Thursday, February 16, 2012

United States softens on threats to relations with Bangladesh

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni in Washington DC
SALEEM SAMAD

It now appears that the United States government has softened in exerting diplomatic pressure on Bangladesh soon after the authorities forcibly removed Nobel laureate Professor Mohammad Yunus from the micro-finance institution he founded 30 years ago.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was irked last March and threatened that the bilateral relations with Bangladesh would jeopardize if authorities continue to harass Prof. Yunus, a popular advocate of social business concept.

Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert O. Blake in Bangladesh capital on Thursday told reporters that with Bangladesh and U.S has developed strong cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues.

The visiting official emphasized the importance of Bangladesh’s finding an eminently qualified successor to Dr. Yunus as managing director of Grameen Bank, which has credit of empowering 10 million disadvantaged rural women. The Islamist squarely blamed the micro-finance bank for voting against the mullahs in last parliament election.

Blake reiterated U.S. policy against extra-constitutional means to overthrown a democratic government. In a recent botched military coup hatched by mid-level radical Muslim army officers in last January, the U.S. immediately condemned the conspiracy and firmly stood beside Sheikh Hasina’s government in establishing secularism and democracy. The overwhelming majority of Bangladesh 150 million people are Sunni Muslims, followed by 10 million minority Hindu population.

The senior U.S. official hopes that the ruling Awami League and mainstream opposition Bangladesh Nationalists Party would rise above narrow partisanship and will work together to agree for a mechanism in holding free, fair, credible and participatory election, schedule in end 2013.

He urged Bangladesh authority to ensure continued space for free media and vigorous non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The vibrant civil society representatives expressed their fear to Blake that the draft NGO law would curtail their mandate for empowerment of the rural poor, he told at a press briefing on Thursday.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic extremism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuaries of the Jihadist leaders in Bangladesh who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home after six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Australian energy firm struck gas reserve in Bangladesh offshore Australian energy firm struck gas reserve in Bangladesh offshore

SALEEM SAMAD

AN AUSTRALIAN energy corporation has struck huge gas reserves in off shore Bay of Bengal, which is commercially viable.

The president of Santos Bangladesh John Chambers briefed journos on Wednesday that they are confident to start supplying gas from the reserve from the first week of April.

John Chambers, said that the Aussie company will be able to quantify Sangu-11's reserves in the next couple of weeks when necessary assessments are completed.

From the new well in shallow water block 37.2 miles from the Bangladesh coast, at least 25-30 million cubic feet of gas per day will be available for Chittagong's energy starved industrial customers within March – April, the official added.

For the second time, commercially viable gas reserves have been found in offshore Bangladesh, following the previous discovery by the U.K's Cairn Energy in 1996. Cairn, the previous operator of the Sangu field, found gas in the same block.

Unlike other energy giants globally, Santos has agreements to sell gas from its well to private consumers at market price, the Santos official said. The Aussie company has already received expressions of interest from over a dozen large privately owned companies in Chittagong to buy gas at market price due to a growing gas shortage in the country.

The energy crunch has forced Petrobangla, state energy regulatory agency to suspend new gas connections to industries since July 2009, squeezing industrial growth. Gas rationing is widespread and CNG filling stations are closed four hours a day. Bangladesh economy is entirely dependent on gas and electricity for production of the huge export industries.

Earlier, energy activists have been protesting the government ink a deal with Santos and other American energy giants for allowing them to sell gas privately, which they term is anti-nationalism, said its leader Professor Anu Mohammad of a state university.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic extremism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuaries of the Jihadist leaders in Bangladesh who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home after six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Heart throb’s suicide pact on Valentines Day

SALEEM SAMAD

A LOVE pair in a suicide pact dies on Valentine Day with a hope they would be united in eternity, on Tuesday.

Saud Sheikh, 17, and Mitu Mollah, 16, from a village Kathibazaar in Gopalganj in southern Bangladesh decided to give away their lives, after stiff opposition from both their families against their bondage.

Demoralized and frustrated by the attitude of their parents, the teens were driven to end their life.

Both are school students of standard ten, were in love, said the village leader Mejbah Uddin Chowdhury.

