Saturday, December 21, 2013

Noose tightens on Bangladesh opposition

After the execution of a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader, the religious party faces an uncertain future.


Hours after Bangladesh executed Abdul Quader Molla, a top opposition leader, for his role in the 1971 civil war that culminated into Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan activists from his party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), staged riots. Violence has continued in the country following the December 12 hanging, leading to dozens of deaths.

More than 100 JeI activists have been detained in a nation-wide crackdown.

Molla's execution has lead to heated debates about the role of political Islam in the country and the future for religious opposition parties.

"Bangladesh will be the first country to bury 'political Islam' which wrecked the traditional secular fabric of the society since independence in 1971," explains professor Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, who teaches Public Affairs in the Dhaka University.

'Surge and Decline'
JeI had opposed the break-up of Pakistan and fought alongside Pakistan's military against pro-Independence forces. It was banned from politics upon the formation of Bangladesh.

But a military coup in 1975 lifted the ban on JeI. During the 1980s, the religious party joined a multi-party coalition and later supported the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In October 2001, it emerged as the country's third largest party, securing 17 seats in the 300-member parliament. Both the JeI and BNP led by Begum Khaleda Zia replaced the Awami League (AL), which had been in power since 1996.

In 2008, AL led by Sheikh Hasina came back to power even as JeI's popularity waned when it won a mere 5 seats in national elections. And in 2010 AL began war crimes trials for events surrounding the independence struggle under Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).

Molla became the first person convicted by the tribunal. He was initially sentenced to life in prison in February. Calling a life sentence as too lenient, thousands across Bangladeshdemanded he be hanged. And in September, the Supreme Court overturned life in prison and replaced it with a death sentence.

With his hanging, some observers believe JeI's power also has been executed.

While war veterans from 1971 and thousands of pro-independence youths rejoiced after the hanging, the JeI's acting head Moqbul Ahmed warned "people would [want] revenge" on the party's website, which triggered a massive crackdown against JeI activists.

Ahmed has called on the international community to raise its voice against the "repression on the opposition".

"Since coming to power the government (of Awami League) has practiced unbridled corruption, nepotism and even torture upon members of the opposition. They are now making a last-ditch attempt to stay in power indefinitely by amending the constitution and destroying the state apparatus. They have abolished the caretaker system of government and have enacted a new system to hold elections under their own party government," the Jamaat chief said, something which its political partner BNP also backs.

Both the parties have in recent months launched blockades; often resulting in violence and killings, to press for their demands but the ruling AL so far seems unwilling to budge.

JeI says crackdown on its members and the hanging of its leader was "politically motivated".

But others feel the executions were fair, as Jamaat's paramilitary Al Badr had committed "heinous war abuses" for which they need to be punished.

According to M A Hasan, of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, an independent body investigating the 1971 massacres: "Al Badr had been engaged in forced abduction and execution of Bangla-speaking pro-independence nationalists and secularists to brutally muzzle the voices for freedom."

The war historian's documents claim that "local henchmen" allied with Pakistani soldiers were involved in "killing at least 3 million and sexual abusing 400,000 women during the nine months civil war."

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN rights experts have continued their criticism of the war crimes tribunals and the laws under which they operate.

However, Bangladeshi authorities have always argued that they met national standards and that justice is needed for war crimes committed during the bloody war of independence from Pakistan.

'Partner's silence'
The BNP, Jel's erstwhile political ally, has been conspicuously silent since Molla's execution.

It is currently pre-occupied in talks with the ruling AL over how to break the political deadlock.

"It seems BNP is more desperate for a political solution than stalemate and may have deliberately overlooked JeI's concerns," Ahmed explains.

The BNP has been holding series of blockades of the country's transport system since December in protest of holding what it says is "farcical" election in January.

A court has already declared the registration of the JeI as "illegal" to contest national polls.

" [The] BNP's strategic election partner has become a dead horse and a political burden for the opposition," says Nzmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a professor of public administration at theUniversity of Dhaka. "It is time for BNP to shred JeI, which will bring an end to political Islam which has haunted the nation apparently for 30 years."

'Uncertain future'
JeI may not be a dead horse but even some party insiders believe it is facing a worst crisis in its 40-year-long political history in Bangladesh.

"It would be a Herculean task to survive against the ruling party which has an overwhelming majority in the government," says explains Salauddin Babar, executive editor of the pro-JeI newspaper, Dainik Naya Diganta, and a senior JeI member. "It will be an uphill battle to survive the current political crisis JeI faces."

Babar believes that the crackdown weakend the party's chain of command and Jel could crack under the pressure.

