I have written a lot recently about the human rights abuses and the lack of due process in Bangladesh under the current military regime. I have thrown numbers out such as 150,000 people behind bars without due process. However, sometimes numbers are hard to comprehend without a human face.
The military government, under the guise of an "anti-corruption drive", is purging the political class in Bangladesh. Leading political figures in the country are being rounded up on all sorts of charges. The military has created special "summary courts" to expeditiously try the "corrupt" politicians. The first to be tried is a long-time politician named Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir. Yesterday in the Washington Post, Nora Boustany wrote about his predicament. Today his son, Jalal Alamgir, who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, wrote an op-ed in the Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star. I am going to reprint the entire op-ed below because it is a necessary look behind the illusion of the "anti-corruption drive". Mr. Alamgir is charged with not fully disclosing his financial status when the military government demanded it earlier this year. He is charged with failing to disclose that he had a certificate of deposit in a Bangladeshi bank worth 1 crore taka. That amounts to $144,519 using today’s exchange rate of 69.195 taka to 1 US dollar. To put matters into some perspective, the military government has collected 270 crore taka (over $39 million) from 7 businessmen who had illegally acquired the funds. None of those businessmen are in jail.
Mr. Alamgir is not charged with illegally acquiring his modest savings; instead he is charged with failing to report that he had savings deposited in a well-known Bangladeshi bank – information that is readily available to the government. For that "crime", he is being held behind bars in solitary confinement, and without due process. According to the military government, the case against Mr. Alamgir is as follows:
ACC deputy directors (DD) Sharmin Ferdousi and Jibon Krishna Roy, the IOs of the case, submitted the charge sheet of the case filed against former state minister for planning Dr Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir with Tejgaon Police Station on March 6.
The IOs in the charge sheet said Alamgir committed a crime by not disclosing accurate financial information to both National Board of Revenue (NBR) and the ACC. The IOs said he did not mention his savings balance of Tk 1.17 crore in six fixed deposit accounts with IFIC Bank Karwan Bazar branch.
As you read the following op-ed, keep in mind that Mr. Alamgir’s story is but one of many such stories. The only reason we are hearing his story is because his son lives in the United States and has the freedom and the resources to speak out. Many others, ordinary citizens like Choles Ritchil, who have faced the brutality of this military have not lived to tell their tale.
The plot against MKA : A son’s protest
The much-publicized graft trials in summary courts have just begun. Who’s the first one being put on the stand? No, not someone who has embezzled millions from state coffers, nor one who has lived in inexplicable luxury and drives expensive European cars, nor one who has stolen relief materials meant for the poor.
The case that the government has prioritized is that of my father, Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir. And the official charge is that he had failed to disclose in his wealth statement fixed deposits held in IFIC Bank’s Karwan Bazar branch, amounting to around Tk 1 crore.
For the moment, leave aside the amount, which is tiny compared to the amounts implicated in corruption charges against others. Don’t inquire, for now, why the same government that is hunting down Dr. Alamgir has allowed seven businessmen to quietly return Tk 270 crores of "laundered money" and face no charges.
And don’t be bothered by the fact that the previous BNP government had left no stone unturned to find evidence of corruption against him, torturing him in 2002 and then persecuting him for the next five years, to no avail.
Just ask, where exactly is the corruption in this particular case?
Corruption implies abuse of power for private gain. Can a simple omission made in a financial statement by a 66-year old man, jailed in solitary confinement, be considered corruption, or even a crime, by any reasonable definition of the terms?
While in jail, my father was told to prepare and submit within 72 hours a statement detailing his life’s income and assets, or risk seizure of his property. He was denied access to any of his documents or to lawyers. He was kept in darkness from sundown to sunrise. Still, he wrote down an estimate spanning 40-plus years, as best as he could from memory.
Under these conditions, it’s simply impossible to be accurate, even for the most meticulous. But that’s precisely why the government created these conditions. It wants to generate these types of forced inconsistencies, so that it can have a pretext for convicting whomever it handpicks, pretending smugly that justice has been served.
And so prosecutors have gone to claim that my father’s omission indicates mala fide intent. I saw the draft statement he wrote; the poor man tried to calculate even tables of compound interest entirely by hand.
So I ask myself, do our leaders forget that people are not so easily fooled by their arguments? Even our ordinary wage-earning folk, like van drivers, fruit sellers, peons carrying files — they all know very well whose intent is malicious here.
They don’t speak, but their respectful salaams, their sympathetic nods, and their everyday acts of courtesy tell my father that they know his case is a farce. They willingly take risks that highbrow round-table talking heads won’t, and we get rewarded with an occasional letter, or if we are very lucky, a hushed one-minute phone call.
A few days ago, I spoke with my father for a minute, after three months. "Abba, shunte pachho (can you hear me?)," I asked.
He just managed, "Baba," and he choked up.
But through it I heard a deafening question: why this injustice again, why are they still after me?
People know. During a raid to our house, while one government agent declared in bravado: "Ponchash takar gormil peleo dhorbo (we’ll get you even if we find a fifty taka discrepancy)," another one sincerely apologized for what they were doing, but added that they had been ordered by higher ups to find something, anything, whatever it took.