Shiekh had an affair with Mollah for a long time, but Saud’s family refused to accept the affair, a ridiculed as fairytales. The parent transferred Shiekh to the capital Dhaka. In the meantime Mollah’s family forced her to marry a groom whom he never met, said the village leader Chowdhury.

Police said, Shiekh returned to the village a day before the incident. The lovers tied a knot in their hands with a scarf and jumped from a mobile phone tower. They died instantaneously, Gopalganj police officer Sarojit Biswas said.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic extremism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuaries of the Jihadist leaders in Bangladesh who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home after six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bangladesh TV journalist couple brutally murdered

Journalists from the broadcasting and print media take part in a human chain demanding arrests of journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Nahar Runi killers. Photo: Shafin Ahmed/Demotix
SALEEM SAMAD

A YOUNG Journalist couple was cruelly murdered by unknown assailants in their apartment in the small hours in the weekend in the capital Dhaka, sparking widespread protest prompting authorities to issue orders for an investigation.
The couple’s five year-old son Megh informed her grandmother at 7:00 am on Saturday that two assailants killed his parents and he was locked inside a room. Police found Sagar Sarowar, news editor of private Maasranga TV both his hands and feet tied and his wife Meheren Runi, special correspondent of private ATN Bangla TV channel lying dead in a pool of blood.

Police security has been deployed to protect the only child who had survived the gruesome murder of his parents.

Sarowar returned to Bangladesh in 2011 after a few years stint with Deutsche Welle in Germany as a broadcaster.

The motive of the killing is unknown and police have yet to determine whether it is related to their work.

Chief Coroner at a state hospital said after the autopsy, Sarowar and Runi were hacked to death and had bore scores of stab wounds in their bodies.

Police detectives and intelligence agencies jointly launched a massive man-hunt ever in the history of Bangladesh and is desperately looking for clues.

Detectives and anti-crime agencies after two days is yet to make any progress in resolving the mystery of the most talked about murder story of the popular television journalists.

The police chief Hassan Mahmood Khandaker on Monday was evasive when crime reporters asked him barrages of questions regarding the progress of the investigation and whether the suspects have been nabbed. He, however, said there was significant progress and would not disclose any information for the sake of investigation.

Earlier the grieved journo leaders at a rally in front of the National Press Club on Sunday has set a 24 hours deadline, otherwise they threatened to boycott press coverage of the Home Affairs minister Sahara Khatoon.

Bangladesh is among the worst nations in the world in combating deadly anti-press violence. Bangladesh ranks 11th on New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Impunity Index, which calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country's population. Twelve journalists have been murdered in reprisal for their work in Bangladesh since 1992.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic extremism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuaries of the Jihadist leaders in Bangladesh who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home after six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Friday, February 10, 2012

Air pollution in Bangladesh capital kills thousands

SALEEM SAMAD

Nauseating air pollution in the Bangladesh capital annually kills thousands of urban poor and millions more suffer from respiratory diseases, a burden on inadequate health budget.

Authorities in Bangladesh assume if air pollution in its overcrowded capital could be reduced by only 20 to 80 percent, an estimated 1,200 to 3,500 lives annually could be saved.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) claims that another 80 to 230 million cases of respiratory diseases could be averted each year.

The recently completed Country Environment Assessment, conducted jointly by the government and the World Bank identified air pollution as the leading cause of mortality and morbidity related environmental issues.

Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE), a project of the government with the support of the Bank to reduce the capital Dhaka’s smog (smoke and fog) squarely blames scores of brick industries at the fringe of the city and clogging of limited road by large number of vehicles for 16 hours during weekdays.

The study says if the air pollution is reduced, it would also save $170 to 500 million in healthcare costs and simultaneously increase the productivity of city dwellers.

Traffic congestion in the capital and smoke from brick kilns are the main reasons for air pollution in Dhaka city, according to the World Bank and the Bangladesh government.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests says that vehicles in Dhaka move 14kmph on an average, which is very slow and causes them to burn more fuel and contribute to air pollution. They say the average speed could come down to 4kmph by 2025 if things do not improve.