"The political future of the party has been challenged after a sustained crackdown on the leadership. Jamaat's future is uncertain," he says.

First published in Al Jazeera news portal, December 21, 2013

Saleem Samad is an award winning Bangladesh based investigative journalist and an Ashoka Fellow. He is recipient of Hellman-Hammett Grants award by New Yorkbased Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The haunted Hindus of Santhia

Saleem Samad in Santhia, Pabna

As she loiters past damaged houses in Sahaparha village, 5-year old ‘Orgho’ fumes over her smashed water mug, plastic chair and, most loudly, about the damaged television in her house.

She blames the Nov 2 mayhem on Kali Puja day on 'dustu chelera’ (naughty boys).

Her mother is cautious, as she recollects how she hid in a smelly toilet for three hours to escape an armed mob of fanatic Muslims.

A part of her house was smashed to smithereens.

The State Minister for Home Shamsul Hoque Tuku had gathered at Karamjat madrasa ground to thwart Opposition protests, barely 10 kilometres from Bongram bazaar at Santhia.

That was just before the Muslim mob, fuming over a reported Facebook posting denigrating Prophet Muhammad, went on an orgy of violence in Santhia.

Sahaparha was one of the worst affected because the Facebook posting was blamed on Rajib Saha, a resident of the village.

The conspirators deliberately chose Saturday, a weekly haat-bazaar day.

On the day hundreds of photocopies of an alleged Facebook posting were distributed, indicating that Rajib Saha had insulted the Prophet.

The distribution left Muslims of all parties inflamed.

What followed was hours of violence in which atleast 40 Hindu homes were ravaged.

The young women are yet to return to villages, as fear grips the Hindus in the area.

They are worried because those suspected of perpetrating the mayhem have not been arrested.

Worse, the Hindus now suspect that many who made up the violent mob enjoy protection of senior Awami League politicians including local MP and State Minister for Home Shamsul Hoque Tuku.

This is what has shocked them most -- how could those attacking them enjoy Awami League protection!

Tuku has also been blamed for letting the police on Awami League dissidents close to senior leader Prof Abu Sayeed, one time close confidante of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

But what about the alleged Facebook posting!

Like many similar so-called Facebook postings that inflamed Muslims and led to anti-minority violence elsewhere in the country like Ramu, this one allegedly by Rajib Saha also appeared a complete fake.

Journalists in Pabna argued that the photocopy of the Facebook ostensibly posted by Rajib was 'photoshopped' from a fake account “Innocent Rajib”.

Much like the alleged Facebook posting at Ramu in Cox's Bazar in September last year, in which hundreds of Buddhist homes were vandalised and scores of pagodas desecrated.

The miscreants in both Ramu and Santhia seem to have lost no time to loot valuables and cash in the second wave of violence following the initial fury.

Superintendent of Police (SP) of Pabna Mirajuddin Ahmed promised that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

But he was quick to add that the attackers had not been identified. Except for those who spoke to Rajib's father Babul Saha in the morning.

Have the conspirators been arrested? ‘No,’ said Babul Saha who filed the case with police.

Ataikula Police Station OC Rezaul Karim claims they have arrested several of the suspects. Three cases have been lodged including one by police for obstruction to perform duty.

Police officials told visiting civil society groups, rights activists and journalists that those named by Babul Saha have been arrested.

But Saha said he had only heard of the arrests and was not able to confirm them.

Deputy Commissioner of Pabna Ashraf Uddin explained it was a 'police matter' and progressing “very well”.

But he said the civil administration had nothing much to do, except for initiating a confidence-building process after the violence.

The victims of Bonogram, Sahaparha and Goshparha have rejected the district administration’s offer of relief of 30 sacks of rice (each weighing 28 kg).

Rajib's uncle Kartick Saha says they need protection, not rice which they can afford to buy.

Like the Buddhists in Ramu, the Hindus in Santhia want the government to compensate them for the damaged temples to facilitate reconstruction.

A RAB platoon and two platoons of armed police have been deployed in Santhia. Police presence, says the SP, will deter a repeat of Nov 2.

He added a permanent police camp will be established there.

Local journalists say minister Tuku received news of violence in 10 minutes. But he did not do enough to protect the Hindus.

A small police contingent arrived within 30 minutes after desperate phone calls from Babul Saha.

But the larger force of police and RAB came only after three hours of intense violence, the elders complain.

Most Hindu elders do not remember when they had faced violence like they did on Nov 2.

Some recollect violence during 1971 by marauding Pakistan army and their local collaborators.

