Punish the guilty, spare the innocent
I was shocked and horrified to learn of the indignities Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suffered during her illegal imprisonment by the caretaker government of 2007/2008. According to press reports, the Prime Minister's "house was searched twice," she was "arrested without any warrant," "her sick husband was pushed down," she was "dragged to jail where she had to live in a damp room, and sleep on a fragile, torn bed," and that "she was kept into solitary confinement for 11 months."
The Prime Minister's "relatives were not allowed to meet her on Eid day," and "she became sick and suffered from allergy and an eye infection, but no physician was permitted to visit her." The Prime Minister "was later shifted to the hospital from jail, but was again taken to the jail when the doctors said a blood test was needed for her." She "was transferred to the hospital again when she felt sick due to low pressure." The Prime Minister was quoted as saying, "I was not allowed to change my dress and I was taken to court."
I strongly condemn the way the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was mistreated during her illegal confinement by the caretaker government. This is no way to treat a human being, let alone the then former PM of the country. Those responsible must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and punished. Unfortunately, most Bangladeshis were unaware of the Prime Minister's ill-treatment and suffering during her imprisonment. Had I known about it, I would have certainly condemned it with the strongest language at my command.
Just as I had condemned the dastardly attack on Sheikh Hasina and her entourage in August 2004. In an opinion piece published on August 25, 2004 in The Daily Star under the caption, "Attack on Sheikh Hasina is unacceptable," my opinion piece began: "This is serious, folks! When the leader of the opposition and the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, is targeted for assassination five times this year alone, it is clear that the terrorists are determined to kill her. If the government's response is simply to "condemn" those responsible and not scour every inch of Bangladesh with the army's assistance to apprehend and punish the criminals, sooner or later, Allah forbid, the terrorists will succeed."
Some more excerpts: "Expatriate Bangladeshis are appalled at the carnage at the Awami League rally last Saturday in which the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was almost killed, and many of her top lieutenants maimed. Law and order is primarily the responsibility of the government. People elect governments so that they can live in peace and security as they pursue their livelihood. If the government cannot provide security, they fail in one fundamental responsibility they are entrusted with. To regain the people's trust, the government must ensure that anytime the leader of the opposition speaks at a location, the location is properly secured."
For the record, I have always been a huge fan of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I consider him the greatest Bangladeshi ever. I also knew Sheikh Kamal. We used to chat at the Dhaka University sports ground during 1970 and 1971. Sheikh Kamal's wife, Sultana Ahmed Khuki was my teammate on Bangladesh's national track and field team for six years (1966-71). When I learned of what happened to them and the rest of Bangabandhu's family on August 15, 1975, I was devastated, and remained distraught for days afterwards. I mention these not to curry favours, but to proffer that what I have to say, I say as a great admirer and well-wisher of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her family.
Going after the press is never a winning proposition. I have seen that movie before; it never ends well for the government that initiates the fight. First, there is a cacophony of criticism, which eventually rises to a crescendo. It is always portrayed as an unequal fight between David and Goliath – the helpless journalist vs. the mighty government.
A newspaper does not have the resources to verify allegations levelled by the nation's intelligence agencies. To what extent an editor can defy the coercion of such an agency during an emergency rule and still remain in business, I do not know. What I am pretty certain of is that The Daily Star did not cause the respected Prime Minister's imprisonment by publishing those allegations.
The caretaker government was determined to imprison premier Hasina and former premier Khaleda Zia regardless of whether The Daily Star and other newspapers published the allegations. The caretaker government should be held accountable here. Those not responsible like the editors of The Daily Star and Prothom Alo should not be prosecuted. Another question that begs to be answered: why are only the editors of The Daily Star and Prothom Alo being prosecuted? Why not the editors of other newspapers who also published the allegations?
A powerful premier can easily dispatch an editor to jail and shut down his newspaper. However, just because one can do it, does not make it right. It is unseemly for a premier to go after a newspaper editor. In America that would be derided as punching down, like President Obama going after Sarah Palin. A Prime Minister should pick fights with her political peers like a former prime minister. Newspapers only possess moral power. In the long run, moral power is powerful enough to win. Governor Monem Khan's banning of the popular Ittefaq in 1966 did not suffocate dissent; it only accelerated Bangladesh's liberation.
Freedom of press is sacrosanct in the West. Two investigative journalists from The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, brought down the presidency of President Richard Nixon, and there was nothing the mighty Nixon could do to stop them. Westerners do not take kindly to the suppression of freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.
Most expatriate Bangladeshis are very patriotic. When devastating floods hit Bangladesh in 1988, in a fit of patriotic fervour, I published an opinion piece in The New York Times in November, 1988 entitled "Bangladeshi and Proud." Most of us are apolitical, but we are very protective of Bangladesh's interests and image. We speak out only when we feel that both are being endangered.
I have known Mahfuz Anam for 25 years, and can vouch that his heart belongs entirely to Bangladesh.
Here in America, Donald Trump has insulted Latinos, women, Muslims, blacks and even the Pope. Because of Trump's instigations, mosques have been torched and vandalised, Muslims have been shot, Muslim women wearing the hijab have been punched and their hijab snatched away. Yet, not a single legal suit has been lodged against Trump by any Latino, woman, African American, Catholic or Muslim. That is the price of freedom of speech and democracy in America.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was well-known for his legendary generosity. He declared general amnesty to war criminals of 1971, except those who had been convicted. If I were so bold as to suggest something to the respected Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, I would pray that she rise above the fray, and through her magnanimity conquer everyone by stopping litigations against all newspapers, and move on to more pressing issues that confront Bangladesh. Such gestures will enhance Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's stature and reputation as one of the great statesperson of the world.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.