All in a year's work | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 04, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:30 AM, January 04, 2019

All in a year's work

22 events that defined 2018 and which have or will have far-reaching consequences for the country.

Farmers Bank loan scam

Large-scale corruption and irregularities in the privately-owned Farmers Bank have been exposed over the last year, after it was unable to pay back over Tk 852 crore in deposits to its clients. In March, Bangladesh Bank unearthed further scams involving loans of up to Tk 500 crore which were granted to firms violating banking norms and procedures, and most of which later defaulted.

The central bank had first detected scams (involving Tk 400 crore worth of loans) by the Farmers Bank in December 2017. It held former chairman Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir (also ruling party MP and former home minister) and ex-chairman of its executive committee Mahabubul Haque Chisty as the prime responsible. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which has been investigating the scam since 2017, placed Chisty and his family members, and other top bank officials on a travel embargo. In April, Chisty was also arrested in a Tk 160 crore money laundering case; he was denied bail in June.

Farmers Bank itself is also failing to recover loans of up to thousands of crores; 58 percent of its total loans were in default, as of September. The government attempted a bailout, with four state-owned banks and an investment company buying a majority of its shares, which came under much criticism for the use of public funds in bailing out a private bank.

 

 

Rape of Marma sisters

On January 22, two teenage sisters of a Marma family were allegedly raped and sexually assaulted by security forces in Orachhari village in Rangamati's BilaichariUpazila. The sisters were hospitalised a day later, where they were held under strict surveillance for more than three weeks, despite repeated requests from the sisters that they be released in the custody of Chakma Circle Chief Raja Devasish Roy. They insisted that their parents were being controlled by the powers-that-be.

A writ petition was subsequently filed by prominent rights activists asking that the sisters be released under own custody. But while this writ was pending, a second bench issued a verdict on Feb 13 saying the daughters should be placed under their parents' custody following another petition by their father.

Two days later, the Marma sisters were forcibly removed from the hospital by masked people who also attacked Chakma Rani Yan Yan and her companions. Later, it was found that the sisters had been taken to the house of a former union parishad chairman in Rangamati. The NHRC formed a three-member probe committee, nearly a month after the incident, but declared that they did not find any evidence that indicated rape, or that the Chakma Rani had been assaulted.

 

 

Ex-PM Khaleda sent to prison after found guilty of corruption

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia landed in jail on February 8 after a special court sentenced her to five years' rigorous imprisonment in the Zia Orphanage Trust corruption case. Khaleda is the second former head of government after former dictator HM Ershad to have been convicted on corruption charges. The special court also sentenced Khaleda's eldest son and BNP senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman, and four others to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment and fined them Tk 2.10 crore each.

The Anti-Corruption Commission had filed the graft case with Ramna Police Station in July 2008, accusing Khaleda and five others of misappropriating over Tk 2.10 crore that had come from a foreign bank as grants for orphans.The two trusts were set up when she was the prime minister—the orphanage trust during her 1991-1996 rule and the other in 2001-2006. Both were named after her late husband and former president Ziaur Rahman, also the founding chairman of the BNP.

Although she submitted her nomination papers, the BNP chief could not contest the 11th general elections as the High Court, on December 18, summarily rejected three writ petitions she filed challenging the Election Commission decision that upheld the cancellation of her nomination papers by returning officers. The court passed the order citing that if a person is convicted and sentenced to more than two years in prison for moral turpitude, he or she is not eligible to participate in elections in five years after serving the jail term.

 

 

Bangladesh gets 4G but downgrades to 2G from time to time

Bangladesh entered the fourth-generation mobile internet era in February 2018, with Grameenphone, Robi, and Banglalink racing to provide a 4G network to users eager for the fastest possible data speed, around 7-10Mbps. However, less than a year into its launch, it has already been suspended at least thrice by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC)—for over 36 hours before and after election day, for several days during the student protests demanding road safety, and for an hour before one SSC examination.

 

 

Zafar Iqbal stabbed in broad daylight

Professor Zafar Iqbal was stabbed in the head during a programmeat Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) on March 3. Professor Iqbal, a faculty member of the Computer Science and Engineering department at SUST, is a noted writer especially popular among young readers for his science fiction novels. Following the attack, he was brought to Dhaka in an air ambulance after primary treatment at Osmani Medical College and Hospital in Sylhet. His attacker was identified the day after as one Foyzur Rahman, a youth aged about 25. Counterterrorism officials said they believe the youth who carried out the attack could be a member of banned militant outfit Ansar al Islam. The noted writer was released from the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in Dhaka on March 14.