As most Hindus here had fled to India for safety, they did not have any direct experience of violence -- not until Nov 2.

Like other planned attacks on religious minorities elsewhere in Bangladesh, the perpetrators targeted the house of worship to break the morale of the minorities.

It is a pattern that has often been repeated -- at Taindong (Khagrhachharhi), Ramu and Ukhia (Cox’s Bazar), Sathkira, Begumganj, Gaibanda, Lalmonirhat and other places.

But the biggest worry -- leaders of all political parties belonging to the majority community, despite their political differences, seem to take the same line of connivance or indifference when minorities are attacked.

First published in BDNEWS24.COM, 11 Nov 2013

Saleem Samad, ian Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative reporter, is a freelance contributor to

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monday formula: Who drafted Khaleda Zia press statement?


When all the talkshows in TV channels were busy arguing the most talked about proposal by opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, whether it was a Bible for the solution of ominous political crisis, some discreetly asking who have drafted the statement read out at the Monday press conference, dubbed “Monday formula”.

The sense of political crisis felt by mango people (aam janata) cannot be denied. What is going to happen(?) is a repeated question asked by people at tea-stalls, public transports and seeking opinion of sob janta office colleagues and friends.

A question remains unknown – who has actually drafted the Monday formula for the chief of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)? Why some people are asking this question, because Khaleda and her senior party leader’s statements in the past couple of weeks has not been reflected in the written statement at press conference.

A day earlier, Khaleda roared not to participate in election under Hasina and would continue her struggle for caretaker government, also declared to be lone-crusader even if she is alone to achieve the goal.

If you browse newspapers headlines what the party leaders have said, it could be found that their words and plans has not been echoed in the statement for the media.

Then who has drafted the half-hearted statement, remains a mystery even to many party leaders. BNP insiders do not claim to bemused to hear the Monday formula to the nation. The formula was not mooted at the party meeting, nor has the statement been endorsed at the helms of affairs of the party leadership. Not to mention of the sharing the Monday formula with the 18-party alliance led by BNP.

None of the leaders interviewed formally and informally by curious news reporter of both print and broadcast media, the party leaders could give a clue what is going to be said at the press conference. Despite hiccups the central leaders have less room to digest nor argue the erroneous issues crept into the Monday formula.

BNP leaders have doubts that it was drafted by former principal secretary also present adviser to party Chairperson. Why do they doubt that a bureaucrat has its hand in preparing the draft? Because the Monday formula has gross lapses and the independent Daily Star attributes the lack of political foresightness to poor home work regarding proposed formation of a polls-time administration by selecting 10 advisers from the 1996 and 2001 caretaker governments.

The popular English newspaper Daily Star concludes that given the country’s ongoing political impasse, many political analysts believe it will be almost impossible for the two political archrivals to reach an agreement over the polls-time government.

Some doubts that the beleaguered son of Khaleda Zia exiled in England has penned the outline of the draft from his ‘bilatee hawa bhaban’.

Why the finger has been pointed towards him? A simple logic is that the recent speeches and statements by Tarique Rahman have been embedded in the Monday formula. His rationalisation to ease relationship with neighbours, denouncing terrorism, good governance and apologetic approach to sensitive issues shadowed into the statement. His political foresight has been overtly reflected in the election pledges in the Monday formula.

On the other hand, the political scientists interprets that the meeting between the United States officials and Tarique was an “ice-breaking” event. This meeting took place in the wake of the U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by the Wikileaks in September 2011 that America considered Tarique as a “symbol of violence”.

Tarique’s “flagrant disregard” for the rule of law had provided potent ground for terrorists to gain a foothold in Bangladesh while also exacerbating poverty and weakening democratic institutions, mentioned the cable.

Despite the image of Tarique, her mother Khaleda Zia has left no stone to use good offices of European Union, United States, Britain, India, Japan and Canada to exert diplomatic pressure on Sheikh Hasina’s government not to harass Tarique on his return to the country. Yet no green signal has been switched from glowing red light.

Most political observers and civil society argues that based on past performances of Khaleda Zia, who was thrice prime minister and twice leader of the opposition, they do not trust her. Notwithstanding the political impasse there is a need for post-mortem of her political pledges stated in the Monday formula.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is an independent journalist and writes for international press. Email <>

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Khaleda Zia appeased every stakeholders, minus war crimes trial


Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia’s political formula was to enable to conduct the forthcoming parliament election for a democratic transition to a new elected government. The election expected in January next would decide who will govern the nation for the next five years (2014-2019). However, in a peculiar see-saw game of politics, the two rival political parties Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League, which practices dynasty politic shared power since 1991.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s televised nation address last Friday outlines a political plan to hold general election with the participation of main opposition BNP. In response to Hasina, Khaleda’s press conference on Monday reveals a non-partisan interim administration to oversee the next elections. The proposal is accompanied by political pledge for the upcoming election came amidst looming political crisis; as predicted by scores of political analysts that the nation was heading towards uncertainty.

