Why is Bangladesh Silencing Political Dissent?

Former prime minister Khaleda Zia's trial lacked transparency and fairness. The court, many in Bangladesh believe, became a legal tool of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to silence, banish and physically remove her political opponents.

Posted on 02/24/18
By Mohammad Zainal Abedin | Via ViewsWeek
Former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment following a controversial trial has removed all political opposition to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. (Photo by Syed Zakir Hossain, via Dhaka Tribune)

The conviction and imprisonment of Bangladesh’s former prime minister Khaleda Zia on corruption charges have proved once again that law and justice are confined to the whims of those who control state power. Her conviction comes amid identical charges against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is not facing any prosecution since all such charges were withdrawn after she came to power in 2008.


Hasina’s critics believe that the imprisonment of Khaleda Zia was perpetrated by her internal political foes and external hegemonic bullies who, in the words of one analyst, are scared of and intolerant to the nationalist forces. Bangladeshi opposition says Zaia’s imprisonment suffers from many drawbacks and loopholes that made it unacceptable to Bangladeshis.


Khaleda Zia’s trial lacked transparency and fairness. The accusers, investigators, judges all belonged to the ruling Awami League (AL) party who never hid their bias towards Begum Zia. No State machinery, including the judiciary, is independent or free from government influence and interference in Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina. Like communist’s dictatorial one-party one-person regime everything is controlled by her. It is alleged and repeatedly proved that judges act according to the dictates of the government, as most of the judges are the former cadres of AL. Their promotion depends on their pro-AL and pro-government performance. If any verdict goes against the government, the concerned judges must face unpredictable consequences.


Even the country’s Chief Justice S. K. Sinha of Bangladesh was forced to go on leave and eventually resign as his verdict on the 16th amendment of the constitution went against the government. The fate of Sinha scared other judges. Observers say the verdict against Begum Zia was “fair”, as the judges couldn’t defy the government to imprison her. The verdict was pre-designed, ever pre-planned. Prime Minister Hasina and her beneficiaries had repeatedly threatened Begum Zia much earlier that she would be put in jail. The court, in reality, became a legal tool of Sheikh Hasina to silence, banish and physically remove her political opponents.


The corruption charges against Begum Zia failed to get people’s support, as under AL government corruption is an open secret in Bangladeshi society. No branch of Bangladesh is free from corruption. Sheik Hasina let loose corruption throughout the country. Independent sources opine that a person may get away with any crime if you belong to the ruling party. AL cadres from top to bottom are submerged in corruption and remain free from any legal action.


Some of the widely discussed corruption committed under the Sheikh Hasina regime dismayed the nation, but none of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice as they belonged to the ruling party.


In 2010-11 they looted $197,590,361 from the country’s stock market that ruined 3.3 million investors. Three thousand core Taka were stolen from the Basic Bank by Bachu Sheikh, a close kin of Sheikh Hasina. No case has yet been lodged against him. According to the confession of Finance Minister Abul Mal Abdul Mohit, a pro-India AL activist Abul Barakat, abusing his position as the Chairman of Janata Bank, transferred $650,602,410 from the bank. Mohit opined Abul Barakat ruined the Janata Bank, but he was simply sacked from his post, and thus escaped punishment for his corruption.


When Modasher Ali, an advisor of Sheikh Hasina, was accused of looting $481,927,710 in the Hallmark scam, Abul Mal Abdul Mohit even termed it as a trifling amount.


AL leaders Mohiuddin Alamgir and Mumtasir Mamun were accused of misappropriating huge amounts of money from Farmer’s Bank, more than $.650,602,410 form the climate project of the bank. Sheikh Hasina’s Military Advisor Tarique Siddique was involved in plundering $60,722,410 from Destiny group. Pro-Hasina elements allegedly took away $144,578,313 from Bismillah Group.


Members of Sheikh Hasina’s family were allegedly involved in thieving one billion from the reserve of Bangladesh Bank. The perpetrators even bunt all the documents by setting fire two floors of the 31 storied building of the bank on fire. The money was diverted to many other countries.


