Vol. 5 Num 126 Wed. September 29, 2004  

Straight talk
How not to win friends and influence people

"Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning." So begins The Trial by Franz Kafka.

Joseph K was lucky. In Bangladesh today you don't even need to have someone spreading lies about you (though that never helps) to be incarcerated. You merely need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One would have thought that the government would have learned its lesson about the folly of random and arbitrary arrest and detention, but I suppose that one thing that it is impossible to do is to overstate the extent of this administration's inclination for poor decisions.

This government did more or less the same thing back in April, ostensibly responding to the unwise and intemperate statement issued by the AL general secretary that the government would be ousted by the end of the month.

The problem with the government using the AL general secretary's highly irresponsible statement as a justification for the mass arrests that ensued was that, provocative as the statement was, no one really believed for a moment that the AL actually had any kind of plan, much less the means, to oust the government.

The mass arrests of April were breathtaking in their sweep. The police cracked down hard on opposition party workers and activists and NGO workers who they claimed were plotting to unseat the government.

But even worse was that thousands of ordinary people with no connection whatsoever to politics were caught up in the police dragnet and put behind bars. By last count, over 10,000 people were incarcerated as part of the April mass arrest programme.

These included rickshaw-pullers and day labourers and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The arrests were a bonanza for the police who extorted money from those they picked up and from their families for their release.

Eventually most were released, but with no admission of wrong-doing on the part of the administration, and certainly no compensation for their wrongful incarceration and suffering behind bars.

Millions of people live on the edge of poverty in Bangladesh. They do not have any extra money to pay bribes to get out of jail when they have been wrongfully imprisoned. They need to earn money on a daily basis to put food in their mouths and the mouths of their families. If they do not earn, they do not eat, and nor do their children.

This is one reason why I have always opposed hartals. For those who live from hand to mouth, day to day, to be kept from earning a living for even 24 hours can be a devastating hardship.

But this kind of random and arbitrary arrest and incarceration is much worse.

Now the government is doing it again. This time it cannot even use the excuse of a plot to oust the government, and so it is reduced to stating that the latest round of over 3,000 arrests is nothing more than a common or garden anti-crime drive.

But this demonstrates nothing more clearly than the government's evident contempt for the intelligence of the general public and the belief that it can say anything -- however laughable -- without fear of being held accountable.

Of course, once again, in addition to the opposition party workers and activists who are being rounded up and bundled off to jail, hundreds of ordinary people are also being caught and tossed behind bars.

One principal goal of the mass arrests seems to be to foil the grand rally the opposition has planned for October 3, and in this respect, a couple of points are worth noting.

The first point is that rallies and processions and human chains (such as last Wednesday's) are lawful and democratic means of expressing opposition that the government should encourage.

If the government stifles legitimate means of expressing dissent, then what does it expect the opposition to do? The government knows full well that the opposition will use such suppression as an excuse for less democratic and desirable means of protest such as hartals, or worse.

If democratic means of dissent are stamped out, then this encourages those who say that non-democratic and even violent means of opposing the government are the only solution. No responsible person wants that.

The second point is that these kinds of mass arrests simply have no place in a democratic country governed by the rule of law.

The sweeping powers to arrest people under Section 54 without warrant and without strict evidentiary standards have long been contested for precisely this reason. It permits the government to incarcerate more or less whoever it wishes on mere suspicion unsupported by any evidence. That the government continues to abuse this power to harass the opposition is beyond question. Section 54 has no place in a civilised society, even less so when the government has demonstrated that it is incapable of using it responsibly.

But Section 54 is not the only tool the government has been using. Many people have been arrested under Section 86 of the DMP Ordinance -- a provision whose validity has been called into question by the High Court, and which only remains on the books due to the government's failure to respond to the HC in a timely manner, which has left the matter unsettled as yet.

And many of the thousands arrested in this latest mass arrest have simply been thrown behind bars without any due process, or have been falsely charged with crimes with which they have zero connection and for which there is zero evidence of their involvement.

Worst of all, it is not merely its political opponents that the government is mistreating in this manner. Once again, it is ordinary people who are also bearing the brunt of the crackdown.

The question I have for the government is whether this is truly where we have come to as a country.

Is Bangladesh now a country where a common man or woman can simply be picked up for no reason and thrown behind bars with no recourse?

Is Bangladesh now a country where the rule of law is so fractured that the government itself can act in an unlawful manner with impunity and no fear of accountability?

Is Bangladesh now a country where the people have to live in perpetual fear of the authorities acting without any checks on their exercise of power -- however illegitimate?

The mass arrests are short-sighted government policy on so many levels. In the first place, they expose for all to see the government's anti-democratic tendencies and lack of respect for the rule of law.

But, more importantly, they show a contempt for the rights and well-being of the general public that will not be forgotten any time soon.

One would have thought that such considerations would be of concern to a democratically-elected government facing elections in the not too distant future.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.