Rater Zonaki



The state of emergency and the spate of political persecution ended after the elections in 2008 and yet the  Directorate General of the Forces Intelligence, responsible for killing and torture of that period has the clout to threaten journalists against exposure of their sordid past.


Hong Kong, China — “Life is so cheap in Bangladesh ,” a senior journalist pointed out to a Bangladesh Army colonel who had come to his office to intimidate him. “My life can be ended at any time … by any of the violence that goes on around us. Why are you so concerned about my life?”


The colonel, an officer of the Directorate General of the Forces Intelligence, had come to warn the journalist to stop speaking out against lawlessness during the two-year state of emergency that ended in December, 2008.


The DGFI is known for the specialized torture cells it maintains in the country’s garrisons, used to interrogate suspects. Many of the country’s politicians have experienced the taste of torture in those cells.


Bangladeshi authorities routinely prove that life is cheap in the country. The poor man’s life is cheapest of all. An incident occurred last Saturday at Tongi in Gazipur district, near the capital Dhaka , that illustrates this point.


Around 1,500 workers reporting for work Saturday morning at Nippon Garments, a readymade garment factory, were met by a notice stating that the factory would be closed for a month. They had not been told of this closure when they ended their day’s work on Friday, and their monthly wages of US$30 had not been paid.


This is a frequent occurrence in the country’s readymade garment industry. Employers or their loyal staff terminate ordinary workers whenever they wish, often by verbal notice, as most workers do not have written contracts that detail their employment status and salaries.


It is a “national tradition” in Bangladesh that the laws favor those in power, not the ordinary people. This has often caused frustration among the people, who then demonstrate to express their demands, regardless of their legitimacy or logic.


The outraged workers of the closed garment factory demonstrated on the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway. When factory authorities failed to meet the workers or respond to their demands, they got impatient and began

vandalizing vehicles.


The government sent riot police to control the situation. The police suddenly started firing indiscriminately at the demonstrators, killing at least three people – a rickshaw-puller who had gone to rescue his garment-worker wife, a pedestrian and a mason. Many others were wounded by police bullets.


The media claimed there were even more deaths, and accused the police of a cover-up to suppress the truth. But Home Minister Sahara Khatun denied that anyone was killed by police gunfire. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seems to have ended the issue simply by declaring that none would be spared if found guilty.


Unfortunately, Bangladeshis already know that they cannot expect justice from their politicians. Deaths due to police gunfire or other unwarranted violence are quite common. The police torture or kill people in custody. Political parties also kill their rivals in open attacks.


In recent years, for example, a number of people were killed in Sherpur, Jamalpur and adjacent districts when police opened fire on farmers who were demanding fertilizer to grow their crops.


Around eight villagers of Shibganj in Chapainawabganj district were killed by police gunshots for demanding electricity, after being forced to pay electric bills without having received even the minimum power supply.


A similar incident occurred in Fulbari of Dinajpur district when locals protested against a multinational company that wanted to mine coal without regard for the local environment and without adequate compensation for local people displaced by the mines. Several were killed by police gunfire.


After each of these shocking incidents, the ruling party made rhetorical speeches and promised compensation to the victims. But they failed to even identify the perpetrators or investigate the situation. No comprehensive or sustainable solution was offered, and the suffering of the victims was ignored.


After each such incident, the opposition parties became government critics and voiced their sympathy to the victims while lamenting their inability to change things because they were not in power. But no progress is made even when the same opposition becomes the ruling party.


There is no remedy or explanation for the unruly violence caused by law enforcement authorities.


It is the political parties that have always benefited from violent acts. Bangladeshi politicians have repeatedly demonstrated their penchant for weak and bad policies, irresponsible practices, uncontrollable desire to plunder state property, and greed for power and money.


While they survive with all their drawbacks, they have no time or ability to overcome them – let alone helping ordinary citizens or solving problems of state and public institutions.


The police – regardless of whether they are riot, traffic or normal police – are part of Bangladeshi society, which has grown impatient with such behavior. This situation prevails in all public institutions, including the basic legal institutions, which fail to address the problems calmly and fairly.


People die unnatural deaths every day, but nobody cares. Such carelessness deserves to die its own death in an “intellectual firing.” The nation should immediately start building an intellectual infrastructure to kill this ongoing carelessness. Otherwise, life will remain as cheap as the lives of the laborers in the garment industry.


(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong , working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national who has worked as a journalist and human rights activist in his country for more than a decade, and as editor of publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues.)


( November 05, 2009; Suplied by SACW November 5-8, 2009)

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