The extent of the looting in the banking sector was so enormous that 50 percent banks of the country were thrown to the brink of bankruptcy. Ministers, MPs, party heavyweights, pro-government elements, even the son of Sheikh Hasina, were direct or indirect beneficiaries of such huge corruption, but none of them were accused or punished.


Besides, Banks and share market, these looters grabbed public money by escalating projects cost. Examples are many. According to the Bangladeshi print media, the estimated cost of Dhohazari-Dhumdhum rail line project was $223,132,530, but it was increased to $2,216,144,578 which is 10 times higher than the original cost.


The average per kilometer construction cost of a highway in China and India is $1,265,060. But the Bangladeshi government spends $6,506,024 on the construction of one kilometer of a six-lane highway. Even in European countries, the highest cost for the same is $3,493,975. On the other hand construction cost for each kilometer of Dhaka-Mawa-Bhanga highway rose to $13,493,759 which is five times more than Europe.


The BNP government started construction of Gulishtan-Jattrabari flyover with an estimated cost of Tk. 788 crores. Sheikh Hasina government completed it spending $94,939,975. The construction of cost of each kilometer flyover unbelievably increased to $25,421,686.


Similarly, the government spent $13,614,457,831 to construct Ruppur Atomic Power Plant which, otherwise could be constructed at a cost not exceeding $11,084,337.


Print media flashed the news of alleged corruption of $1,168,674,698 committed by Sheikh Hasina’s son Sajib Wazed Joy that included $9,156,626,506 from electricity and energy sector, $1,144,578,313 from VOIP sector for issuing IGW (internet gateway services) license, $2,867,469,879 for issuing ICX license and $1,392,771,084 from A2I (A to I) project.


The construction cost of Padma Bridge rose to $3,614,457,831 from its original estimated cost of $1,204,819,277. It is yet to be completed. No one knows what will be the ultimate cost of 6.15 kilometers long Padma Bridge. Knowledgeable sources say, the construction cost increased by leaps and bounds due to unbridled corruption in each and every project.


According to a Global Financial Institute report, about $64,216,867,496 have been smuggled out of Bangladesh during the last 10 years. No corruption case was ever pursued in any of these instances. The stories of alleged grabbing 20-25 percent commission by Sheikh Hasina’s son Joy and her younger sister Sheikh Rehana are well-known in Bangladeshi communities in the UK and the US.


The most dismaying but interesting issue is that 15 cases of corruption and misappropriation were lodged against Sheikh Hasina till 2008. Out of the 13 were regarding her corruption and irregularities amounting to $174,263,915. All the 15 cases were dropped against the prime minister in 2010.


Prime Minister Hasina’s name also appeared in the alleged bribe scams in major deals. Some of these included: appointment of BEPJA Advisor ($253,104), purchasing of an old Korean frigate (53,855,421), awarding illegal contract of Meghna Ghat Electric Power Plant, awarding contract of Khulna Floating Electricity Plant to a construction firm ($361,445), purchasing a house for Bangabandhu Memorial Trust ($783,132), purchasing eight Mig-29 fighters (about $8,434,734) etc.


Besides, cases were filed against Sheikh Hasina for taking bribes from top businessmen Nur Ali ($602,409), Tajul Islam (361,446) and Azam Chowdhury ($361,446). She has also been accused of being involved in the murder of a young man on October 28, 2007. Her followers beat him to death, in broad daylight at Purana Paltan area of Dhaka, whom she urged to march to Dhaka with logi-boitha (helm-wors). She was also an accused of illegally entering Dhaka Cantonment. But she withdrew all the cases against her and her followers after coming to power.


Bangladeshi people didn’t welcome the imprisonment of Khaleda Zia on controversial corruption charges and mala fide intentions. Bangladeshis still remember that Prime Minister Hasina withdrew all the charges of murder, corruption, and bribery against herself.


Bangladeshis, in general, believe that Sheikh Hasina influenced the Judges to imprison Begum Khaleda Zia to crush the patriotic forces and pave the way for the pro-India elements, particularly her son, to inherit her political mantle.


The writer is a New York-based journalist and researcher who can be reached at noa@agni.com


Recommended Reading:

Bangladesh’s Dissenting Voices Trapped Between Fear and Repression: Amnesty International



Views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the editorial policy of ViewsWeek.


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