‘The government survives as hostages in the hands of law enforcement agencies’ Saiful Huq politician and social activist (Saiful Huq studied Economics at the University of Dhaka. He became involved in student politics in 1967. He was among the first of few politicians who opposed the military takeover by Gen. Ershad in 1982. He is currently serving as the General Secretary of the Revolutionary Workers Party of Bangladesh from 2004.) Article 2: Where does democratization in Bangladesh stand today? Saiful Huq: The goal of our Liberation War in 1971 was to build a secular, humane state – free from discrimination and exploitation. When the constitution was written in 1972, provisions for the rights of human beings were cited. But, for the last 43 years, the people of Bangladesh have been repeatedly deceived by the governments. At present, what is going on in Bangladesh in the name of democracy is totally undemocratic. It is communal towards smaller ethnicities, a unilateral authoritarian, power-greedy system of governance. By commissioning the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution, the present government has put the last nail in the coffin of the democratic system in our country. Now, any constructive criticism of the government is considered seditious. This can be termed as the legitimatization of fascism. So, what the incumbent government is doing in the name of democracy, is nothing but state-fascism. It can also be called constitutional absolutism. Article 2: Is there any difference between on-going politics and the aspirations of the people? Saiful Huq: The government has extremely limited the people’s right to vote in the January 5th election. Winning 153 parliamentary seats, uncontested, is unprecedented in the history of the world. After the ‘election’ the government claimed that the turnout was 40%. In fact, the reality is that the government does not get its mandate from 90% to 95% of the people of Bangladesh, but from a small minority. Despite this fact, the government claims to be ‘democratic’. In the last election, the people either boycotted the vote or defied the election. A government of any form requires a minimum legitimacy, which comes from the support of the people. However, in general, this government does not have any support from the people. Not only this, but the government stands on a pyramid of lies, which has been proven in print. One of the truths of today is that, in fact, there is no opposition [to the government in parliament]. Article 2: To what extent has militarization contributed to making Bangladesh what it is today? Saiful Huq: Militarization and democracy cannot exist together. Militarization was started in our country during the time of Ziaur Rahman. It was institutionalized by Ershad. In 1990, a people’s uprising ousted Ershad, who was a military dictator. But, it cannot be claimed that we succeeded in ousting militarization completely. Since the post-Ershad era, every regime has continued militarization internally, but in a less visible manner. An example would be the posting of military officers in important civilian offices and termed as ‘deputation’ or ‘contractual’ appointments. Practically, the truth is that none of the past regimes were free from the olive color skins [sic]. About six months before General Ershad’s coup, we observed that a certain notion was circulating throughout the general public via the media. Basically, it was that military rule is essential for sustainable development in a third world country like Bangladesh. A group of theoreticians endorsed this notion at the time. Even today, we see love of military rule among people of different walks of life in Bangladesh. The concept of military bourgeois rule is dangerous for a democracy. a detailed list of the items purchased, has never been available to any of the Parliamentary Committees. But, yes, it is also true that certain military-related information is sensitive and cannot be made public. But, proportionately it is a small part. No one in our government has attempted to be transparent about military information. One of the reasons for doing so is to be able to continue the flattery of the military- done well by all the regimes. Often, military forces have been used to implement the political agenda of the people. Whenever a regime realized that they had become isolated from the people, they kept the military on alert and certain elite forces were used for repressing the people. Members of the military forces have been brought together to constitute an elite force like the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The bad deeds of this force ensured that the entire military force is still criticized and stigmatized for such actions. Constitutionally, the military is supposed to be used for protecting the interests of the country. They have no right to go against the people. The abuse of the army as a political weapon has created questions about the role of the military itself within the force. Soldiers and officers in the military have understood this reality, and I believe, do not want to be in such a situation, yet, they do nothing Article 2: Has violence in politics and the use of excessive force by state agencies against political groups become inseparable? Saiful Huq: At present, the people do not believe any version of government communications, regardless of the format used, be it ‘press note’, ‘statement’, ‘announcement’, ‘notice’ or ‘speech’. This situation arose because the government either lies to the people, or hides the truth from the public. A civilized state cannot develop in such an environment. We have heard that government agencies investigate incidents of extrajudicial murders and take necessary action against the perpetrators-or so the government claims. But, such information has never been made public. The public has never been informed as to who the perpetrators were that had been punished for their criminal actions. Also not known are the content of the so-called internal inquiries; were all the stories as true as the agencies claimed? It is often heard that the so-called criminals are taken out by law-enforcement agencies for ‘operation’. These are ambushed ‘criminals’, whose intention is to rescue their detained partner and attack the state agents. In self-defence, the police or RAB open fire, killing the ‘criminals’. In Bangla language, there is a term called ‘Asharey Golpo’, which means a bogus story told in the month of Ashar. Now, we are told the same ‘Asharey Golpo’ throughout the whole year. I have not seen any fundamental difference between the incumbent Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) led regime and the regime led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), or