In the Shadow of the Torturer
Human rights are being violated
with scarcely a whisper from the West
by Jeremy Seabrook
New Internationalist magazine,
The images of the soldiery of deliverance
torturing prisoners in Iraq have cast long shadows. That the US,
triumphal bearer of universal values, should have abused detainees,
signals to authoritarian governments that the persecution of enemies
within, real or imaginary, is unlikely to provoke an outcry from
defenders of freedom, whose own frailties have now been advertised
to the world.
A second consequence is that, with the
overwhelming publicity generated by the public contrition of the
US, the spotlight has been removed from regimes which habitually
violate human rights, or practise extra-judicial killings and
The pictures of Iraqi humiliation have
thrown into obscurity unrecorded coercions in dungeons, cellars
and torture-chambers of countries which have benefited from a
novel kind of liberation; namely, any need to account for their
actions. The obscene imagery of the photographers of military
sadism has eclipsed abuses of people in other corners of a darkening
world. These appear insignificant compared with the epic irregularity
in which the West has been found out: its preachings to those
whose destiny it had been to chastise sound suddenly empty.
Bangladesh, to the Western media a distant
land, known chiefly for its cheap garments, the export of its
labour and its cyclones and floods, in which ferry-boats regularly
capsize killing a few hundred people (one such incident, which
drowned 200 people on 22 May, went unmentioned in the press) has
faded from view. On 21 May, however, the British High Commissioner
was injured in a bomb blast at a shrine in Sylhet, in which five
people were also killed. This registers faintly on the monitors
of Western intelligence as an example of the violent disorder
into which the country is falling. The despatch of officers from
Scotland Yard to investigate the explosion failed to trace the
source of the outrage, since this lies with increasing fundamentalist
influence in that country.
Militant vigilantes, led by an elusive
commander called Bangla Bhai and protected by the police, have
been killing 'outlaws' in the north of the country. The Government
denies the presence of Islamic militants in Bangladesh, but the
Jama'atul Mujahedin Bangladesh, the youth front of Harqatul-Jihad
- an al-Qaeda organization banned in neighbouring countries and
blacklisted in the US - claims to have 100,000 members operating
across the country. A series of bomb attacks on secular cultural
and political gatherings left more than 140 people dead between
1997 and 2004.
Earlier this year the Government banned
all publications of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect, which accepts
Muhammad as the last prophet but not as the final emissary of
Allah into the world. Its mosques were threatened by zealots as
the sites of heretical worship. journalists who 'tarnish the image'
of Bangladesh have been routinely murdered. A popular Opposition
MP was shot during a political rally in May 2004, which the Government
airily dismissed as 'an internal struggle' of the Opposition.
At the same time, abductions, kidnappings, shootouts - often involving
the 'student wing' of the ruling party - increase the sense of
insecurity in the country. In Chittagong it is reported that,
on average, five businesses come under criminal attack each day
in the city.
Proshika, one of the largest non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, dedicated to secularism, human
rights and the social and economic empowerment of women, has been
targeted by the Government ever since it came to power in October
2001. The funds of Proshika were blocked, under pretext of 'financial
irregularities'. Following a nationwide general strike by the
Opposition, which had threatened to topple the Government at the
end of April 2004, Proshika was accused of complicity, its premises
raided, its offices besieged by Government supporters and its
president, Dr Qazi Faruque Ahmed, and Deputy, David William Biswas,
arrested and held incommunicado. At the end of June 2004 six leaders
of Proshika were charged with 'sedition'. It is significant that
while in Saudi Arabia in June 2004 the authorities decided upon
closer scrutiny of Al-Haramain for its suspected links to militant
groups, Bangladesh was doing precisely the opposite - crippling
NGOs whose purposes are with human rights and secularism. Al-Haramain
continued to operate freely in Bangladesh.
In May 2004 Christina Rocca, US Under-Secretary
for South Asian Affairs, visited Dhaka and expressed concern that
the tradition of Bangladesh as a 'moderate Muslim society' was
going 'off-track'. In keeping with the report issued by Amnesty
International, she complained to the Government that 'no great
effort' was being made 'to end attacks on journalists and deaths
in police custody'.
The first person arrested from Proshika
was Abdur Rob, a man I have known well for many years and who
helped me write my book about Bangladesh, Freedom Unfinished.
