughters and his 12-year-old granddaughter as fresh crowds poured into the square waving banners and flags calling for Mullah’s execution.

The movement appears to have doubled down since the killing of one of its own. Late last Friday, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an outspoken blogger and co-organizer, was stabbed to death by unknown assailants. Activists blame members of JI’s youth wing, which has been involved in sporadic street attacks since the protests began. (JI officials reject the charge.) In the aftermath, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina vowed she would not rest until the party is banned and moved quickly to do so. Over the weekend, the government passed an amendment allowing a tribunal to punish any organization whose members committed crimes during the country’s fight for independence. Another gave prosecutors the right to appeal any of the panels’ verdicts, effectively laying the groundwork for a ban.

In a statement published on the JI’s website, acting general secretary Rafiqul Islam Khan asserted that the moves were part of a “plot to push the country into severe anarchy” by an Awami League–led government bent on “political revenge.” It could take weeks until Mullah goes back to court, but his lawyer Abdur Razzaq contends that under this kind of pressurized climate, any chance of a fair hearing is precluded. What’s more, he warns, the lack of “political space” for JI and its faithful is likely to cause more trouble in the weeks ahead.

Having already defied JI calls for a nationwide strike and the death of a comrade, the Shahbagh protesters insist they are undeterred. “Since killing, we have taken an oath not to leave until we have true justice,” says Mamudul Haque Munshi, 28, a protest organizer with the Blogger and Online Activist Network. “We can change the political equation here.” For his part, Khalidi, the editor, hedges that it’s too early to make facile comparisons with of a paradigm shift in the national politics, given the deep-seated corruption and powerful players. But, like many of his generation, he does not want to underestimate the youths now filling the streets either. “They are capable,” says the former activist. “Let’s wait and see.”

# First appeared in TIME magazine, February 19, 2013

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Feb 232013
 

By, OWEN LIPPERT

IN DHAKA the other day, I saw children dancing in the streets, swinging nooses like festive streamers.

Bangladesh, a country of 160 million, is currently experiencing a “Bengal Spring.” Hundreds of thousands of young people have responded to text messages and online bloggers and gathered nightly in Shahbag square in downtown Dhaka and elsewhere around the country. Their demand is that Abdul Kader Mullah, a leader of the Islamic political party Jamaat-I-Islami, be hanged.

Four decades after the “war of liberation” from Pakistan in 1971, ending in the birth of Bangladesh, the government has set up a special war-crimes tribunal to prosecute sympathizers with Pakistan who committed “crimes against humanity.” The tribunal has found Mr. Mullah guilty, as a young student political leader, of committing serious crimes that warranted life imprisonment. Rather than accept Mr. Mullah’s sentence as justice too-long delayed, the crowds demand his execution.

After four days of Shahbag demonstrations, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina pledged to pursue a death sentence, only to discover that the legislation establishing the tribunal allows the government to appeal a verdict, but not a sentence. The problem has been solved: the government will amend the legislation to enable an appeal of the verdict to the Supreme Court. Few doubt that Mr. Mullah will hang.

what-pakistan-left-behind-1The Bengal Spring raises key ethical issues in the prosecution of war crimes, in defining the rule of law and the nature of democracy itself.

Since independence, a combination of political crises and religious conservatism blocked the prosecution of Mr. Mullah and other Jamaat leaders. In 1975, the first prime minister, the secular and socialist Sheikh Mujib, was assassinated. That government was followed by the military dictatorship of General Zia Rahman, who in turn was assassinated. Finally, in 1990, the army retired to the cantonment. A hotly contested election in 1991 pitted the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Gen. Zia’s widow (in an alliance with Jamaat), against the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina.

For two decades these two women have dominated Bangladeshi politics, effectively sustaining the bitter hostilities of 1971. Each has enjoyed two terms in office, each one dogged by corruption, which prompted the most recent military intervention in 2007. Finally, in 2008 Sheikh Hasina won a resounding majority and proceeded with war-crime trials.

That her government in 2009 created a domestically controlled war-crimes tribunal rather than engage the International Criminal Court reflects the country’s suspicion of the West. Conveniently for the government, virtually all those prosecuted have affiliations with either Jamaat or the BNP – the two opposition parties.

Inexperienced judges and lawyers have led international observers (most notably The Economist) to question the integrity of the process. Still, despite procedural flaws, the trials have not been outright “drumhead justice.” The second verdict, Mr. Mullah’s, displayed a certain judicial desire for reconciliation. He received life imprisonment. Then he flashed a “V” sign as he left the courtroom – a bad move. Protests by elderly intellectuals began, but it took the bloggers to put thousands into the street.

One might expect to hear a lawyer or a human-rights activist object to retroactively changing the law in order to please the street. So far there has been silence, though in fairness events have moved quickly and unexpectedly.

What of the tribunal judges themselves? They clearly have limited independence. This appears to be a war-crimes tribunal that can issue only one verdict, guilty, and one sentence, death.

Bangladeshi political culture places great faith in mass protests, the tactic that Gandhi invented to end the British raj, and that Sheikh Mujib copied leading up to 1971. For forty years, all parties have relied on violent street demonstrations. The parliament plays a marginal role. On the one hand, the youthful composition of the crowds in Shahbag and their determination not to be suborned by any political party symbolize a refreshing rejection of politics as usual. On the other hand, their demand – death for those who fought with the Pakistani army – is a continuation of the politics of violent confrontation.

The media have proclaimed the rebirth of the “Spirit of 1971.” The movement must be welcomed if it leads to a more liberal and less violent polity. But will it? Will it go beyond settling old scores?

And herein lies the dilemma. The new leadership of bloggers and youth in Shahbag have not been calling with anywhere near as much fervor for safer conditions for garment workers, better schools, better health care, less corruption; rather, they have committed themselves to inflict deadly vengeance upon the old men of Jamaat.

A youth movement seeking death sentences regardless of the law carries within itself the germ of their parents’ politics. It is Lord of the Flies writ large. The goal should be to move beyond a four-decade-old civil war towards genuine democratic reform within the rule of law. Put away the noose.

# First published in The Globe and Mail, February 19, 2013

#Owen Lippert lives in Dhaka where he has served as head of two US AID democracy projects. He was senior policy adviser to the CIDA minister in 2007-08

Courtesy: bangladeshwatchdog.blogspot.com

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