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Will Sheikh Hasina control the ISI clone in Bangladesh?

‘Poll verdict against terror’



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 Dhaka house, Sudha Sadan.

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 India. Post-election, this was her first Press interview to any media. She sounded optimistic and confident and all her expressions had the ring of stark realism. Her words were measured and she did not sidestep nor avoid answering any “sensitive question”. But many of her replies were off the record because of their obvious and grave political implications.

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 Bangladesh. Specially the role of Dainik Statesman during our most troubled and trying times over the last two years. I got all the feedback about your Dainik’s valiant role even while I was in solitary confinement. Some copies of your Dainik reached me in jail. I will never forget your role.”


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 South Asia in particular a significant message. And that message is change. Change in attitude and the way we work.


In post liberation Bangladesh your party won in 1996 and 2008 parliamentary polls. Would you evaluate these two victories differently?

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 Chittagong a relation of one of our rival candidates was also caught red-handed for distributing Taka 41 lakh among voters. Similar incidents happened elsewhere too but our voters were extremely watchful. This awareness among our voters has helped to strengthen our democracy. This time bogus voters could not have a field day because our electoral roll has photographs of voters alongside their names.


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 John Hopkins University, besides a law degree from London. Her advocacy is good. She is a no pushover. I have given a lot of thought while making my council of ministers. I drew up the ministerial list and prepared the poll manifesto while I was in prison.


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 Bangladesh by calling hartal on 308 days during my 1996-2001 rule. But this opposition must realise that this time the overwhelmingly popular verdict is against the politics of corruption, extortion, terror and killing of all kinds. This thoughtless and irresponsible politics has been rejected by our voters. The Opposition has to bear this in mind because the massive way the voters, especially the young first timers, women and those belonging to the minority communities turned out on the polling day to exercise their franchise drove home the message that they were decidedly against terror and religious bigotry. They wanted to be liberated from this scourge. They ensured our landslide victory with this view in mind.


India also thinks that the Bangladeshi soil is being allowed to be used to launch terror attacks against it by Indian separatist and fundamentalist groups. They had been provided safe havens by the previous Khaleda regime.

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 South Asia has fallen prey to terrorism and jingoism. This joint threat spells trouble for the entire region. All countries of the region have to cooperate and jointly fight this twin menace. Since terror groups know no boundaries no one country of the region can fight these menace single-handed. Moreover SAARC as a platform cannot used for this purpose as bilatetral issues cannot be raised at this regional forum.


But how can Pakistan be a member of this task force since it is openly encouraging terrorism and jingoism in the region?

Of course Pakistan has to be a member of this force which may also include Afghanistan as well. All the regional countries have to be part of this force. Pakistan has to take a decisive stance against terrorism and jingoism. It has no other course left for its survival. We all must realise that poverty is our region’s most serious problem. If we have to combat it, all of us have to join hands to snuff it out of the region. There is no other alternative strategy left to fight these twin menace.


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 Bangladesh and had proposed cooperation between the two countries in the energy sector, especially establishing power-grid connectivity between the two countries. India has the potential and the will to supply power to Bangladesh.

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 India?

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 Bangladesh early next month. I want to meet him at an early date. Many things are yet to be sorted out. Despite the signing of the boundary agreement in 1974, it is yet to be ratified by the Indian Parliament. This is stalling the progress on the vexed issue of enclaves.


Besides signing the Ganga Waters Treaty with India your government had signed another landmark agreement ~ Peace Treaty to restore normalcy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Your government also framed a legislation which would ensure the return of vested property.

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 Bangladesh?

We shall strive to make Bangladesh a secular country in the true sense of the term. Our government’s goal will be to establish the ideals of secularism in the country.

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

Hiranmay Karlekar


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 Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate shortly after a visit to Dhaka by then ISI chief, Lt Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan, it is linked almost umbilically to its Pakistani counterpart. Many of its officers have been trained at the ISI’s centre in Islamabad.


In many respects, the DGFI is the over-arching secret super authority of Bangladesh as the ISI is of Pakistan. One example will reveal the extent of its influence. According to a report by Zahirul Haq from Dhaka, appearing in Aajkaal, the Bengali daily published from Kolkata, on May 29, 2002, Begum Khaleda Zia had reversed her earlier stand and was prepared to grant Indian goods transit facility through Bangladesh to north-eastern Indian States. The then Director-General of the DGFI, Maj Gen Sadik Hasan Rumi, however, sent a note objecting to it. He cited no reason for it. The facility was not given though that country’s Commerce Minister had said Bangladesh would gain a huge amount of foreign exchange and would be able to establish much closer commercial ties with India by granting transit facility.


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 Sweden, from where he wrote the piece.