 

 

The reform movement that shook the nation

Protests to reform the quota system of the country had taken place in the past as well. However, the year 2018 witnessed the protestors take to the streets with more conviction and compelled the government to scrap the quota system entirely. The protests began in April when hundreds of students under the banner 'Council to Protect Students' Rights' demanded that quotas be brought down to 10 percent as opposed to the 56 percent reserved for specific groups, including 30 percent for children and grandchildren of the country's freedom fighters. The police, in retaliation, fired tear gas shells and water cannons. Gradually the protests spread to different universities.

Members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) tried to curb the movement by threatening the protestors and also beating them up during different protests. Female protestors were also verbally and physically harassed. At least 29 quota reform activists were also arrested by the police. The violence against peaceful protestors compelled guardians, teachers, and activists to take the streets to protest against the harassment of these activists. Barely a month after the protests began, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at a press conference announced that the quota system would be abolished. However, three months later the protestors took to the streets again since there was no implementation of the Prime Minister's statement. Eventually, on October 3, the government issued a gazette scrapping the quota system, rather than reforming it, as had been the students' demands. The scrapping of the quotas  entirely (originally meant to empower historically disadvantaged groups), however, led to relatively low-scaled protests by minority groups days later.

 

 

US-Bangla plane crash in Nepal kills 51, including 26 Bangladeshis

A US-Bangla flight from Dhaka crashed in Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport on March 12, in one of the deadliest civil aviation disasters in Nepal since 1992. A Nepali investigation found the captain, Abid Sultan, to be at fault as he was going through mental stress and anxiety which led to confusion over landing. In August, the first of the injured passengers and legal successors of the deceased received compensation (total to be paid out is BDT 346 million or USD 4.2 million) from the airliner's insurance.

 

 

For a digital space, Bangladesh launches Bangabandhu Satellite-1

Bangladesh entered the elite space club of 57 nations who have sent satellites into orbit, with its first commercial satellite launched to space in the early hours of May 12 (Bangladesh time 2:14am). Bangabandhu-1 will mostly cover South Asian countries and Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkestan and a part of Kazakhstan. The satellite under the Bangladesh Communication Satellite Company Limited is a Tk-2,765.66 crore project. It will offer Direct-to-Home (D2H) services, making access to worldwide TV much quicker. The satellite will make video distribution easier as well enabling broadcasters to effortlessly distribute their content to intermediaries like cable TV network operators or re-broadcasters like DTH operators. The satellite will have VSAT private networks consisting of voice, data, video and internet services to the banks, corporate offices etc. On June 6, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina revealed that the government has already started work to launch the country's second satellite–'Bangabandhu-2'–so that it could operate before the 15-year expiry time of 'Bangabandhu-1'.

 

 

“Abbu…. Why are you crying?”

Teknaf municipality councillorAkramul Haque was killed in a "crossfire" with RAB on May 26. Law enforcement officials claimed that Haque was a drug dealer and that the shootout happened during a combat operation. A week after his killing, his wife and two teenage daughters held a press briefing claiming he was killed intentionally by law enforcement. As evidence they released a call recording of Akram, his wife and his daughter moments before he died. The daughter kept repeatedly asking her father when he would come home. The councillor was heard sobbing on the phone and his daughter innocently asking him, "Dad, why are you crying?" Following gunshots, the phone call ended. The girl's naive and bewildered question captured the psyche of the general public and gave the crossfire victims a human face.

 

 

Bangladeshi teens bring the entire traffic system to its knees demanding safer roads

Barely two months after the quota reform movement began in April, the government faced another student protest. Led by students who were even younger, the movement received and wide support acclaim from the public. A race between two Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan buses led to the death of two teenagers who were waiting to go home from school. That very day, Airport Road was blocked briefly by a few hundred students. Shipping minister and transport leader Shajahan Khan's amused reaction regarding the issue the same day—he compared the death of the two Bangladeshi students to the 33 who had earlier died in a train accident in India and wondered why such a big deal was being made out of it—only added fuel to the fire. Thousands of students joined the protests from the next day onwards and demanded his resignation.

In the next two weeks, Dhaka dwellers witnessed things that they hadn't seen for a long time. Police officers and ministers driving without licenses were being stopped by children as young as eight to ten years old; an emergency lane was carved out during the protests and students were seen maintaining discipline on the roads. A week later though, men in helmets (allegedly members of the BCL) began attacking the protestors with iron rods and sticks and the protests took a violent turn. At least 150 protestors were injured and journalists were attacked as well.

