Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Crying wolf in exile

Let hundred flowers bloom - Mao tse Tung
I am 53 year old writer-journalist and researcher on conflict & peace in South Asia.

I always disapproved the idea with many regarding the political dissidents to flee the country and claim political asylum in the west. I mean settling in Europe or North America. This, I believe will certainly legitimize the wrong-doings of the developed nations discrimination of the poor, imposed war and economic exploitation. I ridiculed the writers, journalists, theatre activists and freethinkers in Bangladesh who have claimed refugee in the west in “fear of persecution.”

When I was elected for a 3-year Ashoka Fellowship in 1991 by the Washington based foundation Ashoka-Innovators for the Public, Bill Drayton, the founder and CEO of Ashoka wrote my profile. He writes: “…Saleem who won't emigrate and who care (about Bangladesh society)…”

Therefore, my options became limited. Whether to abandon my birthplace Bangladesh! The nation of 140 million was born in 1971 after a bloody war with the marauding Pakistan army. I was only 19 years old and I joined the “Mukti Bahini” (Liberation Forces) during the Bangladesh war of independence. I was asked to return to the capital Dhaka, when the guerrilla commander major Haider found that I fairly spoke and understand English and Urdu (language spoken in Pakistan). I joined the team with intelligence and logistics unit of the Mukti Bahini. That is another story!

At 50 plus age, it is likely that I may not find suitable job in Canada. Not as a journalist, writer or researcher. It will take months, maybe years to understand the history, culture, customs, usage of Canadian-English and also have to understand French in a bilingual nation. I am unable to predict my future in this country.

I experienced couple of shocks in a row. I had to quit my job with a premier English daily Bangladesh Observer and Reporters sans frontières (RSF) as soon as I left the base. While the job with TIME magazine (Asia edition) was made conditional. I informed them that the Canadian authority have accepted my claim for political asylum. TIME Asia editor Michael Elliot however advised that I could be relocated in South Asia, preferably in India (but in no circumstances in Bangladesh) if I wish to continue working with TIME. Of course, I will and I agreed!

Meanwhile the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) have accepted my claim for refugee protection - within a shortest period of 55 days, thus becoming a "convention refugee". I also began to receive a modest monthly social benefit for house rent and food for my survival. Also an international human rights organisation raised funds to support my livelihood for first few months. Half of the money was instead submitted for paying the immigration fees for my family.

What causes alarms was that my family cannot join me immediately, despite they are living in fear of harassment by the security agencies. Twice the security intelligence raided my home in the capital Dhaka, despite knowing that I am in Canada. Unless the Canadian authority expedites immigration formalities, my family will continue to live in fear. Good news is that the Canadian authority assured that my application for Permanent Residents (PR) card (equivalent to Green Card in US) is "under process" on fast-track.

My son often curiously asks me while on MSN how do I spend my day? What is your day's plan? I repeated the same story over and over again. I usually wake up early in the morning. I skip breakfast and have brunch during weekdays. I check emails while I am online throughout the day. The public bus transport swivel though the snow-laden capital Ottawa which takes me to the downtown main library. I browse the racks for music CDs, DVDs and of course books. Lazily I read magazines and journals there. In the afternoon I walk from the library to Rideau shopping mall - always busy and warm in the cold winter. I drink tea from Tim Hortons and wait till my friends joins me on their way home from work.

The situation of journalism has been suitably illustrated by the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The mission report describes: “Bangladesh, …… where crime, politics, and violence all cross paths, making independent journalism in this country of 146 million people a very dangerous profession. Political officials routinely punish journalists who expose corruption by ordering political activist henchmen to beat them.”

The country apparently a Muslim majoritarian nation and three “democratically” elected “autocratic” governments changed power through free, fair and regular elections since 1991.

Describing the social disappointment, Bill Drayton continues: “Frustrated like so many of his countrymen by a sense that the promise of Golden Bangladesh is being lost in a sink of disappointing leadership, Saleem feels he can help energize a group in society that can fill some of the agenda-setting vacuum-the most concerned and able journalists around the country, especially those close to its grassroots realities beyond the capital.”

Often I am invited to speak to group of Bangladeshi-Canadian community at Montreal and Toronto and obviously lament about the appalling human rights conditions and poor freedom of press.

I have developed annoyance and frustration over the unspeakable state of religious freedom, poor governance, criminalization of politics and the upper hand of the military intelligence since the Islamic nationalist government in Bangladesh swept into power in October 2001.

"When they (journalists) investigate transparency of civil and military bureaucracy, and democratic accountability of elected representatives, which makes them more vulnerable. The political class—especially the local one—are unable to accept these positive changes," RSF Mission Report in March 2002 quotes me.

My ordeal began 24 years ago while reporting on the insurgency in the Bangladesh south-eastern region. The army was engaged in a bush-war with the indigenous Mongoloid Buddhist in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The human rights groups blamed the Bangladesh army for ethnic cleansing, genocide, extra-judicial killing and arbitrary detention, which were based on my reportage in the newspaper.

Since early 1980 I was reporting on the counter-insurgency operation by the Bangladesh Army for The New Nation, a local English daily. One midnight on March 27, 1981, I was picked up by the dreaded military intelligence outfit Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) at Rangamati, a regional town in CHT for my despatches, which exposed the flagrant abuse of human rights.

