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     Volume 4 Issue 53 | July 8, 2005 |

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The Ugly Face of Political Intimidation

Aasha Mehreen Amin

On June 4 the headlines of all major and less than major dailies carried the same story. Finally the Bangladesh media had the most sensational story of the year. The pictures of Bidisha Ershad clutching her child and threatening to jump from the window in a desperate appeal to be saved from the humiliation of being dragged out of her house by law enforcing agents created enough public shock and curiosity for the media to do a series of follow up stories, each of them more bizarre than the other. First she was accused by her husband of stealing his cell phone, money from his wallet and vandalising household funrniture. Then she was accused of committing bigamy of having two different date of births on two passports, finally for having huge amounts of cash stashed away in foreign accounts. It was the lowest that one could expect a husband could sink, to spite his wife. More so because the husband was a former president who had managed to keep the public's image of him as a corrupt dictator and philanderer, in a somewhat dormant stage. At first it seemed like any other marriage gone sour and a domestic affair that should have been settled between the two of them. But somewhere along the line the ruling party alliance became involved, making sure that Bidisha was punished for her friendship with political opponents.

Policewomen take Bidisha, divorced wife of Jatiya Party Chairman HM Ershad, to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court, Dhaka

The insensitivity of the media, both electronic and print, can be criticised for its role in invading an individual's privacy (very few people will be able to forget Bidisha, practically unconscious physically being taken to the car while crowds leered forward) but it is these very disturbing images that have given us the public, a chilling idea of the extent of state intimidation. While Ershad's motives behind the cruel humiliation he inflicted on his wife, remains a mystery, there is little ambiguity in the intentions of the government in colluding with him (or is it the other way round) to file case after case against Bidisha even after the court granted bail each time as they were based on flimsy grounds, even after it was evident that she was severely ill, even after knowing that her four-year-old son needed his mother. Each time she was held in remand with no access to her family or friends.

From a humanitarian point of view there is no doubt that Bidisha's basic rights were grossly violated. Also being a woman, made her a victim of multiple abuses. She was abused by her husband, humiliated and persecuted by the state. Her son was snatched away from her and she was in custody for 23 days having been falsely accused in four separate cases. Two of them were filed by her husband and the remaining two by the government.

On June 6, within hours of returning to her home in Baridhara, after treatment at Sikdar Medicl College Hospital in Gulshan for a back injury, Bidisha was arrested by police officers in front of her son Eric, two sisters and father. She was informed that her husband Ershad had filed a case against her for stealing a mobile phone, misappropriating money and breaking the furniture and other household objects. Later she was told at the Gulshan Police Station that she was also accused of threatening her husband and son. At the police station her son Eric, was forcibly taken from her and she has not been allowed to see him ever since.

After a harrowing night at the Gulshan thana, Bidisha was produced before the court of the Metropolitan Magistrate. She was ill and distraught and fainted as soon as she arrived. When Bidisha applied for bail, the Magistrate rejected it and sent her into police remand for three days. For taking her husband's cell phone and breaking things in her own home? Those three days Bidisha could not contact her lawyers or family.

On June 8, Bidisha was brought to the court and again bail was rejected without any specific reasons being given. She was taken without any explanation to her lawyers, to the Metropolitan Magistrate's court where she was implicated in a second case under several sections of the Penal Code, 11(1)(b) of the Passport Order, 1973 and Section 3 of the Passport (Offences) Act 1952.The allegation was that she had two different date of births in two passports. Another application for bail was made only to be rejected by the Magistrate.

Bidisha's lawyers then made bail applications under section 498 of the CrPC and the Sessions Court granted an ad-interim bail in both the cases filed against her. But after the release orders were given to the Jail authorities by her petitioners for her immediate release and only minutes before Bidisha would have been released, she was shown to be arrested for yet another case filed by her husband. This time she was accused of marrying Ershad while still being married to her previous husband. One of her lawyers has confirmed that such an accusation was entirely baseless as Bidisha had been divorced from her husband in 1999. The case was under Section 494 of the Penal Code which meant that Bidisha was sent back to custody. On June 14 and 15, applications for bail in the third case were given before the Court of the Magistrate First Class, Dhaka, but on each occasion the court instead of either allowing or rejecting bail, postponed the date of such a decision to June 18. This was in total disregard of the mandatory provision of section 496 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which requires bail to be granted.

Bidisha, centre, walks out of the BSMMUH prison cell along with her father and sister on June 27.

On June 16, a criminal revisional petition was moved on behalf of the petitioner. Later on that day, Bidisha's counsel procured a release order which was communicated to the prison cell at the hospital where Bidisha was kept but the jail authorities said that they had received a telephone call instructing them not to release the prisoner as she was about to be shown arrested for another case. Two hours later it was learnt that the case filed against her at the Gulshan Police Station fell under section 13 of the Money Laundering Prevention Act 2002. The allegations against her was that Bidisha had different bank accounts within the country and abroad containing 21 crore taka which apparently she could not show proper accounts or documents for. Details were not given, however, regarding in which banks these accounts were, how she had sent them abroad or of the specific offence that the petitioner had committed under this Act or any other law. After a couple of more rejections of bail, Bidisha was finally released from jail on June 27. Her health however, had further deteriorated and she had to be taken to hospital for treatment. According to news reports, it was Bidisha's apparent affinity towards the opposition that earned the ruling party's wrath. The ruling party alliance in connivance with her husband decided to intimidate her through incarceration and public humiliation. Ershad meanwhile had his own agenda and took away their son Eric for a trip to the Middle East and then upon coming back promptly divorced his wife. Ershad has been accused by Bidisha's sister of going to her house with cadres of his party and threatening her with death and abducting her daughter if she allowed Bidisha to stay in her house.

Public opinion is mixed regarding Bidisha's story. Some people wonder how she could have accumulated so much money as alleged by the state (Bidisha has not made any statements to the contrary). Others question her very decision to marry a former dictator known for his corrupt ways. But a character assassination of Bidisha is not the point at this time. Bidisha's story is an example of how the criminal justice system can be abused by the state for political gain. Says Shahdeen Malik, an eminent lawyer, "One aspect that often gets lost sight of is that in any criminal case it is the individual versus the state. Thus the state, with all its forces, bodies, authorities, departments, ministries, finances, personnel, etc., is deployed against a single individual. The power of abuse in the criminal justice process is therefore, inherent." That's why adds Malik the constitution in Article 35, provides safeguards to this abuse. Article 35 states that a person cannot be compelled to be a witness against himself; in other words be forced to confess committing a crime.

Malik affirms that in the last few years the government has abused the criminal justice system against opposition parties. In fact it had used the same form of political intimidation by arresting and incarcerating several individuals including Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, a former Awami League minister and journalists Shahrier Kabir and Selim Samad. "In Bidisha's case if the High Court has granted bail it is apparent that prima facie the chance of prosecution success is questionable," he says. In all the cases filed against Bidisha, the court eventually granted bail because the allegations against her were not based on any logical grounds and the prosecution could not come up with any facts or tangible proof to back up their accusations.

While the trial will go on and for now Bidisha is free, she still has another personal battle to fight that of getting back her son. She has already sent a legal notice to her former husband to return her child. Her public humiliation and suffering sends disturbing messages to the people. If you are in the bad books of the ruling party you have no rights as a citizen and you may be subject to state intimidation of the most formidable kind. Bidisha's biggest mistake was not just marrying the wrong man, but marrying into the world of political mafia.

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