As a result of the violence, the protests died out 10 days later. It compelled the government to pass the Road Transport Act 2018. Analysts though stated that the law would protect the interests of the owners and that it wouldn't make much of a difference.

 

 

100 days of solitude

Photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam was abducted from his home on the night of August 5, shortly after giving an interview to Al Jazeera,in which he criticised the government on its handling of student protests for road safety, and for posting Facebook live videos documenting the protests and the crackdown on those. Appearing in court the next day limping, Alam stated that he had been beaten in custody.

Released on bail on November 20 after 107 days in detention at Dhaka Central Jail in Keraniganj, Alam faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted on charges under the infamous section 57 of the ICT Act 2006 (amended in 2013) which penalises spreading “propaganda through social media” and “hurting the image of the state”.

 

 

Minimum wage is bare minimum indeed

The government on September 13, 2018 raised the minimum monthly wage for 4.4 million garment workers to Tk 8,000 from the existing Tk 5,300 with effect from December. While the government and factory owners celebrated this as a 51 percent wage hike, many labour leaders pointed out that the wage increase only represented an increase of 18 percent—given the five percent yearly increment that each worker is entitled to. This means that the new wage hike represents an increase of only 18 percent. Meanwhile, a study published by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) this year highlighted that the average monthly expenditure for a worker increased by a whopping 85 percent over the last five years.  Their basic salary actually decreased as a percentage of their total income. This is significant for garment workers as a lot of their benefits, including their overtime pay, is calculated on the basis of their basic.

 

 

August 21 grenade attack verdict

Two cases filed over the August 21, 2004 grenade attack at an Awami League rally in Dhaka brought in verdicts on October 10. A special tribunal found all the 38 accused guilty, including BNP senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman (currently living in exile in London) and former state minister for home Lutfozzaman Babar, of the bomb attack that killed 24 and injured scores of others. Rahman, son of ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, was given life imprisonment along with 18 others. Babar and 18 others were given the death penalty.

 

 

Jamaat over and out?

The Election Commission cancelled the registration of Jamaat-e-Islami in October, five years after a 2013 High Court verdict declaring the party's registration illegal. Nevertheless, Jamaat candidates were present at the polls as part of the BNP-led alliance. 22 out of 25 Jamaat candidates contested under 'sheaf of paddy' while three candidates ran as independents. All 22 candidates under the opposition alliance boycotted on election day due to an "unfair voting atmosphere".

 

 

#MeToo: the movement that almost happened

The #MeToo movement started on social media and spread like wildfire bringing down generations of powerful men accused of sexual harassment in 2017. More recently, the Indian media also reinforced the movement when both young promising and prominent media personalities shared their stories of sexual harassment. And soon enough, #MeToo came crashing onto the shores of Bangladesh as well. As accusations of sexual harassment against many top newsroom leaders and officials of publishing houses, among others, slowly started to flood social media, Bangladesh too—in a limited sphere—started to experience the impact of #MeToo. Survivors who spoke up were subjected to a witch hunt, their characters and motives for speaking up called into question. As yet, there has been no disclosure of any investigation findings into the #MeToo allegations against senior newsmen.

 

 

Sheikh Hasina's re-election

Up until a few months before the election, there was no viable opposition to the ruling Awami League with leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, jailed and senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman in exile. BNP had previously boycotted the 2014 elections. Eminent constitutional lawyer Dr Kamal Hossain joined the BNP-led alliance to contest the polls as Oikyafront. Scarce opposition campaigning, indiscriminate imprisonment of opposition activists, and violence marked the weeks leading up to the elections. The main opposition party claimed over 9,000 of their activists were arrested. HM Ershad, chief of Jatiya Party (the former opposition party) skipped town allegedly for a medical checkup two weeks before the elections, arriving only three days before polls day, and just in time to pull out of the race from Dhaka. 47 opposition candidates boycotted the polls before voting day and the media reported numerous claims of irregularities including vote rigging and ballot box stuffing. Outside of Dhaka, violence marred the elections with 18 people getting killed—eight among them were Awami League men. The ruling party won the election in a landslide on December 30.

 

 

Rohingya repatriation fails

Doubts over repatriation of the almost one million Rohingya refugees who fled ethnic cleansing in Rakhine, Myanmar, continued throughout the year as deadlines were pushed back and conditions unmet. The bilateral repatriation deal itself has never been made public. Initially set for January 23, a last-minute change by Naypyidaw asking for a family-wise list of refugees (instead of individual registration, as already conducted by Dhaka) meant that the process was pushed back by several months.