Deputy head of the Cultural Section of Proshika, he was detained
and tortured in prison and signed a 'confession' that Proshika
had been in conspiracy with the Awami League
Opposition to topple the Government. In
court he stated that the confession had been extracted under duress.
He was removed to another prison, where the treatment he received
resulted in his being hospitalized.
Only in Bangladesh would the head of the
cultural department of an NGO be arrested and charged with a bewildering
and shifting range of offences - treason, sedition, conspiracy.
Abdur Rob was a freedom fighter in the liberation war of Bangladesh
in 1971. As a young air force officer under training in the then
West Pakistan, he stole out of the country and made his way home
to what was soon to become a free Bangladesh. The war, in which
India intervened on the side of the Bengalis, involved one of
the major slaughters of people in the massacre-prone 20th century.
Perhaps two million people were killed; even today, bones are
still being uncovered in the fields of Bangladesh.
Culture in Bangladesh has a special resonance
because the country has been, ever since Independence, engaged
in a low-intensity - though often violent - cultural civil war.
Broadly, the struggle is. between those who identify primarily
as Bengalis and those who identify chiefly with Islam. In the
current government the Bangladesh National Party is in an alliance
with Islamic parties, notably the Jama'at e Islami which fought
on the side of the Pakistanis in 1971 against the freedom of Bangladesh.
It is, in part, the new-found confidence of the Islamic fundamentalists,
nourished by what they perceive as a global war on Muslims - Iraqis,
Afghanis, Palestinians, Chechens - that has led to growing persecution
of minorities, secularists, pluralists and defenders of human
rights. Indeed, immediately after the election of 2001, outrages
were committed against Hindus, including rapes, killings and evictions.
When writer and filmmaker Shahriar Kabir exposed this, he was
arrested, beaten and held incommunicado for two months.
The irreconcilable antipathy between the
Bangladesh National Party and the Awami League is both cultural
and dynastic. Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, undisputed Awami League
leader at the time of liberation in 1971, expected to inherit
a 'golden Bengal': socialism and secularism, democracy and nationalism
were written into the Constitution. He and most of his family
were murdered in 1975. After a brief interregnum, Zia ur Rahman
took power on behalf of the military. He formed the Bangladesh
National Party but was himself assassinated in 1981.
A decade of military dictatorship deleted
socialism and secularism from the Constitution. With the return
to democracy in 1991 Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia ur Rahman and now
leader of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), came to power.
She was defeated in 1996 by the Awami League whose leader, Sheikh
Hasina - the surviving daughter of Mujib ur Rahman - became Prime
Minister. The BNP regained power in the election, of October 2001,
in alliance with the fundamentalist Jama'at e Islami. Since the
war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the neglect by the great
powers of the conflict in Israel, their connivance at Putin's
war in Chechnya, militancy in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the
Muslim world, has continued to grow.
As it is, the two bereaved, embittered
women confront each other: implacable, tyrannical, like medieval
warlords, neither recognizing the legitimacy of the other, even
following electoral victory. The Awami League Opposition, like
the BNP before it, has not participated in Parliament. Instead,
again mirroring the tactics of its opponents, it has relied upon
hartals - day-long strikes that close down all economic activity
and originally a weapon against the British - which their supporters
enforce with threats and violence. Bangladesh is the country which
Transparency International has consistently found to be the most
corrupt of all those it has examined. In Bangladesh 70,000 people
die of TB annually and three million people are addicted to drugs,
while literacy is a bare 40 per cent. In the United Nations Development
Index Bangladesh stands 139th out of 175 - slightly above Congo
and Togo; but below that bastion of human well-being, Sudan. Even
the World Bank states that crime, corruption and disorder are
seriously hampering the country's development.
It should not surprise us that the West
remains silent on abuses in Bangladesh or, indeed, in any other
of the cloudy places sheltered by the 'war on terror' and abuse
of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. For the role Bangladesh is called
upon to play in the world contains another ugly little secret.
Cohn Powell called Bangladesh 'an eloquent, compelling and greatly
needed voice for moderation in the world'. Its symbolic role is
to prove that the US has no animus against Muslims. This offers
another compelling reason to disregard its human rights violations.
The consequences of the strategy in Iraq
are immeasurable. Even though people rarely vote for communalism
and intolerance, as the sagacious electors of India showed in
May 2004, governments all over the world are using the scarlet
T to brand dissent and delegitimize opposition - secular and humanistic
or Islamic, socialist or liberal, according to the survival needs
of governments. The lineaments of the new order become daily clearer.