The government’s first plot to frame Abba was "conspiracy against the state." A Bengali daily published parts of the hearing. The prosecutor was trying to convince the judge that Abba was conspiring at night, but the prosecutor failed to give answers to the judge’s repeated questions on what exactly he was conspiring.
"Are there witnesses? Is there proof?" The judge asked.
"Yes, we have all of that in a secret file," replied the Deputy Attorney General.
"Show me that file," demanded the Honorable Justice.
The prosecutor kept silent. Then, unable to show anything, he protested, "My Lord, we are in a state of emergency."
That, the prosecutor believed, trumped all arguments. But the High Court later dismissed the case as false.
Seeing that the High Court would not be easily convinced by fake charges, the government decided to bypass due process altogether; hence, we have a homegrown system of summary tribunals, extended right to detain, no right of bail, little scope of appeal, and lots of intimidation.
In that system, it became hard to find lawyers. Some politely refused, saying that they are scared to defend the accused, for the government would unleash its anger on them. Many journalists are scared too; we’ve all read about the press notes and the SMSes that the government has sent from time to time, barring them from carrying certain types of news.
Journalists were also barred entry to the courtroom on May 6, the day that the court took cognizance of my father’s case. The reason? Well, it’s anybody’s guess; maybe there were secret files with terrible truths that could not be made public.
All told, this is what the present courts are like, operating opaquely in a legal outback. With basic rights and due process dumped, and the watchful eye of the High Court sidelined, the government will try to ram its case through summary tribunals, and then put my father behind bars for crimes he did not commit.
The plot against MKA has the makings of a deliberate miscarriage of justice. It also portends a broader tragedy.
2,500 years ago the Greek playwright Aeschylus, the founder of tragedy, wrote famously: "In war, truth is the first casualty." The way the government is starting off by framing my father, it seems like our precious war on corruption will be no different.
And if you’re still unsure about mala fide intent or want to uncover a tragic "conspiracy against the state," this is where I suggest you look. After years of theft and abuse of power, our interest unquestionably is to secure justice, but some within the government are trampling the integrity of that effort by once again using it as a boxing arena to carry out their personal vendetta.
Next time I talk to Abba, whenever it may be, I will tell him, "They may hurt you now with their newfound muscle, but people know who is right. You’ll be able to tell by their salaams."
Jalal Alamgir is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Update: (via Drishtipat)
Jalal Alamgir has launched a website to help free his father. The site contains a wealth of background information, including the military government’s case against Mr. Alamgir. Here is information on how you can get involved to help free Mr. Alamgir. Please also help spread the word about this case. Information is the enemy of this military regime in Bangladesh. Help shine a light on what they would like to hide from the world.
The case against Mr. Alamgir would be comical if not for the fact that a man’s life hangs in the balance. It turns out that Mr. Alamgir did in fact report the certificates of deposit the military government charges him with concealing. They are claiming that he failed to properly estimate the value of the certificate of deposit when it will mature in the future. His estimate, from memory calculated from his jail cell, was off by 23%:
Dr. Alamgir prepared his financial statement under duress. He was asked to prepare and submit a wealth statement while in jail within 72 hours, or risk the seizure of his property. He had to prepare the statement with no access to any of his documents. He had to provide information, including 40+ years of income and assets, entirely from his memory. These conditions were created deliberately to generate inconsistencies, since it is not humanly possible to give an accurate account of one’s lifetime’s income and wealth under these circumstances.
Dr. Alamgir specifically mentioned fixed deposit (FDR) accounts. On page 3-5 of the statement furnished to ACC (Anti-Corruption Commision), specific mention was made about Sanchaya Patras and Amanat Patras (Bengali words for fixed deposit instruments). While in jail and without any bank documents, he estimated the value of his accounts to be around Tk. 9 million. ACC has charged that the value is Tk. 11.7 million. The discrepancy between a forced estimate produced by a prisoner in solitary confinement and a team of government accountants with all records in front of them comes to Tk. 2.7 million (approx. US $ 38,500) — hardly a grounds for corruption.
Corruption implies illegal income through theft or abuse of power. The accounts that the government are referring to have been in place for many years. This is regular banking information (not illegal accounts or offshore accounts or hidden accounts) that is available to the government. In addition, taxes have been paid from these accounts; there was nothing hidden or illegal about them. [Emphasis added by me.]
This is the third case brought against Mr. Alamgir by this military government. The first two cases were thrown out of court. This case, however, is being conducted under special tribunals created by the military government. Reality and common sense do not apply in these military tribunals.
The first case was dismissed by the Bangladesh High Court because the military had a hard time convincing a judge that having dinner with another person in one’s home constituted "treason". The second case was dismissed by a district court because the court was unconvinced that Mr. Alamgir, along with 115 other defendants, were guilty of "extortion" on a small government road work contract worth $850. It was a further blow to the military when it was revealed that Mr. Alamgir last served in government in 2001 and the alleged "extortion" took place on January 5, 2007.