Vol. 5 Num 989 Tue. March 13, 2007  

Why are they smiling?

Since January, we have been gulping down a steady daily diet of chomok (shock), washed down with a drink of conspiracy cola. Big guns arrested, crown prince in the dock, bank statements seized, Hummer H2 impounded, peacocks in the pen, Bagan Bari locked up.

And then dheu tin (corrugated tin), why is this such a hot commodity? Well it isn't really, but it's the one thing that's hard to get rid of quickly. You can shred documents, stash guns, squirrel money away in Swiss accounts, release a pet croc into Hosni Dalan (very James Bond). But dheu tin -- those are heavy suckers. Na pari khaithe, na pari falaithe (can't eat it, can't throw it away).

When I wake up and leaf through the papers, I'm disappointed if there isn't a new arrest, a new revelation, a big name brought low. But this insatiable appetite for chomok also masks a structural weakness.

We are busy being entertained, and then we forget about it just as quickly as new thrills (or distractions) arrive. Look up in the sky! Nagorik Shakti! Chittagong Seaport! Indo-Markin conspiracy! Shushil Shomaj's Revenge! On to the next story ...

Dhaka, city of bazillion conspiracy theories, is so busy with this daily kathu-kuthu, not many are bothered about the hard work needed to actually successfully prosecute.

The same Special Powers Act we used to protest is now our temporary saviour (temporary because one day we will have to face this law that has been abused by both AL and BNP). Of the SPA's "prejudicial acts" clauses (sovereignty, defense, friendly relations with foreign states, public safety, communal hatred, law and order, etc), perhaps only "economic or financial interest of the state" clause is relevant to mass looting, corruption and abuse of power now on the dock.

Given the inevitable irregularities in detention, interrogation, and evidence gathering, you can see how a sharp, well-paid lawyer can start taking apart the cases.

No doubt the CTG is in hyper-drive to try to lock away as many of the black money all-stars as possible. But what are the resources they have? A new Attorney General (Fida Kamal) and AAG (Salahuddin Ahmed), but underneath them the same team -- including almost 100 staffers appointed by the BNP-Jamaat coalition (some lawyers have started discussing reform proposals to remove about 60 on grounds of inefficiency and partisanship).

Consider all the political interference we saw in the lower courts in last fifteen years, and even in the Supreme Court in last five years: partisan appointments, cancellation of previous regime appointments, leapfrogging in appointments of judges (including chief justice), new appointments without consultation, mark sheet forgery, Supreme Court musical chairs, vacation bench manipulation, phantom litigants, chief justices revoking judge's powers to rule ... the list is very long.

When you probe through these recent maneuvers, you wonder how there can be effective prosecution for the detainees in a court stacked with contradictions, bad precedents, and partisan appointments

Consider also, the imbalance in resources between the accountability police and those who are hell bent on avoiding it. Knee deep in conspiracy chatter, people imagine the CTG as a steamroller that is rumbling along Dhaka streets according to a master plan.

But in fact, everything is done with stopgaps and minimal resources. And because Fakhruddin already faces heat about structure demolitions, economy slowdown, election deadlines, "US conspiracy," etc., there are multiple fires on many fronts.

Consider the resources (and partisan, and in some cases not highly competent, lawyers) the government has to track down the money trail and actually put the rui kathla (big fish) away.

Then contrast that with the resources the government had for the Ershad cases. Instead of 40+ detainees, there was only one man on trial. The government committed serious resources, including top lawyers and international investigation teams. But after all those efforts, they landed him only on charges of weapons and cash possession.

There were also some charges about a "machine at home for watching foreign TV channels" (kids, it was once illegal) and a "mobile satellite phone." But high profile detainees are sometimes caught on precisely these small charges (Al Capone was in the end busted on income tax evasion, this may explain the current dheu tin seizures).

Scimitar, Jamuna boat purchase case: all of these big cases have stalled. And of course, with BNP-AL election games, Ershad is out. Oh, wait, he's being retried. No out again ... makes you dizzy.

Some analysts have looked beyond the BMW shine in newspaper headlines and called for more resources for prosecution teams, replacement of partisan lawyers on government teams, more comprehensive investigation of the allegations of corruption and bias brought against certain judges, professional investigators, clean evidence gathering teams, appointment of independent lawyers (if private lawyers won't take pay cut to go to AG's office), and forensic accountants. And always making sure these are fair trials, and not kangaroo courts. Will all that happen, or are we too busy cooking up theories and being entertained to concentrate on hard work?

Here's a small motivation -- if you think last fifteen years were bad, imagine a scenario where all the cases fall apart and the big guns come out of jail -- fed up of that jail pocha bhat diet and ready to rumble. The revenge games would reach every inch of the country. No time for fence sitters. Like Howard Zinn said, you can't be neutral on a moving train.

If you look at the state of 1971 war crimes trials, you can see what happens when enthusiasm and emotion replaces the more mundane, non-glamorous, back-breaking work of evidence gathering. Too busy with songs, slogans and emotions, we gathered little evidence, recorded few witness statements.

We thrilled at abstract, performative, and emotive events, rallies and slogans about "war crimes." No international war crimes tribunals, no truth and reconciliation committees, no methodical prosecution process. Three decades later, there's a big fat zero in the justice and accountability column.

Can we control our fundamental windbag tendencies? Take a little break from raised fists, slogans, rallies, and utthejona (excitement). This time around, let's have a little less emotion, and a lot more hard work, thorough research, and follow through.

Naeem Mohaiemen does film/art interventions.