The urban environment experts recommends for immediate introduction of energy efficient technology for a pro-green brick industry and rapid mass transit in Dhaka metropolis to ease traffic gridlocks through out the day.

An independent newspaper Daily Star on Friday quoting an official of the Department of Environment (DoE) said the density of airborne particulate matter is around 250 micrograms per cubic metre in Dhaka, which is five times the acceptable level.

The air consists of common pollutants, sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ground-level ozone (O3), volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulphide (H2S), sulphates and nitrates, the DoE official said.

Additional air pollutants of concern include toxic metals (lead, mercury, manganese, arsenic and nickel), benzene, formaldehyde, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), dioxins, and other persistent organic compounds, he add.

In another study Environmental Performance Index 2012, undertaken by the U.S. universities of Yale and Columbia, found Dhaka to be the 31st most polluted city out of 132 cities across the world.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic extremism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuaries of the Jihadist leaders in Bangladesh who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home after six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Indian border guard chief remark outrage Bangladesh

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH GOVERNMENT, as well as the rights groups are outraged after the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) chief said that it is not possible to stop border firing completely.

The BSF director general U.K. Bansal told the BBC on Tuesday that it is not possible to stop border firing completely and his Bangladesh counterpart Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) chief Maj.Gen. Anwar Hossain disagrees and said on Thursday that killing at the border under any circumstances is not acceptable.

The remark is contrary to Indian government’s agreed policy and continues to maintain a shoot-at-sight policy for any Bangladeshi illegally crossing the international divide, foreign minister Dipu Moni told reporters on Thursday.

Last July, the Indian home affairs minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the Indian guards will no longer shoot people crossing the porous border from Bangladesh. Instead the guards will use rubber bullets after warnings.

Two days after the anger is still being raged, two more Bangladeshi citizens on Thursday have been shot and wounded by BSF at Satkhira in south-east, lieutenant colonel Abu Bashir confirmed with the private wire service bdnews24.com.

Bangladesh Human Rights Commission chief Prof. Mizanur Rahman on Wednesday threatened to raise the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council, unless BSF stops killing and torture of innocent Bangladeshis.

In December 2010, New York based Human Rights Watch in a report described the Indian border guards as "Trigger Happy" force and documented hundreds of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment by the BSF.

In January 18, 2012, Indian news channel NDTV showed a disturbing video of what appears to be a group of BSF guards in uniform beating up a young Bangladeshi man ruthlessly near the Bangladesh border after he allegedly refused to give them a bribe. BSF top officers acknowledged that this incident took place and the perpetrators were fired.

The rights groups Odikhar and Ain Shalish Kendra (ASK) documents the killings on the border have denounced the border killings as extrajudicial murders.

The NGO’s stated that it is one of the most dangerous international borders, where an estimated 350 Bangladeshis and 165 Indians have been killed by Indian forces since 2006, since India began to fence the borders.

India in the east, shares 2,544 miles of porous and soft border with Bangladesh and have constructed walls with barbed wire, roughly 70 percent border with Bangladesh to stop illegal border crossing. The rest of the border is running across the delta's shifting rivers, which are unfenceable, but patrolled.

Livestock, food stuffs, gun-running and drug trade are regularly brought from India into Bangladesh. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh cross into India to find jobs.

However, Gen. Anwar said on Thursday that the incident of killing at the border is on the decline in the last two months.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic terrorism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuary in Bangladesh of the Jihadist leaders who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Bangladesh: Coup bid against Sheikh Hasina foiledBangladesh: Coup bid against Sheikh Hasina foiled

SALEEM SAMAD

In late December last year, a secret letter went from New Delhi to Dhaka. It was delivered directly to Sheikh Hasina, 65, the prime minister of Bangladesh. It warned her that Islamist radicals embedded within the Bangladesh Army were planning a coup. Hasina had reason to fear coups. On the night of August 15, 1975, her father, Bangladesh's first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her mother and three brothers were massacred by officers of the Bangladesh Army. Hasina and her sister would have been dead as well, but were abroad on a tour of Europe.

Along with the letter, India had worked out a contingency plan to evacuate the prime minister, her cabinet and key figures of her Awami League party in the event of a coup. There was a military plan as well. Indian helicopter gunships would be launched from two airbases in West Bengal and Tripura into Dhaka to provide air cover for the operation. Landing zones and evacuation sites were identified in and around the capital for the air corridor.