The alternative political resolution spelled out by Khaleda has opened broad spectrum for political debate. Her statement beamed live into million homes by private satellite television channels and breaking news in deshi online news portal gave opportunity for all to review, and ponder her political dictum. For some took a step backward to be confused.

Since evening the private TV channels galore with live talkshows debated on Khaleda Zia’s election formula, the formation of so-called caretaker government application.

In brief the constitutional experts and legal professionals argue that Khaleda’s proposal will not help resolve the ongoing political stalemate.

Her suggestion to usher advisors of the 1996 and 2001 caretaker governments was not welcomed either. Both Awami League and BNP had earlier rejected the election results, blaming vote fraud, which made the caretaker government controversial.

The constitution does have room for unelected person to head a government. Only 10 percent of unelected persons can be accepted as technocrat members.

Was there nothing new in her political statement of Khaleda Zia? Of course there were two things which came as surprises to civil society, political analysts and for those intellectuals who debated in late night live TV talk shows.

Khaleda, thrice elected prime minister since 1991 has deliberately appeased the Indians, United States, European Union, the United Nations and the Muslim countries.

She did not hesitate to offer olive branches to religious minorities, specially the Hindus and was apologetic to the Bangladeshi military. Well Khaleda never said sorry to the nation since she took charge of beleaguered BNP in 1979. For the first time she sought apology for any wrongdoings during her tenure.

What causes fears about her election pledge, she also stated during the Monday press conference was a missing agenda. A vital issue is deliberately missing from her political pledge. The future of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)! She did not mention a word of the future of the ongoing trials of war crimes suspects. The fate of several war criminals waiting to walk into gallows.

Traditionally, as matter of political philosophy of the party BNP is anti-Indian and of course pro-Islamic, founded by her husband a liberation war hero General Ziaur Rahman, Bir Uttam. The General quickly scraped the trial of the ongoing war crimes trial and let go hundreds of suspected war criminals and also the convicted war criminals, who categorically belonged to Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Chattra Shibir, Muslim League and several other pro-Islamist political outfits. Zia handpicked several political leaders who literally opposed the independence of Bangladesh and elevated them to BNP leadership and even conferred them with ministerial positions. This gave opportunity of Islamist and radical Muslims to raise their heads from obscurity and show their fangs of hatred against India, the Hindus, Awami League and of course the liberation war veterans (muktijuddha).

Coming out of politics of hate, Khaleda in her press statement envisage reaching neighbours, despite trouble remains, which she believes will establish peace, stability, security and regional cooperation. BNP during their tenure in the government and also in opposition had been hostile with neighbouring India. Indian militant leaders lived comfortable life in posh residential areas of Dhaka. They ran businesses, established high schools, trucking and bus services and used Bangladesh passports to travel. Incidentally all the most-wanted militant leaders, except one were handed over to Indian authorities.

During her last unofficial visit to Delhi in 2012, Khaleda promised to help stop cross-border terrorism, refrain from opposing transit facilities with India, etc., etc. Why did good sense prevail upon Khaleda? She fervently urged Indian power-players to exert their good offices to influence Hasina to help bring back home her beloved son Tareque Rahman, the heir of BNP leadership.

The proposals by two arch political rivals Hasina and Khaleda in less than a week, the nation heaved a sigh of relief. Now the nation is unlikely to slide into political void, but uncertainty still remains. What will happen next?

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow for journalism, is an award winning investigative journalist. He is media practitioner and micro-blogger. He studied media and communication in Bangladesh and United States. He has co-authored several books.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bangladesh opposition newspaper editor arrested for cyber crime


Plainclothes detectives arrested Mahmudur Rahman, acting editor of pro-opposition daily Amar Desh on April 11 on charges of cyber crime dubbed as “Skypegate”.

Soon after he was taken out from his editorial office in Kawran Bazar this morning, in the capital Dhaka, he was driven with escorted by scores of riot police.

In the same afternoon, Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court agreed to give police 13 days remand in three cases against the editor. Police requested 24 days remand for interrogation.