Bangladeshi government officials and international agencies kept proclaiming the repatriation process 'premature' as refugees were still fleeing for Bangladesh and the conditions in Myanmar were 'not yet conducive' for safe and voluntary return. Many of the refugees' original homes and villages have been destroyed or burned down by the military. Refugees who were on a list of those approved to return went into hiding as panic spread in the camps on the day set for first repatriation, November 15. Not a single Rohingya refugee agreed to return—unless citizenship, freedom of movement, and security, were guaranteed in Rakhine.

 

 

The wall has been breached

As worldwide, there have been several major data breaches in the country. The popular ride-sharing app, Pathao, was found to have stored and forwarded its users' information to a third-party server in California, the United States. The ride-sharing app has access to your SMSs and contacts, among other information from your phone. Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) also handed over the personal data of 7 crore mobile phone users in the country, collected from mobile phone companies and without user consent, to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics shortly ahead of the elections. Data sharing with third parties is banned, unless a court order has been issued or it is a matter of national security.

 

 

Assam's identity crisis

Throughout the year, the political situation in Assam, one of the eight states of north-eastern India which shares a border of 263 kilometres with Bangladesh, remained extremely volatile due to the “illegal migrants” issue. On July 30, the final draft of the National Register of Citizensof Assam (NRC) was published. Roughly around four million people, of which 3.2 million were Muslims, did not make it to the list. They were essentially declared “illegal citizens” by the Indian government. Increasing demand of the deportation of these people to Bangladesh, from certain Indian political parties, has been rocking Assam since the release of the final draft. On the other hand, human rights organisations and Islamic organisations fear a humanitarian crisissimilar to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, if the deportation goes ahead. However, the authorities stated that there would not be any deportation based on the final draft as excluded residents would get a chance to appeal with the NRC and could approach the courts. However, as of now, the fate of these four million people hangs in the balance.

 

The act that muzzled Bangladesh

The highly controversial Digital Security Bill 2018 was passed on September 19 ignoring concerns of journalists, owners of media houses, andhuman rights activists. The United Nations and European Union and many countries all over the world including the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland expressed their concern over this suppressive act and urged revision of its oppressive sections before passing the bill. However, no changes were made to sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43 of the draft act which pose serious threats to freedom of expression and media operations. For instance, according to section 32, one of the most debated sections of the act, if a person commits any crime or assists in committing crime as defined by the British-era Official Secrets Act, 1932, through any sort of digital device or network, s/he may face 14 years of imprisonment or a fine of Tk 25 lakh or both. Several citizens including journalists have already been arrested under this act. On the first day of this year, two journalists were detained and sued under this act for “spreading false information on elections results.”

 

 

The war on drugs… and people

From the beginning of April, crossfires with the police and the RAB took on a more menacing form with drug dealers dropping like flies every day. A total of 261 alleged drug dealers were killed in shootouts between then and now. The stories were the same for most of the cases. The law enforcers chance upon a group of drug dealers, and the latter, upon sensing the presence of the police, fire back. The victim in question dies during that episode of crossfire. This storyline has been widely criticised by human rights organisations at home and abroad. Families also alleged that law enforcers arrested the crossfire victims concerned beforehand, and that they died in custody. Beyond the killings, law enforcers also cracked down on drug dealers in general— raiding low-income neighbourhoods and arresting in huge numbers.

 

 

In remembrance

Bir Protik Taramon Bibi died at the age of 61 at her residence in Rajbpur upazila in Kurigram.  She breathed her last on December 1, the same month the country achieved the freedom she too had fought for in 1971. She would observe the positions of the Pakistani army in different areas and pass on the information to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters for whom she worked as a cook during the Liberation War. Priyabhashini died of cardiac arrest on March 6 in Dhaka. Born in 1947, in the district of Khulna, she started sculpting when she lived in Jessore during 1984-1988. During the Liberation War, she was abused by members of the Pakistani army and after the end of the war, valiantly spoke of her ordeal in public.

Ayub Bachchu—Bangladesh's rock legend, prominent singer, composer and founder of musical band LRB—died of a heart attack in Dhaka at the age of 56 on October 18. Renowned photographer and cinematographer Anwar Hossain, aged 70, died in Dhaka on December 1. Winner of multiple National Film Awards, filmmaker, director and actor Amjad Hossain passed away in Dhaka on December 14.

 

PHOTOS AND IMAGES: STAR FILE, REUTERS

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