All through December, Bangladesh's spy agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which reports directly to Hasina, quietly went to work. It was headed by Major General Sheikh Mamun Khaled, whom Hasina had personally chosen. They tapped phone communications, smss and emails of suspects in the conspiracy. Social networking sites were monitored. A series of arrests was made from December-end to January.

Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), who is anti-India by conviction and hates Hasina with a rare passion, alleged at a public rally in Chittagong that army officers were becoming victims of "sudden disappearance". The army's media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR), warned Khaleda to refrain from making any statements. The army was worried that public discourse might soon include details of the impending coup.

The coup attempt began innocuously. Posts on a Facebook group, 'Soldiers Forum', instigated soldiers to work against the government. Major Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haq, a graduate of the military academy who was training at the Military Institute of Science and Technology, Dhaka, was identified as the mastermind. He used a mobile phone with a UK number to share details of the conspiracy with 11 other army officers. On his Facebook account, he bragged that "mid-level officers of Bangladesh Army are bringing changes soon". On January 8, the banned fanatical organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) distributed provocative leaflets based on his post.

Major Zia regularly updated his Facebook account with "information" on arrests of army officers by "anti-terrorism agents", including those of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). His messages spread to blogs and were even picked up by a pro-BNP newspaper, Amar Desh. The DGFI and other security agencies kept the suspected plotters under surveillance. They discovered that the likely date of the coup was January 10 or 11. One by one, the plotters were picked up and are now detained in military headquarters, Dhaka.

On January 19, the army unveiled the plot. In its first ever press conference, held at the Army Officers' Club in Dhaka, ISPR spokesperson Brigadier General Muhammad Masud Razzaq took questions, didn't reveal specifics, but talked about the threat to Hasina's "pro-secular and democratically elected government". Brigadier Razzaq claimed between 14 and 16 former and active mid-level radical Muslim officers were behind the conspiracy to topple the government and install an Islamist regime. Two retired officers, Lt Col Ehsan Yousuf and Major Zakir, were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government and they "admitted their role in the plot". Major General Mohammad Kamruzzaman, commander of the Comilla-based 33rd Infantry Division, was removed from his command and detained in Dhaka. Another brigadier, Tariqul Alam, commander of 71st Brigade of 9th Division, and Major General Shabbir Ahmad, commander of the Rangpur-based 66 Division, are under surveillance. Eleven other officers from Dhaka and other cantonments across the country have been confined in the capital.

Bangladesh Army chief General Mohammad Mainul Islam says the major general and some religious bigots had planned to indoctrinate pious officers. "They had targeted the deeply religious officers, who they felt would be amenable because they were pious, to execute their conspiracy to overthrow the democratically elected government," he says.

On January 21, Hasina said, "I would like to thank the Bangladesh Army. Had they not unearthed the conspiracy in time, a great disaster could have taken place. The army saved the patriotic forces and the country as well by throttling the conspiracy to topple the democratic government." She accused arch-rival Khaleda of plotting to overthrow her government. The BNP dismissed this as well as allegations that self-exiled BNP leader Tarique Rahman, Khaleda's son, was involved in the aborted coup attempt.

The Bangladesh Army says Major Zia, the alleged coup mastermind, evaded arrest. His whereabouts are unknown. Yet, it was the resurfacing of an underground Islamist organisation that caused concern. The Bangladesh Army linked the conspirators to the Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Tahrir, an international Sunni pan-Islamist political organisation, advocates an Islamic Caliphate governed by Shariah law. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, it has spread to more than 40 countries, and is also active in Pakistan.

The Hasina government had banned the Tahrir in October 2009. Agencies such as the Rapid Action Battalion, National Security Intelligence and Detective Branch repeatedly claimed they had succeeded in containing them. They based these claims on the detention of key figures such as Towfiq Elahi, a teacher of a prominent private university, and Dr Golam Haider Rasul, 45, who practises at Dhaka's United Hospital, besides hundreds of others. Tahrir leader Maulana Mamunur Rashid, principal of a Dhaka madrassa, remains a fugitive.

