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Is Britain's Aid Funding a Political Crackdown in Bangladesh?

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What a few weeks it has been for that Machiavellian matriarch Sheikh Hasina. She swished into London in August to bookmark the Olympic Games (opening and closing ceremony tickets for Bangladesh's premier - no messing around with an either/or scenario).

In between trips to her home in London she found time to meet her key diplomatic allies and financial backers: prime minister David Cameron, foreign secretary William Hague, opposition leader Ed Miliband, and the now former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell. Never one to shy away from the limelight, Hasina was even afforded the privilege and prestige of a reception at Downing Street.

But while canapés were nibbled in London SW1A, back in Dhaka, Hasina's henchmen were busy disassembling the country's fragile democratic apparatus in the most sustained assault on freedom of speech in the 41 years since independence.

Last month, Bangladesh's supreme leader ordered the arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, a leading member of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, who also runs a charitable organisation named after the great Arab polymath Ibn Sina.

Ali's lesser crime is less his political and philosophical ideology, and more the 15 million people he reaches via newspapers like Naya Diganta, part of a Jamaat-owned media group. His greater crime though, it would appear, is his very public criticism of a war crimes tribunal set up by Hasina after her Awami League party rose to power in 2008.

This tribunal, which veers between medieval show trial and outright witch-hunt - and includes inventing witness statements, coaching witnesses, and interfering with judicial appointments - has been denounced by everyone from the United Nations to the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp.

Hasina's men love the tribunal, which aims to bring to trial anyone involved in the ghastly events surrounding the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, where it is alleged that three million people were killed, and up to 400,000 women were raped. The cause is worthy but, say critics, its underlying motives are purely political. All those so far arrested are opponents of Hasina, many from Jamaat-e-Islami. Happily for Bangladesh's premier, none of those on (show-) trial are from her side of the political fence.

Ali's arrest is merely the latest of a string of concerted attacks on Hasina's opponents, including the intimidation of journalists and a sustained and unpalatable assault on Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, in an attempt to undermine and nationalise his trailblazing microfinance lender Grameen Bank.

It's strangely sad that this medieval madness is taking place just 5,000 miles away from an Olympic village whose athletes and overseers trumpet the causes of freedom, inclusivity and progress. And its ironic in the extreme that Britain's political leaders should be condoning and even championing a woman bent on denying those very human rights to her people.

But still the bullying continues on the subcontinent. Earlier this month, almost the entire elected membership of the opposition Bangladesh National Party bar its leader was arrested. A litany of charges now awaits the main opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, and her family: Zia charges that these accusations are pure retribution on the part of her political nemesis, Sheikh Hasina.

None of this bodes well for elections next year. In her meeting with Ed Miliband, Hasina stated that "all the future elections in Bangladesh will be held in a complete fair and neutral manner". Few believe that any election in Bangladesh can be either 'free' or 'fair' so long as she retains supreme power. Later, in a BBC interview, Hasina proclaimed that her opposition back home enjoyed every possible political and democratic right.

Perhaps she believes this to be true. Perhaps she believes that her opponents are indeed truly guilty of heinous crimes, while her political cronies and cohorts are above the fray, innocent and pure, garlanded with roses and perfume. Yet if this really is the case, it would seem strange that she is denying any of the accused at the war crimes tribunal access to proper legal representation. Last year, Jamaat-e-Islami's British lawyer Toby Cadman, a respected human rights lawyer practicing at London's 9 Bedford Row International, was detained on arrival in Dhaka Airport, despite his international credentials. Cadman was held for ten hours before being expelled from Bangladesh on the next Dubai-bound plane. His request for a visa to return to Bangladesh to defend his clients have been met with a steely silence. Ironically, during the previous Government when Sheikh Hasina was leader of the opposition, and faced trial herself, her defence team was assisted by the presence of Cherie Booth QC, wife of former PM, Tony Blair.

Hasina's assault on freedom is one that the British government has the financial and political resources to stop - right now. Yet both our government and our opposition are doing precisely nothing to halt events in Dhaka, preferring to stick their fingers in their ears and hold their nose.

The now former International development secretary Mitchell refused to comment on the treatment of Yunus at all - until finally putting pen to paper in a letter of reply addressed to Cadman, published in the September 7 edition of the Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile the UK High Commission in Dhaka refused to condemn the arrest of opposition politicians. The Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign Office are complicit in this crackdown on democracy and freedom of expression.

The British Government, through DFID, directly funds Bangladesh to the tune of £250 million a year, and has plans to increase this support to £1 billion over the next three years. This makes the UK the chief funder of its former colony, money that is currently handed over, directly to Hasina's cronies, with no strings or conditions attached.

So what is to be done? Firstly, the British Government must make direct-to-government aid to Bangladesh conditional on freedom of expression. In the last ten years the country has been listed last a total of five times in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. But when the British Government is providing funds unconditionally to a country with such fundamental deficiencies, then it is incredulous this comes without strings attached.

Secondly, Britain and others must demand that all trials, whether for war crimes or otherwise, are conducted in accordance with universal standards of due process with full respect to the presumption of innocence, before a tribunal that is impartial and independent of the ruling party.

Finally, the British Government has to acknowledge that its funding modus operandi isn't working. In recent weeks, the UK has withheld aid to Rwanda's leader Paul Kagame, whose administration has been linked to alleged human rights abuses, at home and abroad. In Bangladesh, the government's crackdown against human rights and freedoms are not even alleged - they are plain for all to see.

Few but the most virulent hawks would deny that international aid has its benefits, but the British coalition government is taking its liberal stance on foreign aid funding to the absolute extreme. By channeling billions of pounds of unconditional funding into the maw of a truly noxious foreign leader more interested in witchhunts and her world standing than with promoting and protecting human rights or democracy, Britain is starting to look a complicit and even active part of the awful events unfolding on the subcontinent.

We need to change how we fund not just Bangladesh, but many countries. If a country's leaders use UK taxpayers' money to subjugate their own people in the covert name of political retribution, it is time for us to make a change. Surely people of the intelligence of Cameron, Hague and Miliband should be able, at the very least, to understand this very real pilgrim's progress.