For five days I was kept blindfolded, handcuffed, refused food and drink, confined in a tiny dark cell and intermittingly tortured during interrogation. The torture caused damages to my right knee, dislocation of right shoulder joint, injuries to my spinal disc.

Luckily no charge was framed against me at the time of my release. I continued to cover the ethnic political crisis from the capital Dhaka, which my editor thought was safer than being on the ground.

Often I used to receive phone calls from the military intelligence headquarters asking me to prove certain information and even asked to disclose my sources. I never visited them.

Despite Bangladesh being a democratic country, the military intelligence have turned into a Frankenstein. The intelligence outfit literally have an upper hand over state of politics and governance. Why (?) is a pertinent question! The dreaded agency did not forget me for my past activity.

The agency blacklisted me from all official functions. I was denied press accreditation to cover the Ministry of Foreign Affairs despite my editor Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury of The Bangladesh Observer had endorsed my application for the press accreditation.

The latest trouble began in November 2002 when British Channel 4 TV assigned me to set up interviews and translate for the journalists arriving Bangladesh to produce a documentary on the state of the country’s traditional secularism and recent persecution on the Hindu minorities. The government framed me under sedition laws and for conspiracy to slander the country’s image abroad.

I was picked-up by detective police on the night of November 29 while I was lying low. Police intelligence had already picked the two foreign journalists Zaiba Malik (British citizen) and Bruno Sorrentino (Italian) working for Channel 4 TV. The sedition laws were meant to punish people engaged in espionage and terrorism in the country.

I was never involved in spying or engaged in subversive activities. Rather the ruling party, which has formed a coalition government with the Islamic nationalist opposed the independence war and raised militia and systematically kidnapped and murdered hundreds of pro-secular intellectuals and executed partisans against Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If charged and convicted of sedition or treason, I would have received death sentence by hanging.

The government has yet to press charges against the foreign journalists or me. Soon after my arrest, the military intelligence hunted my wife Abeda Sultana Jasmine and my son Atisha Rahbar for 9 days. They managed to escape arrest from shifting from one place to another, but the trauma still haunts them.

During the five days of remand for questioning, police detectives and military intelligence officers quizzed me intermittently and physically tortured me. They threatened to kill me if I refuse to sign the “false confessional” papers. Refusal to sign the papers, I was declined food, drinking water, and even toothbrush.

My detention and harassment to my family, invited international outrage from the CPJ, RSF, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), and Amnesty International besides the anger of Bangladesh largest circulated newspapers.

I was released after 55 days, after the High Court cancelled the detention and declared it illegal. Soon after my release from prison, the article in TIME magazine (February 10, 2002) infuriated the Islamic Nationalist chauvinist government.

An intelligence agency was alerted from the internet edition of the magazine. The agency once again put me under surveillance. I had no other recourse but to seek intervention of the higher court. The court issued an order “not to arrest, not to harass”.

This order allowed me to return to my profession, travel abroad to participate in seminars and conferences. Again on April 12, 2004 TIME published another article “State of Disgrace” which described Bangladesh as a “dysfunctional country”.

Once again the police were preparing to arrest me. This time the American Ambassador to Bangladesh had to intervene with the authority to drop the idea to arrest me.

I arrived Canada on October 21 to attend an international summit on children organized by a children’s organisation. After tour of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto I called home to inform my wife Jasmine that I am returning home.

She warned me not to mention the date of return on the phone, and insisted that first I read the email sent by my son. The email says that the military intelligence agents visited my home and asked when I am returning, causing panic with my family. Jasmine pleaded that I should not return home for security reasons.

My news of political asylum appeared prominently in a leading Bangladesh newspaper Dainik Janakantha and Bangladesh community weeklies published from Toronto and New York. Meanwhile a pro-ruling party newspaper Dainik Dinkal published an article on me, which demonstrates the vengeance of the government.

Neither Bill nor RSF reckoned that one-day I would join like many other journalist’s in exile. In fact RSF few days before my detention requested me to flee to Paris.

After my release from prison, TIME was always concerned about my safety and security. At least twice in last two years asked to me get out of Bangladesh. I did not. Why, I do not know! The home phone is bugged and I cannot speak to my family.

The only communication is through internet. TIME editor Michael Elliot strongly advises that my family should be urgently shifted to a third country (preferably to neighbouring India) for their safety. But my lawyer in Ottawa does not favour the idea, as scores of wanted criminals of Bangladesh are hiding in the neighbouring states of India.

The government’s dreaded intelligence agencies might engage them to threaten, intimidate or harass my family in India. It was heartbreaking that the coalition government dubbed me for destabilization of the state. I would have been glad, if the authority accused me under punishable offence acts for critiquing the government. With the present circumstance, I will never be able to return to my country I had participated in creating the nation – Bangladesh in my youth.

Meanwhile, I have been recognized by New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) with Hellman-Hammett award as exiled writers, while Amnesty International listed me as “defender of human rights.”

This ordeal I experienced was because I cried wolf, when the Islamic militants were gaining grounds in Bangladesh since the nationalist Islamist chauvinist government swept into power in October 2001. #

source: The report is based on Reporters Without Border (RSF) Annual Report 2005

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