Nearly 500 Tahrir members were detained mostly for organising rallies and distributing leaflets. Police officers now admit their inability to curb the well-funded organisation merely through arrests. "It's tough because families of the detained activists get money from their global network," says Lt Col Ziaul Ahsan, director of the Intelligence Wing of the elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion. Most of the detained militants released on bail rejoin the outfit. The outfit has resurfaced more aggressively after its ban.

Besides the men in uniform, the Hizb ut-Tahrir has spread its invisible tentacles among the social elite, government professionals, academics and politicians. "They have a new approach to radicalism, the cuckoo's eggs in the crow's nest (trying to covertly embed themselves in society)," says Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a political scientist in Dhaka University.

Since their 1975 putsch that killed Mujib, the Father of the Nation, the military in Bangladesh has overthrown the civilian government four times. The army has killed two elected presidents and coerced three other presidents into declaring military-backed emergency. The last coup was in January 2007 and since then, attempts have been made to keep the military in the barracks.

The Supreme Court has been a key force. A landmark judgment by a full bench headed by former chief justice Mohammad Tafazzul Islam on July 28, 2010, declared three military regimes between August 15, 1975, and February 1979 as illegal. The new constitution, adopted by Parliament in November 2011, has restored equality of religions. But as UK-based terror analyst Chris Blackburn says, "The recent coup plot shows that extremism in South Asia has many forms. There has always been a trend within the ranks of the military to push the importance of religion in binding a country together. There are certainly officers who see themselves as guardians of both state and religion. But I still think it is too early right now to speculate on Hizb ut-Tahrir's role in the attempted coup. They are an extremist group."

Hasina has been under threat since she swept to power in early 2009. More than 1,000 paramilitary border guards of Bangladesh Rifles, now renamed Border Guards Bangladesh, revolted against the military's hegemony over their institution. It was symptomatic of the unrest in the armed forces. India helped even then. Sources in the prime minister's office said that as soon as the mutiny broke out, India kept its special forces 50 Parachute Independent Brigade on standby to fly into Dhaka in case of an emergency. New Delhi's support for Hasina is clear. In her third stint as prime minister, Bangladesh has ceased to become a safe haven for militant groups operating in India.

The military has moved in swiftly to initiate a court of inquiry against the rogue officers. The military brass, meanwhile, reassured the president of its secular credentials and their support. "There is no room for religious zealots in the Bangladesh Army," army chief General Islam told a seminar in Dhaka a week after the botched coup. The civilian government can only hope that it is true.

First published in India Today, New Delhi, January 28, 2012


@ Copyright 2011 India Today Group

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Grave robbers shock relatives in Bangladesh

SALEEM SAMAD

Robbers stole 23 human skeletons from graveyards at a village in Gazipur, north of the Bangladesh capital, leaving scores of relatives in shock.

Zaher Ali was found crying beside his elder brother’s grave following the bizarre discovery. “My brother died nearly six months ago. Miscreants stole his skeleton from the grave,” was speaking to reporters in tears.

The relatives are in pain and agony that they would never be able to pay respect to their near and dear ones. Like other religions, graves are sacrilegious for the Muslims and desecration of a grave is attributed as a sin.

Umar Ali, chairman of the graveyard supervisory committee of the village Gojarichala said he found 23 graves were exhumed to the spot and the skeletons are missing.

The committee chairman said there are about 280-300 graves at the graveyard and grave robbers have stolen these skeletons in the last few days. He believes that the thieves robbed the skeletons in the darkness of the night.

Abdul Baten, police chief of Gazipur on Tuesday rushed to the place of occurrence after locals reported the heist. He said police has been deployed and will take necessary measures in this regard.

The rapacious thieves steal human skeletons for a lucrative underground market which is abroad. Nobody could however provide accurate information on the final destination of the bones.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. He specializes on Islamic terrorism, forced migration, good governance, press freedom and elective democracy. Ending his life in exile from Canada he has recently returned home. He was detained, tortured in 2002 and later expelled in 2004 for whistle-blowing of the safe sanctuary in Bangladesh of the Jihadist leaders who fled during Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com