others, in terms of extrajudicial killings. The number of extrajudicial killings was less during the regime led by Fakhruddin and Mainuddin; however, it increased in 2009. Recently, the BNP has been speaking out against on-going secret killings, disappearances, and ‘crossfire’ killings, because, their party leaders and activists have been victims of these incidents. Previously, they did not speak out on these very same issues. Article 2: How much freedom of association, freedom of movement, and freedom to hold public rallies and meetings is granted to opposition activists and dissidents? Saiful Huq: Our freedom of expression exists only on paper. One example of this is the Information and Communications Technology Act. On the other side of the coin, there is the surveillance of people being conducted in this country that is incompatible with democratic structures and norms. There is no reason to accept this as a ‘positive’ trend. The government is denying the people’s right to hold rallies and meetings, using the excuse of ‘public safety’. Opposition parties are limited in what business they are allowed to conduct. They may not do anything that will harm the regime continuing in office. Even peaceful and logical criticism from the opposition is not tolerated. Our citizens are hemmed in and suffocated by this form of autocracy. Article 2: Do political parties keep their pledges to establish the rule of law once they assume office? Saiful Huq: Bangladesh’s political parties make many public pledges prior to elections; they talk about the rule of law. After winning the election and once they assume office, they forget all about their pledges. There are many reasons for this behavior. But first and foremost is the reality that they do not care about the people. Their interest lies in continuing in office, not in making progress or developing the county. Assuming office means rampant looting of public wealth. In simple terms, those in power are the kings and queens, and those not in power are beggars. Governmental power, as it is exercised in Bangladesh, has relationships with political parties. This relationship is centered on having power and acquiring wealth. Civil servants do not have the interest of the public at heart. Some individuals and groups use their power to accumulate money at a fast pace. Their actions resemble the character and attitude of the East India Company, who exploited the wealth of India to enrich London with money and assets. In our country, the policymakers, in fact, see the country as a looting ground. We hear from different sources that in the last 43 years some 50 thousand billion taka have been taken out of the country and laundered abroad. The business and savings of many policymakers are also preserved abroad. Article 2: Have the criminal justice institutions become independent and professional. Saiful Huq: The independence of the judiciary and the criminal justice institutions is a long cherished dream of the people. It has been implemented on paper, not in reality. We observed that justice is not achieved even in the higher judiciary-the last resort. And why is that? We see in the higher judiciary that the judges are appointed because of their political identities. Professionalism doesn’t enter into the equation. As a result, these judges have to think about the intentions of the government – who they want to detain in prison and who they want to set free. The judiciary often pronounces its judgments considering the wishes of the political regime in power. Prior to the election, the BAL declared that, if they were in power, opposition leaders would not be imprisoned. The BNP boycotted the election, and the BAL government started arresting and detaining their members. The courts rarely granted bail. Does this indicate that the judiciary is independent? How did the BAL leaders know that the BNP leaders would be granted bail by the courts if they decided to join the election? The judiciary has to become the last resort for the people. They can only be a last resort if they come out from under the control of the executive branch of the state. Article 2: Did the politics of post-independent Bangladesh, the military, and the bureaucracy prevent the independence of the judiciary? Saiful Huq: Most certainly! Since independence, on-going politics, the military, and the bureaucracy have prevented the independence of the judiciary during the post-independence era. We have observed for the last four decades that the political parties talk about the independence of the judiciary. But in practical terms, they do not want the judiciary to become independent. And to achieve this end, we see political parties cultivating friendly attitudes towards the judiciary. Such bureaucratic politics is disastrous not only to the independence of the judiciary but also to furthering democracy. As judges are appointed because of their political allegiance, we should scrutinize what the government expects from them. However, in all this, I am not saying that every judge is politically biased. In 2007, to a certain extent, the government separated the judiciary branch from the executive branch following public pressure and to fulfill pledges made to the people. But, this independence merely exists on paper. Now, I will focus on the military and civilian bureaucracy. These composite, self-centered groups keep up an indirect influence on the judiciary as they cannot always maintain a direct influence over them. In the past, military regimes have made the judiciary their first targets. The judiciary, which is supposed to uphold the freedom of our citizens and the supremacy of the constitution, has been used by the military as its means of retaining power. Some retired and senior judges have supported military rule and have functioned as advisors and even President of the republic. Judicial independence has not yet been fully achieved because the truth is the backbone of our judiciary is not strong enough. Article 2: What is the difference between the disappearances and ‘secret killings’ that occurred before and during the independence movement and that which occurs today? Saiful Huq: A different trend has been observed in the pattern of extrajudicial killings. In one word, disappearances are on the increase. Earlier, a great deal of public attention was drawn to extrajudicial killings done under the pretext of ‘crossfire’. The people were sensitized and concerned about crossfire killings and the situation required the government to release an official statement about individual, crossfire killings. In the cases of disappearances, the government appears to take no responsibility for them. In the government’s version, non-state agents are responsible for the disappearances. If