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Bangladeshis Must Not Be Silenced by Their Government

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BANGLADESH
AP

A government should always be held to account, which is why Khaleda Zia, leader of the main political opposition in Bangladesh, wrote an article in an American newspaper last week highlighting the threat to democracy in Bangladesh under prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government. Only two days later, there were calls in Parliament by Awami League MPs for Zia's arrest. Her comments, measured enough to warrant publication in a respected newspaper, amount to, in the words of one MP, a 'deep conspiracy' and 'sedition'. Thankfully, a Metropolitan Magistrate has refused to issue a citation, but the threat remains ever present.

Her article addressed unease at the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government. It also raised doubts over the continuation of the government-installed International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a locally administered court, set up to adjudicate crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. There has been widespread criticism of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct at the highest level.

The ICT has now passed its second guilty verdict, that of a senior opposition politician, Abdul Quader Mollah. This verdict raises serious concerns, particularly after the tribunal's credibility was repeatedly questioned by international legal experts. Last week Ed Miliband expressed concern and promised further investigations. So far, the FCO has applied minimal diplomatic pressure, with Baroness Warsi stating she is "aware of concerns expressed by some human rights NGOs and legal professionals."

This stance underestimates the perilous state of Bangladeshi democracy, best represented by the Awami League's vitriolic reaction to Khaleda Zia's article. Their attempt to muzzle opposition politicians demonstrates a clear challenge to freedom of speech.

To stem this authoritarian trend it is deemed imperative that a caretaker government is installed to guarantee transparent elections in eleven months. These caretaker administrations have been constitutionally guaranteed to halt government interference during elections. Whilst Bangladeshis protest on the streets, pressure must also be exerted from donor nations like Britain. If not, Sheikh Hasina will ride roughshod over the will of millions, and attain re-election despite popular opposition to her rule.

This is not the first time political enemies have been targeted by Sheikh Hasina's government. First, it was Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, who was stripped of his position as Managing Director of Grameen Bank, an institution that has pulled millions of Bangladeshis out of poverty.

Opposition parties have been subjected to worse treatment. In May last year 33 members of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) were arrested and denied bail. These charges were the beginning of a series of arrests aimed at suppressing both principal opposition parties - BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami.

There has been no let up. This month, two Jamaat activists were hacked to death by ruling party members during a strike. Further deaths have followed this week, as citizens held hartal - or general strikes - to protest against attacks on freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, censorship continues through the ICT. The court has only sought to try those politically opposed to the regime. Despite the leaking of e-mails and Skype conversations between members of the prosecution, judges and external actors - a scandal that drew global coverage - the first two guilty verdicts have been passed in the last few weeks, much to the alarm of international observers.

Even civil society and NGOs have reported harassment. Treatment has been particularly harsh for those that challenged the government's record on freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch recently articulated this paranoia at the heart of Sheikh Hasina's rule: "The government seems to view every critic, including reputable domestic NGOs, as part of some vast conspiracy to topple it, instead of organizations genuinely interested in improving the country."

Meanwhile the media remain under constant censorship. Newspaper editor Mahmudur Rahman, who reported the tribunal leaks, was charged with sedition. Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders remain dismayed at the unbaiting rates of arrest, torture and murder of journalists within Bangladesh.

Next month Lord Carlyle will lead a delegation from the House of Lords to Bangladesh. They will be expected to report their findings to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council. If it reflects the reality on the ground, it may provide a wake up call to those in the British Government who choose to wish this problem away. Unfortunately, it is now quite clear that the Awami League government has no interest in a fair election, as much as it wishes to stem fair trials at the Tribunal. Their denial of an interim caretaker government reflects this entirely.

So the British Government has one task - to remain steadfast in their call to the government of Bangladesh to protect the right of free speech. Labour MPs, many whom represent sizeable Bangladeshi communities, must apply similar pressure on Ministers.

The restoration of the caretaker government system, as foreign a concept as it may appear to the outside, is the only way to ensure Bangladeshis are guaranteed a fair vote. If the UK stands idly by, many more in Bangladesh will be threatened with arrest for exercising their right to free speech. Bangladeshi politicians, media, NGOs and individuals must be allowed to express their views on who should govern their country. George Orwell was indeed right: '"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

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