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Commission of inquiry: What next?
AMM Shawkat Ali
One-member commission of inquiry set up by the government has submitted its report. It got off to a controversial start following its rejection by the Awami League (AL) whose leading members including its chairperson was the aggrieved party. The presiding judge of the commission declined to disclose the details other than in general terms. He also regretted his inability to confirm whether the report would at all be published. This was not unexpected.
Despite the fact that the judge was tight-lipped about the details, almost all newspapers published some major aspects centering on the findings and recommendations. Has the commission said anything new?
The findings as reported by the press
The major findings as reported in the press include (a) a foreign entity was involved, (b) the perpetrators of the heinous crime were present in the public meeting in the guise of party activists, (c) the objective was to create instability in the country, (d) intelligence agencies lack coordination, (e) there was complete failure on the part of police, (f) some party activists could be used, and (g) television channels could not show efficiency. An important finding as reported by the Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) relates to the fact that no shots were fired at Sheikh Hasina's vehicle, which carried her to safety following the grenade attack. The bullet marks on the car were claimed to have been caused by grenade thrown from the ground. It is reported that the commission has got the proof in this regard. It has also been reportedly claimed by the inquiry report that none of the political parties like the AL, BNP or Jamaat are involved in the attack.
The attack was spearheaded by foreign elements.
Considering the sensitivity of the issue relating to involvement of foreign elements, the said elements have not been specified. However, the specific interest of such elements has been identified to be to set up a puppet government. This appears to be a highly conjectural view in that to set up a puppet government, the foreign entity would need some local support, an issue that has not been mentioned. On the other hand, it is reported to have been mentioned that BNP and Jamaat cannot be involved because together they constitute two-thirds majority in the parliament. How can a puppet government be put in place when the ruling alliance has such a large following is a question that appears to have remained unanswered so far.
Many discerning readers find it a strange coincidence that the commission's reference to a foreign power's involvement comes in the wake of Prime Minister's public statement that a particular party wishes to capture power with the assistance from abroad (Prothom Alo, October 29, 2004). It was also reported that the AL could not be involved. At the same time it was hinted that some party activists could be involved. It is not known why the commission was at pains to indulge in this aspect which essentially was and continuing to be an aspect of blame game that is part of our political culture.
With regard to the presence of the perpetrators of the heinous crime in the place of occurrence, the fact is all too evident to be a finding of any substance. Equally so is the finding relating to the objective of creating instability. Next is the issue of lack of coordination among the intelligence agencies. This issue has been focused time and again even prior to the carnage of August 21, 2004. Almost on each prior incident of bomb or grenade blast, this issue has been raised by the media. What seems inexplicable is the lack of action by the concerned authorities? A stitch in time might well have saved nine. It is not known if this aspect has received due attention of the commission.
The finding related to the limitless failure of the police is also nothing new. It has been widely reported in the press earlier. What appears something new is the finding related to the probability of some party activists being used as agents for the crime. This is also highly subjective unless strong evidence is mentioned in the report. Finally, the finding with regard to lack of efficiency of television channels has been identified. Prior to the submission of the report, there was some news items indicting that footage was doctored or manipulated. It is widely known that when the government owned TV remained totally indifferent on the incident, only the private TV channels showed the picture of crime in graphic details which was highly appreciated by all independent observers. Why should the private TV channels, known for their independence of thought and action, indulge in such a course of action? This question remains unanswered.
The recommendations made, as reported in the press, include (i) dismissal of police and intelligence personnel for their failure to act in time, (ii) strengthen border surveillance, (iii) hold public meetings only in specified places, (iv) introduce compulsory system of video recording by the police in all public meetings, (v) upgrade efficiency and technological skill of the police and intelligence personnel and (vi) strengthen interrelationship among mainstream political parties.
All of the above, in the view of many, are nothing new. The media have been very vocal and raised earlier all or most of the issues. In respect of compulsory system of video recording by the police, what appears to be missing is whether the intelligence personnel some of whom are expected to be normally equipped to take photographs using concealed cameras have been active. Alternatively, whether such personnel are at all equipped with such gadgets.
As regards holding meetings only in specified places the legal requirement as embodied in the metropolitan police act is that, the police has the authority to prohibit holding of meetings in place that appear to them to be a threat to law and order. More than legal requirement, it is perhaps a question of considerations by the political parties. Legal requirement does not work in part because respect for law is on the wane by all and sundry and in part because coercive powers of the state is often used to suppress voices of dissent.
Outlook for the future
Immediately following the grenade attack of August 21, 2004, there was widespread skepticism regarding the commission as reported by the media. The major ground for such skepticism rested on the inability or unwillingness of the government to make public all previous inquiry commission reports. The widespread public skepticism also emanated from the government's continued practice of not acting on the recommendations of the report.
It is largely due to the above two factors that public skepticism is too deep-rooted to accord credibility to any report of a commission of inquiry. This skepticism has manifested itself in the formation of a separate inquiry committee under the initiative of the supreme court bar association (SCBA). The committee consists of some eminent lawyers known for their independence of thought and legal acumen.
It was widely reported in the press that this committee could not elicit, despite their best attempts, cooperation from the government. The law minister is reported to have dismissed it as something not sanctioned by law and hence it is not necessary to extend cooperation.
Will the report be made public?
Speculations are now rife as to whether the report will at all be published. Independent observers strongly hold the view that the report must be made public. An eminent journalist is of the view that the report should be published for public information in the interest of the commission as well as in the interest of the government to gain credibility. He has also expressed doubt about whether the recommendations would be consistent with reality. He categorically stated that the report of the commission would be highly hypothetical (Sangbad, October 3, 2004). On the other hand, the aforesaid Bengali daily, citing past instances, hinted that it might not be made public at all. But at the same time, it stated that the members of the public were eagerly awaiting the report of SCBA.
It is seen that while the credibility of the output of the commission was in question immediately following its birth, it is still more so now that the report is complete. On the other hand, the members of the SCBA committee already affirmed that it would provide public access to their findings and recommendations. Once this is made public, it is certain that the country will witness another round of debate on the issue. The crux of the issue is: should the debate be endless or will the state be able to bring all offenders to justice? The latter aspect must receive priority for the alliance government which is legally and morally responsible for prosecution of criminals in the name of the state. This case should not be construed to be a case between ruling four-party alliance and AL. It is essentially a case of the state versus the criminals responsible for the carnage.
A M M Shawkat Ali, PhD is an ex-Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture.