‘Poll verdict against terror’
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW - Sheikh Hasina
FOUR days after she was sworn in for the second time as Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, despite an extremely tight schedule, took time off to talk to Manash Ghosh, editor of dainik Statesman on a wide variety of issues in the “study” of her
The issues ranged from her party and Mahajote’s “historic victory” in the 29 December parliamentary poll to forming a Joint South Asian Task Force to counter terrorism in the region and strengthening ties with
However, these provided an excellent insight into her political conviction and incisive mind which, during the last seven years that she was in the Opposition, could not be blunted either by the determined attempts on her life by Islamists nor by the two years of solitary confinement and psychological torture she was forced to undergo by the military on trumped up corruption charges. Before the interview could start, she gratefully acknowledged the role of The Statesman during the liberation war and thereafter. “Those of us who know The Statesman know how much you care and love
Did you expect this historic landslide victory for your party and your Mahajote?
I did expect a very big victory margin, but that it would exceed three fourths majority was unexpected. We knew that if elections were held freely and fairly and if our people got a chance to exercise their franchise without fear or favour ,the country’s secular and democratic forces would emerge victorious. That has been proved in this election. Whenever elections have been held without rigging and voters have not been stopped from casting their votes freely, its been seen that the Awami League has been voted to power. Before elections I kept saying that our people should be allowed to go to polling centres to cast their votes. Because I knew our people had never defeated Awami League through the ballot.
As an Awami League leader how have you evaluated Mahajote’s victory in this poll?
Our people have given their verdict against terror, corruption and communalism. And this verdict has far reaching implications. Because through this verdict our voters have conveyed to the people of the world at large and
In post liberation
How can I do that? But I must admit that the role of both the Caretaker Government and the Election commission in this poll was absolutely neutral. There was considerable international pressure that this election was conducted impartially and internationally accepted credible norms were followed. But the most redeeming feature of this poll was that our people favoured a secular and democratic system of governance. And this time this could happen because, unlike 2001 poll, military and the EC remained neutral. Which they were not in 2001 poll.
Are you trying to say that there was no rigging in this election?
Of course attempts were made. But people resisted that. A presiding officer and seven others were caught red handed by people in Tangail’s Bhuapur area while stamping on BNP’s poll symbol ~ paddy sheaf. People only handed them over to the police. In
How would you sustain this spectacular popular verdict?
After this victory our responsibilities have grown manifold and assumed massive dimension. Our people have reposed faith in the pledges of change that we had mentioned in our election manifesto. This happened because our manifesto reflected the hopes and aspirations of our people. And people’s expectation from our government is almost infinite. I have tried to address all these while forming my council of ministers. While making the ministry I have given pride of place to the new-generation leaders. I have given key ministries to our women leaders. Those who once had been in the background have now been brought to the forefront. Now I want them to perform and deliver results. They shall have to keep the promises that we made to our people during the poll.
Making women in charge of two key ministries ~ home and foreign ~ has sent tongues wagging. Is male chauvinism responsible for this?
It is certainly so. Both Dipu Moni, who is in charge of foreign portfolio, and Sahara Khatun, in charge of home, are equal to their tasks. They have a long political background. They have two young ministers of state to help them. Dipu Moni is a doctor by profession. She has a master’s degree in public health from
Yet critics say she will be “chewed up” by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Pranab Mukherjee.
We shall see (she laughs profusely).
Your ministry resembles more like an Awami League than that of a Mahajote. Senior leaders of your Mahajote partners like Rashed Khan Menon and Hasanul Haq Inu have been left out of the ministry. There is only one minister from Ershad’s Jatiya Party. Will you expand your ministry later?
I had asked both Menonsaheb and Inusaheb whether they would like to be included in my ministry or contest the poll. Both were asked to choose either of the two. They opted to contest poll. I threw my party’s organisational might and other wherewithal to ensure their poll victory. Dilip Barua of Samyabadi Dal, another partner of our Mahajote opted not to contest poll. So I had no problem in giving him a berth in my cabinet. I kept my word.
But the Opposition might be encouraged to create a variety of problems because of an inexperienced ministry.
I am aware of it. The BNP-Jamaat together paralysed life all over
Terror groups have no country of their own nor do they confine their operations within any specific geographical boundary. I want to hold out this assurance to everybody that I will not allow the Bangladeshi soil to be used for any kind of insurgency or separatist movement anywhere in the world. I followed this policy during my earlier stint as prime minister
You ensured the smashing of many camps of Indian insurgent groups and yet because of wheels within wheels in your administration many camps were surreptitiously run and they remained invisible.
I won’t allow that to happen again. Last time the officers who had been entrusted with the task of smashing the camps were targeted when Khaleda Zia came to power. Her government not only sacked one such officer from service but also persecuted him physically and psychologically so much that he has become a wreck.
You have proposed the formation of a Joint South Asian Task Force. Conceptually what does it mean?
Almost the whole of
But how can
Coming to Indo-Bangladesh relations, you have said your government will accord the highest priority to improve bilateral ties. Recently one of our ministers ~ Jairam Ramesh ~ had visited
Look, it’s not even a week that we have taken over the reins of power. We are still in the process of figuring out things. But that both these two neighbours have to make progress through mutual cooperation is a settled fact.
When are you going to hand over ULFA leaders like Anup Chetia and Paresh Barua to
I am yet to find out the latest situation. Anup Chetia was caught in my earlier stint as the prime minister. I don’t know in which jail he is now lodged. It will take time to know all the details. When Chetia was caught quite a few terror groups had sent me threatening letters. What is of utmost importance is that we shall have to identify the areas of cooperation first. I am convinced that once this is done nothing shall stand in the way of improving our ties further.