The arrest was made following a case filed over Mahmudur's alleged involvement in publishing the transcript of Skype conversation in December 2012 on a High Court directive. Charges has been brought against him under sections 57 and 58 of Cyber Crime and ICT Act -2006 and sections 124, 124(a), 120(b) and 511 of the Penal Code, Deputy Commissioner of Police Masudur Rahman said.

In December 14, a case was filed against Rahman and Amar Desh publisher Hasmat Ali with Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in Dhaka for publishing the controversial Skype conversation between former International Crimes Tribunal chairman Justice Muhammad Nizamul Huq and expatriate Bangladeshi legal expert Ahmed Ziauddin.

Soon questions have been raised about the legality of hacking into Justice Huq's Skype conversation.

He was arrested after four months of the Skype scandal on the basis of evidence obtained after investigation. That is why his arrest took some time, explained office Mahmudur Rahman.

Amar Desh journalists complained that police took away footages from the close circuit cameras as well computers, CDs and files of the Acting Editor without a search warrant.

Rahman was acting editor of Amar Desh since 2008. Earlier he was energy advisor to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during the 2001-06 tenure.

Earlier Rahman was imprisoned on June 2, 2010 for six months over charges of contempt of court.

Secular groups alleged that Rahman is responsible for inciting religious sentiments against bloggers and online activists leading Shahbag Square movement demanding trial of war crimes by Islamists in 1971.

Amar Desh was held responsible by the bloggers for publishing scandalous page-one stories for depicted the bloggers as atheist and questionable loose moral characters. The Shahbag Square demanded arrest of Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman and boycott newsstand sale of Amar Desh newspaper.

Pro-opposition Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists and Dhaka Union of Journalists have condemned the arrest of the Mahmudur Rahman. The employees, journalists of Amar Desh organized a sit-down protest in front of National Press Club this morning.

Main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) criticised the arrest of Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman and said it was a clear intimidation in freedom of expression.

A statement issued on behalf of BNP leader Khaleda Zia says, “Mahmudur Rahman, the brave fighter of free thoughts and expression, has secretly been arrested. The government has insulted the memory of 1971 martyrs in the manner of this arrest because those fighters had fought for freedom of expression.”

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is an independent journalist based in Bangladesh. He is correspondent for Paris based Reporters Without Border (RSF), an international media watchdog

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Media harassed, women reporters attacked by Mullahs

TV Reporter Nadira Sharmin, convalescing after being wounded by Mullahs

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

Women reporters and TV crew were denied entry to Hifazat's rally in Dhaka. The Hifazat-e Islam not only barred women from entering its rally, but also harassed physically and mentally several female journalists covering the rally event.

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

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

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

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

The activists interrupted Financial Express Reporter Arafat Ara, near press club while she was going to office.

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

Dainik Ittefaq’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) during the assault by the Hifazat activists.

Foyzul Alam Siddique was severely beaten up by the Hifazat activists. A freelance photographer Nazrul Islam was also critically injured in the assault.

Two more journalists of SA Television (SATV) were assaulted near the venue and their camera were vandalised. Reporter Mohsin Kabir and TV crew Khurshed Alam from SATV were assaulted and Khurshed’s camera was taken away while interviewing some leaders of Hefajat-e Islam.
The Islamist activists also assaulted and injured ATN News crew Sohel Rana with sticks in front in downtown. Police officials rushed him to a police hospital for treatment.

Meanwhile in Savar, at the outskirts of the capital, TV crew Abul Halim of Baishakhi Television and Nazmul Huda of ETV. They were alleged harassed by anti-Islamist demanding trial of war crimes activists of Jahangirnagar University. They said the activists snatched away their cameras when they were shooting footage of the Hefajat’s long march being obstructed.

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

The four newsmen are: Mohim Mizan, Mainuddin Dulal, Babul Paal and Rajib Barua. Khurshed was admitted to hospital with serious wounds, while Mohsin was released after treatment.

On Sunday (7 April) scores of women reporters held a banner in front of the National Press Club in the city centre protesting the Mullahs attack, assault and humiliation. The journalist’s leaders threatened the Islamist that if the security and respect for the women reporters are compromised, they may call for boycott of news and broadcast.

Hours later to the surprise of many Hefajat-e Islam regrets attack on journalists during its rally at downtown Motijheel rally. Noor Hossain Kashemi, leader of Hefajat made the statement at a press briefing held at in the capital a day after the grand rally.

“On behalf of our leaders we express regret to the journalists who were injured by our men mistakenly,” Kashemi said. The Hefajat leaders also directed its activists not to inflict any harm to any journalists including females, he added.

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