'In Bangladesh, democracy was not allowed to take root'
Sultana Kamal, lawyer and human rights activist, member of CPD board of trustees, former Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra, and former advisor to the caretaker government of Bangladesh, talks to Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star about the upcoming national elections and the state of human rights in Bangladesh.
In a report released on October 19, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern over the government taking a number of steps ahead of the national elections which it believes will have "a chilling effect on speech". What are your thoughts on their assessment?
In your question you have not spelled out what exactly are the steps taken by the government ahead of the national elections that the HRW is fearing will have a chilling effect on people's freedom of expression. I presume they are referring to the random, arbitrary arrests of social activists as well as the members and supporters of the opposition political parties and implicating them in anti-State cases. They have been very random as many of the accused in such cases are known to have died already. These cases have been termed as "ghost cases".
Police excess in controlling meetings and rallies of the opposition could also be an example here. In our current political culture where there is every reason to believe that police actions normally are manifestations of the wish of the ruling party, the Human Rights Watch quite justifiably sees these as steps taken by the government to have serious effect on people's freedom of expression.
In addition to the above, the other concern the Human Rights Watch may have in mind over which we could not agree with them more, obviously relates to the passing of the Digital Security Act (DSA). This Act, as had been promised by the government, was supposed to replace the previously passed ICT Act, Section 57 of which was notoriously misused by the government and its supporters to stop dissent and shun any criticism against them. It is worrying to note that even after passing the DSA, the cases filed under Section 57 of the ICT Act remain in force.
Coming back to the DSA, Bangladesh now has this regressive Act giving police unlimited power, as illustrated in a write up of the Sampadak Parishad, "to enter premises, search offices, bodily search persons, seize computers, computer networks, servers, and everything related to the digital platforms." Aided by this Act the police on the ground can arrest anybody even on suspicion without warrant—not requiring to seek approval of any authorities. It's worth remembering that the responsible ministers of the government under the pressure of concerned citizens and journalists sat with the Sampadak Parishad with a view to review the Act but unfortunately did nothing to bring the desired changes. This kind of dependence of the government on police is most unbecoming of a democracy.
This attitude of the government of demonstrating its will to not allow people to speak their minds without fear sends serious signals to everyone concerned. It has a far-reaching effect in curbing people's freedom of expression and other civil liberties, eventually negatively influencing them in freely exercising their right to vote during the elections. In a weak democracy like Bangladesh where political parties are not sure of their power base, all parties in power across the border unfortunately tend to follow the same strategy of silencing the people's voice by taking such actions.
It may not be out of context to note here that the dialogues that were held in the meantime among the opposing political alliances ended without any conclusive decision. This happened, in my opinion, due to the lack of political will of the main parties to use the opportunity to seriously dedicate their focus and everything else towards holding a free and fair election. From what we gather from the media, the parties were more determined in re-asserting what they have been saying to each other in their public speeches rather than discussing ways to meet the election challenges posed in front of them.
Over the last months, we have seen a number of police cases being filed against leaders and activists belonging to opposition political parties. Some of them were filed against individuals who were abroad at the time they are said to have committed a crime, or who had earlier passed away. What effect can this have on voter confidence?
Well, people mainly depend on the police for safety and security on the day of polling. It is the police that is entrusted with the sacred duty of ensuring an atmosphere for the voters to feel confident that the election is being held in a free and fair environment where they can cast their votes without the fear of their votes being rigged or manipulated—physically or technically. It is therefore important that they find people with integrity around them for the desired protection.
Police actions, as described in your question, certainly have a negative impact in the confidence level of voters which manifests in the fear and anxiety expressed by them in relation to the election time. This is particularly true of the religious and ethnic minorities, women and supporters of the opposition parties who, without exception, become victims of violence and have their rights violated in the pre, during as well as post-election periods. In the past, we have seen these people not being given timely or proper protection by the police.
In your view, have the different political parties been emphasising enough on human rights in their appeal to voters?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not only in their appeals to voters, in general even, as it seems from the discourses of the different political parties, human rights are placed quite low in their list of priorities. In their appeal to voters the emphasis of the different political parties is on development which, to many, lacks reflection of human rights values to a considerable extent.
As I said earlier, the aim of the political parties is to win the elections at any cost. Unfortunately, our elections with very few exceptions have been characterised by dependence on money, muscle and manipulation. In such an atmosphere, human rights is not given a fair chance.
Only recently in one of the TV talk-shows, a very high-ranking police officer when asked to comment on remarks made by human rights activists about escalation of human rights violation in the country, responded by saying that he finds these comments "irritating and ridiculous". Such statements coming from a high-ranking police officer clearly demonstrate the degree of apathy and disrespect officers and politicians have towards human rights. Promotion and protection of human rights evidently are placed in subordination to all other priorities of the power centric political culture that the political parties have embraced so dearly.
Rights violations have taken place under every regime. Even though we've seen the party in power change, why is it that we don't see any meaningful improvement in the government upholding the basic rights of citizens?
It all depends on the state of democracy in a society whether the State will seriously dedicate itself to upholding the basic rights of the citizens. In Bangladesh, historically, because of repeated interference by undemocratic forces in political processes, democracy was not allowed to take root in society.
Hence we are confronted with socio-political and cultural conditions that permit the State to undermine the norms of human rights without having to answer for the lapses. This was originally facilitated by the rehabilitation of the anti-liberation forces accused of war crimes in every sphere of our life. They were not simply allowed to return to the country but were rehabilitated with power and opportunities to infiltrate into our political, social and economic fabric, and to mould our culture to embrace the character of intolerance towards the "others". The fundamental principle of respect for equal rights and dignity of all somehow ceased to bear much value to the power centric political forces. Which is why we do not see any meaningful improvement in the government upholding the basic rights of citizens.