we accept this, and they are telling the truth, then the government should not have any objection to public demands for independent commissions to investigate the matter. But, why does the government object, ignoring the need of forming a Commission who could investigate and indict the perpetrators? Let’s assume that someone is arrested. Afterwards, the dead body of the arrested person is found floating somewhere. In such a circumstance, who should be responsible to investigate this murder? Who is the responsible entity among the police, the RAB, the BGB [Border Guards, Bangladesh], Army soldiers, or a private party? We don’t know. Who gives the green signal for such murders? Article 2: What is your opinion about endemic custodial torture, extrajudicial execution, and the government’s oft-quoted excuses of ‘crossfire’ and ‘gun battle’? Saiful Huq: I would not say torture is ‘endemic’. Rather, it is correct to say that torture is a matter of great concern. I wish to raise the matter of torture in the name of remand. In the past, we knew that, after being arrested, a detainee is supposed to be safe in police custody. Now, that knowledge has been proven wrong. People are being killed in ‘safe custody’ today. The state has become the murderers. Now, elections are not required for assuming power. Our Parliament is not effective. The government controls the media. They even decide who participates in which television talk shows and who does not. Article 2: Why do perpetrators of gross human rights abuse – personnel of various state agencies – enjoy impunity, despite public pledges by political parties to bring the perpetrators to justice? Saiful Huq: Extrajudicial killings and impunity for crimes cannot be operative in any civilized or democratic country. In Bangladesh, whenever the ruling political parties have been unpopular and isolated from the people, they have been dependent on state agencies to take action. Regimes have given license to state agents to kill people, guaranteeing impunity to the killers. As the regimes’ isolation from the people increases, the culture of impunity becomes more complex. When state’s forces kill people, the victims’ relatives are prevented from registering complaints. This state of affairs cannot continue! Due to a culture of impunity, governmental isolation from the people has given law-enforcement agencies the freedom of doing and un-doing whatever they wish. The government survives as hostages in the hands of these law-enforcement agencies. Both groups have their own interests in such a culture of impunity. We often see that investigating committees are made to investigate the crimes of these forces. However, the investigators belong to the same forces in question. Such investigations yield nothing but a conflict of interest! The people have their own insights. They do not believe that the truth behind the RAB’s crimes will ever be revealed by RAB’s own officers. As to extrajudicial killings, I once personally questioned one of our Law Ministers. I said, “I witnessed law-enforcement agencies killing my father and brother. Now, by imposing the indemnity ordinance you are preventing me from filing cases against the perpetrators; who gave you such authority?” I did not receive an answer. Article 2: Is the global paranoia about growing Islamic militancy in Bangladesh true? Saiful Huq: We have to admit that there are varied activities of different militant groups in our country. But, the way it has been presented – the perspective is political. During the BNP-led regime the activities of the JMB [Jama’yetul Muzahidin Bangladesh] operated with state assistance. Later, when actions of the [JMB] were out of control, the government checked them. The way the incumbent regime is presenting Bangladesh, as a militancy-prone terrorist nation, is ludicrous in the extreme. It is doing this for the purpose of gaining support and cooperation from the USA and other European countries. There are reasons for the growth of militancy. They are lack of education, poverty, unemployment, frustration, and severe forms of class-exploitation. None of our governments have identified these reasons, nor have they initiated any programs for removing these existing problems. Beside this [reality] someone is being handcuffed as a militant. It is not a solution. It must be remembered that militancy is driven by ideology. Such ideology cannot be defeated by handcuffs alone. In order to gain the upper hand in this situation, we need to defeat the regime by encouraging the general populace in a progressive and class-exploitation-free manner, in the spirit of the war of liberation. Article 2: How can people be attracted to a true form of constructive politics? Saiful Huq: I am always optimistic. Despite all our problems, I think that the time to do this is not yet over. My hope is that some day the voices of the ordinary people, will eventually reach the ears of the government. The people will become vocal in their demands. On that day, Bangladesh will move forward. Article 2: How can the state be constituted, incorporating a functional rule of law and a flourishing democracy? Saiful Huq: I think by holding the latest election, problems have increased. Instead of solving them, they have made them more complicated in the long run. The government should, as soon as possible, inaugurate some forms of self-criticism and self- realization about how things are. Dialogues should be arranged immediately to move towards solving the political crisis. Any failure to do so will change the fate of the people into a greater disaster. Article 2: Are there any other additional comments that you wish to add? Saiful Huq: I believe in the value of a heightened people’s awareness. Those who love democracy and peace are becoming more aware of this reality. Our state has lots of problems. These problems have not grown up overnight. Likewise, they cannot be changed overnight. The good thing is that people’s positive thoughts are flourishing day-by-day; the space for a heightened consciousness is increasing. This mass-awareness may well turn into a mass-protest. This is the ray of hope we rely on. It is the duty of the political parties’ to unite the scattered voices of the people. Take for example, the people of Narayanganj, where their reaction put the RAB on a different footing. It is not true that people will protest only after being pushed to the wall. We have seen in Narayanganj that the people who were not directly affected have also taken to the streets; they too protested. And millions of people in Bangladesh will not commit suicide because of on- going frustration. For the sake of existing as a human being, for the sake of a future, for the sake of creativity, they will be aware and protest.