Situated in a 14-storeyed building at Kachukhet Bazaar in Dhaka, the DGFI is also the hub of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh which now extends its tentacles not only to West Bengal, Bihar, and north-eastern States like Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura, but even to Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Along with the Bangladeshi Army, it was thoroughly infiltrated by Islamist jihadis during the tenure of the four-party Government from 2001 to 2006, when the Jamaat’s Amir, Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, was the Industries Minister, and the general secretary, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, was the Social Welfare Minister. With Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which had 193 seats in the 300-member Jatiya Sangsad, as its partner in power, there was no doubt that the Jamaat called the shots in most critical areas.


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 Assam. Brig Azam Mir is a son of Mr Golam Azam, identified as the most notorious war criminal during the liberation war in 1971 and accused of being instrumental to the murder of thousands of men and the rape of thousands of women. Golam Azam, who fled Bangladesh just before its liberation in December 1971, was allowed to return by Zia-ur Rahman in 1978. He became the Amir of the Jamaat, which, banned in the aftermath of the liberation war, was allowed to function again by Zia-ur Rahman in 1979, while Maulana Abbas Ali Khan became the formal, titular Amir. He became Amir in 1991 after his claim to be a Bangladeshi citizen was upheld by the judiciary.


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 Bangladesh. Mufti Abdul Hannan, former ‘Operations Commander’ of the HUJIB, who has recently been sentenced to death by a Bangladeshi court, and Bangla Bhai or Siddiqul Islam, the ‘Operations Commander’ of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, who was hanged on March 29, 2007, were both alumni of the organisation. So was Mohammad Asadullah Al-Galib, the Amir of the Ahle Hadith Andolan, Bangladesh, and Sheikh Abdur Rahman, head of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.


A clean-up of the DGFI will reduce the threat of Islamist terrorism not only in South Asia but Bangladesh as well. It will also be a major step in realising the full potential of India-Bangladesh friendship. It is the DGFI which, through organisations like the Jamaat and the HUJIB, runs training camps and sanctuaries for secessionist insurgent groups of north-eastern India like United Liberation Front of Asom, All-Tripura Tiger Force, United National Liberation Front of Manipur, National Liberation Front of Tripura, in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina had closed most of the camps after becoming Prime Minister in 1996 but had soon to retrace her steps under pressure from the DGFI.


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 Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971. For, one thing is very certain: Pakistan and the ISI as well as their allies in the DGFI and the Bangladeshi Army, the Jamaat and the Islamist terrorist groups in Bangladesh, will not tolerate Sheikh Hasina for long if she tries to genuinely honour her mandate. And unless she does the latter, Bangladesh will descend into a fundamentalist nightmare at a none-too-distant future.



Surviving torture in Bangladesh

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 Bangladesh.


With a midnight ring of my doorbell, three or four plainclothes men - who identified themselves as the "joint forces" - entered my Dhaka apartment, detained me without charge, and seized my passport, cell phones, computers and documents. I was threatened at gun-point while my wife, holding my six-month-old son, watched. I was pushed into a car, blindfolded and handcuffed.


Four months earlier, in January, the Bangladesh military had installed a puppet technocrat government through a bloodless coup and declared a "state of emergency." The junta's emergency rules suspended parts of the Constitution, made any criticism of the government or the military a punishable offense, put a blanket ban on political activity, and sharply curtailed press freedom.


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 Dhaka headquarters. Thus began my 22-hour ride on the torture train, as my captors - high- and mid-level DGFI officers - tortured me, interrogated me and forced me to sign false confessions. I was questioned at length about my work as an editor for the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper, as a news representative for CNN in Bangladesh, and as a consultant researcher for Human Rights Watch.


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 Bangladesh military involvement in extra-judicial executions and torture, systematic curtailment of press freedom, and rampant human rights violations carried out by the security forces under the "state of emergency."


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 Sweden, where the authorities offered us political asylum.


I was not the first or last person marched into a torture chamber in Bangladesh. But I have the opportunity to detail my survival, while hundreds, if not thousands of stories relating to inhuman torture and Kafkaesque detentions in Bangladesh remain untold.


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 United States and Britain, eager to address political paralysis and corruption but naïve about our history with military governments, has been crucial in providing legitimacy to an illegal, unconstitutional arrangement. Supporting a monster to kill a demon might work for computer gamers, but in politics and diplomacy it is usually disastrous.


It is time for Bangladesh's friends in the United States, Britain, and European Union to support our struggle for democracy and pressure the military to end its "state of emergency" and declare an early date for free and fair elections. Military torture centers should be shut down and extra-judicial executions ended. And every perpetrator of human rights violations should be prosecuted and punished. No one else should experience what I went through.


Tasneem Khalil is a Bangladeshi journalist currently in exile in Sweden. A full account of his detention, "The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses its Power under the State of Emergency," was published in a report by Human Rights Watch.