Bangladeshi style democracy demands closer western examination

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The Awami League’s persecution of their political opponents and critics in the media is no secret to members of the U.S. Congress who should recognize it isn’t just bad governance, it makes for a poor ally of America. Violence is bad for business too and U.S. businesses appear to be reacting by leaving Bangladesh.

For many years now, leaders in Dhaka have demonstrated a willingness to engage in reasonably democratic elections, only to use the levers of power, once elected, to suppress descent and persecute the opposition in a fashion unrecognizable to most champions of democracy. The current government is no exception, but for economic, as well as security reasons, it would seem, the world audience seems more than happy to overlook Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s dangerous and reckless disregard for her own country’s domestic laws, national standards and international treaty obligations, and the resulting consequences.

A few recent and ongoing examples of this behavior come to mind: the mysterious disappearance of opposition activists like Elias Ali; the removal of Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus from his position as Chairman of Grameen Bank; the harassment and shuttering of opposition media outlets; unchecked attacks by the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB); and unprosecuted violence against women. Perhaps the most egregious example is the domestic law and treaty-violating so-called International War Crimes Tribunal, the Chief Justice of which was forced to step down last year after being caught on tape complaining about the intense pressure he was under from the government to arrive at expeditious guilty verdicts for the defendants.

The same court has been roundly condemned by the world’s leading human rights organizations as being in violation of a host of international legal and ethical standards. U.S. Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, Stephen Rapp, visited Dhaka three times since the Tribunal was created in 2010 to meet with judges and prosecutors, and to issue ten pages of recommendations for bringing the court into compliance with international law. Unfortunately, the most impactful (and arguably, most important) of his recommendations were largely ignored.

What is more disturbing though, is the apathy that the international community, foreign governments and media have shown, with a few exceptions including the commendable, if unanswered, efforts of Ambassador Rapp, toward this gross violation of human rights, and the prejudice to which the defendants and their parties have been subjected, both within and outside of Bangladesh.

Recent media accounts have irresponsibly and incorrectly compared protestors at Shahbagh Square in Dhaka to pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Shahbagh movement began as a pro-government demonstration to demand the death penalty for a prominent political opposition leader, who had been sentenced by the Tribunal to life in prison. (The government responded by amending the Tribunal to allow for appeals of life sentences in favor of death sentences.) To compare the protestors in Shahbagh to those in Tahrir Square is, first and foremost, an offense on the pro-democracy Egyptians. Secondly, it oversimplifies the complex fabric of social and political life in Bangladesh and the protest itself. The Awami League-led government of Bangladesh would certainly have us believe that the government and its supporters at Shahbagh are in a fight for “justice” against war crimes. The reality though, like much else in Bangladesh politics, is not so simple.

Politics in Bangladesh has, for decades, been characterized by deep, bitter divisions stemming back to the 1971 War of Independence. The Tribunal, too, is a volatile mix of half-baked righteousness and thinly-veiled revenge. (Just ask Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and others who’ve weighed in.) The protestors at Shahbagh could hardly be said to be “clamoring for a moderate politics.” It is true that they are clamoring. But they are clamoring for the decapitation of the political opposition ahead of elections to be held later this year.        

To be clear, the violence that has erupted in the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere as a result of these protests is indefensible. I could not possibly be more firm on that point. However, I fear that the country is doomed to repeat history indefinitely until such a time as its allies, partners and media change the posture of apathy and acceptance that they have taken toward Bangladesh’s bitterly divided politics for far too long.

International media must report with the complexity and nuance that the situation deserves, and foreign governments, including the United States, must demand better behavior from their ally. I urge all parties – including reporters, members of Congress, State Department officials and others - in the strongest possible terms to challenge these and other commissions and omissions against law, order, democracy and human rights. To the extent that members of this group have responsibility over specific policy decisions, I would urge that conversations about trade preferences, bilateral assistance and other favorable policy treatment be contingent upon tangible, measureable judicial and internal security reforms. Only then will the Bangladesh’s cycle of persecution and revenge perhaps be replaced by good governance.

Hartley is vice chairman of Cassidy & Associates in Washington, D.C. and retained by the Bangladeshi-American brother of Mir Quasem Ali who is the owner of Diganta Media and an incarcerated Tribunal defendant.