Pranabbabu will be visiting
Besides signing the Ganga Waters Treaty with
Of course we shall implement the agreement on Chittagong Hill Tracts. The minister in charge of CHT is now seized of the matter. The vested property matter too will be sorted out. Our people are keenly waiting for deliverance from this problem.
Are you going to restore the 1972 constitution as people in this election have overwhelmingly voted for building a secular
We shall strive to make
The 1972 constitution had banned politics based on religion. This time, the Election Commission did a creditable job in this regard.
Hasina must deal with ISI clone
If Sheikh Hasina Wajed has to faithfully implement the mandate of a secular, tolerant and corruption-free democracy that the parliamentary election of December 29, 2008, has given her so overwhelmingly, an institution she has to reform drastically is the premier intelligence agency of Bangladesh, the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence. Set up as Directorate of Forces Intelligence by President Zia-ur Rahman in November 1977, it subsequently became the DGFI. Established as an organisational clone of
In many respects, the DGFI is the over-arching secret super authority of
The DGFI’s activities include not only collection of intelligence but interference in politics and intimidation of the media. In an article, “Enemy of the State: Surviving Torture in Bangladesh”, published in International Herald Tribune of March 2, 2008, Tasneem Khalil, a member of the staff of Bangladesh’s leading English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, who also worked for CNNand Human Rights Watch, talks of the brutal torture he suffered at the DGFI headquarters in Dhaka in May 2007 for being critical of the caretaker Government that had seized power on January 11, 2007. Released after strong intervention by his paper and protests from all corners of the world, he had to seek political asylum in
Situated in a 14-storeyed building at Kachukhet Bazaar in Dhaka, the DGFI is also the hub of Islamist terrorism in
The depth and extent of the Jamaat’s influence on the DGFI can be gauged from the simple fact that Brig Azam Mir was perhaps the most influential Deputy Director-General of the DGFI until his removal on January 19, 2007, following the discovery of his involvement in a series of attacks on Hindi-speaking people in
The Jamaat and its students’ organisation, Islami Chhatra Shibir (Islamist Students’ Camp) have, on their part, been both the ideological fountainhead and the nursery and coordinating centre of Islamic fundamentalism in
A clean-up of the DGFI will reduce the threat of Islamist terrorism not only in South Asia but
Of course, the DGFI will bitterly resist all attempts to cleanse the organisation. It will lie low for the present and wait for the time when, its bosses perhaps hope, Sheikh Hasina’s popularity dips from its present peak and they can begin their machinations to remove her. She must strike now and not make the mistake her generous father did in not taking the stern measures against collaborators that he should have immediately after
'ENEMY OF THE STATE'
Surviving torture in
By Tasneem Khalil
Published: March 2, 2008
My wife says I talk too much and invite trouble. On May 11, 2007, her observation was confirmed: I "invited" trouble by talking too much against the military-backed interim government in
With a midnight ring of my doorbell, three or four plainclothes men - who identified themselves as the "joint forces" - entered my
Four months earlier, in January, the
The military intervention brought an end to gruesome street-battles between two feuding political camps led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League, and at first many Bangladeshis welcomed the de facto coup.
But skyrocketing prices, a devastated economy and rampant human rights abuses have changed their minds. Over the past year, the military has set up torture and detention facilities across the country and targeted political parties with an "anti-corruption" witch hunt that saw the arrests of more than 400,000 people, including two former prime ministers who lead the two biggest political parties.
The military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, or DGFI, which remains the driving force behind the de facto military rule, led a campaign to establish control over civil and political affairs, carrying out overt and covert operations against opposition parties and members of the media.
After my arrest, I was taken to a torture facility set up by the directorate inside its
In all these jobs, I obviously talked too much. As a journalist, I reported and commented on extra-judicial executions and torture by the Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary force; persecution of Ahmadiya Muslims (a heterodox sect of Islam) by extremist-Islamist groups with the active patronage of intelligence agencies; military repression in the region known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeaster Bangladesh; and, perhaps most dangerous, sponsorship and patronage of Jihadist outfits by the DGFI and the National Security Intelligence agency. As a consultant for Human Rights Watch, I documented
So I became a target for a junta that considered itself above criticism, even above the law. The military labeled me an "enemy of the state." In the torture chamber, five or six DGFI officers took part in nightmarish torture sessions, using batons, boots and fists to inflict serious injuries on me. I saw sophisticated torture equipment. When I was moved out of a soundproof torture chamber, I could hear other detainees, locked inside cells, screaming and moaning in pain. I was forced to record false confessional statements on paper and video, admitting to imaginary terrorist, treasonous acts, and implicating my friends, associates and colleagues. Only when I fell sick from the torture were my blindfold and handcuffs taken off - briefly. I was constantly humiliated, exposed to obscene verbal abuse and racial slurs. My captors kept threatening me with extra-judicial execution.
News of my arrest sparked an outcry. I was fortunate that CNN, The Daily Star and Human Rights Watch stood by me and worked to secure my freedom. A network of bloggers and activists engineered a global campaign demanding my release. Foreign governments lobbied the Bangladeshi authorities. Within 24 hours of my detention, in an unprecedented move, the DGFI set me free. I went into hiding with my family. Eventually, we were allowed to fly out of the country and found a refuge in
I was not the first or last person marched into a torture chamber in
I am tempted to remind foreign governments that the abuses happening in Bangladesh in the name of "reform" and "anti-corruption" are possible thanks to their complicity and complacence. The support of donors like the
It is time for
Tasneem Khalil is a Bangladeshi journalist currently in exile in