World Bulletin / News Desk
The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI), the country's main Islamist political party, says it will not be cowed by an ongoing government security crackdown and will appeal a recent court ruling cancelling its election registration.
"At this moment in time, there are no human rights or rule of law in Bangladesh; what the police are doing has become the law," lawmaker Hamidur Rahman Azad, a member of the BJI's Central Executive Committee, told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview from an undisclosed location.
"If any person is arrested, he rarely gets bail," he added. "And even if one gets bail, he is immediately re-arrested upon his release at the gates of the jail and taken into police custody in another false case."
Azad said that his party would appeal a recent High Court decision to cancel the BJI's registration, which would effectively stop it from contesting 2014 general elections.
"According to the Constitution of Bangladesh, the sole registration authority is the Election Commission (EC)," he explained.
"Only the EC may decide whether or not the BJI is eligible for registration for election," Azad stressed.
"The BJI is preparing to file an appeal against the HC judgment before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court (SC)," said the party leader.
He went on to explain that the EC could not take any action until the SC issued a ruling on his party's appeal.
The BJI leader also criticized the proceedings of Bangladesh's International War Crimes Tribunal.
"It is widely perceived by the international community that the judgments given so far were politically motivated," he charged.
"We, along with our workers and activists, will struggle to ensure that fair trial standards are established in the courts, so that our leaders get a fair trial and would be able to prove their innocence," Azad said.
What do you plan to do about the recent HC ruling outlawing the BJI and stopping it from standing in elections?
Azad: It is not true that the HC in its recent judgment has outlawed the BJI. However, they have cancelled the registration granted to the BJI by the EC for the purpose of participating in elections. According to the Constitution of Bangladesh, the sole registration authority is the EC. Only the EC may decide whether or not the BJI is eligible for registration for election. According to the eminent lawyers of the country, at this moment, the proceedings were not within purview of the powers of the HC. The BJI is preparing to file an appeal against the HC judgment before the Appellate Division of the SC. The EC cannot take any action till the final judgment is passed by the SC on the appeal to be filed by BJI. It may be mentioned here the judgment of the HC was not unanimous. The senior-most judge of a three-judge bench gave a dissenting judgment. Therefore, we hope that the SC would pass its judgment to establish the fundamental rights of the people.
In your estimation, will the BJI be able to run in upcoming parliamentary polls?
Azad: The BJI is a political party which is democratic in nature and it has always participated in previous elections. Like the last elections, we will struggle to participate in the coming elections under the non-party caretaker government. But the present government is conspiring so as to prevent us from participating in the coming elections. Under Article 103 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, before the final judgment from the SC, the EC cannot impose any embargo in respect to participating in the elections. A substantial number of people cast their votes in favor of the BJI in every national election and the BJI has had representation in all parliaments since the restoration of democracy. So the people will resist, through democratic movement, any attempt to deny their franchise if they cannot cast their votes in favor of the BJI. They will establish their democratic and fundamental right in this respect.
About a dozen key BJI leaders are currently on trial for war crimes. How does the party plan to defend them?
Azad: According to experts at home and abroad, the War Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka neither complies with international standards nor does it comply with the standards of ordinary local courts. There are no international judges, prosecutors or lawyers. In fact, international lawyers appointed by the defense have been barred from entering the country. None of the judges have any experience or training in international criminal law. In fact, it is widely perceived by the international community that the judgments given so far were politically motivated. According to the report of the UK-based Economist, the Bangladesh government has interfered in the court's deliberations. Many countries are also terming the trials as unfair and have recommended retrials and amendments to be made to the law to ensure justice and fairness. Our leaders are innocent and we believe that they will be proved innocent in the SC. So we, along with our workers and activists, will struggle to ensure that fair trial standards are established in the courts, so that our leaders get a fair trial and would be able to prove their innocence. We are ready to sacrifice our lives to set up a fair and unbiased judiciary so that the innocence of our noble leaders can be proved. Already more than 350 people have sacrificed their lives for this noble cause. In addition to that, several thousand people were injured and as many as 45,000 false cases were lodged against 5,000 leaders, workers and students.
What do you have to say about the BJI's role in the country's 1971 war of independence?
Azad: In 1971, the BJI took the political decision to keep Pakistan united. They desired not to divide a united Pakistan. It is not a crime either under national or international law to seek the territorial integrity of a nation. The desire to keep a nation united has no relation with war crimes or crimes against humanity. It is a fact that war crimes were committed during 1971. But we never supported these war crimes and our leaders were never involved in any war crimes or crimes against humanity. So during the last 40 years, there was not a single case or complaint against any of our leaders in this regard. Rather, the BJI and its leaders worked hard for the independence of our country after liberation and we are most vocal to protect our sovereignty.
In your opinion, what's the main reason behind the government crackdown on the BJI?
HR Azad: The present government has attacked the sentiment of the Muslims in this country by harassing Muslims and Muslim sentiments and the Islamic education system and Islamic education policy. All Islamic groups are affected by the activities of the government. The ruling party, i.e. the Awami League, is of the opinion that the BJI has the capacity to unite Bangladeshis against it on the basis of a feeling of brotherhood among Muslims. They think the BJI will be an obstruction to occupying power again. Being a determining force in politics, the BJI has great importance in the political field. Failing to face the BJI politically, they took to the undemocratic and fascist path of crushing the BJI. It is a reality that it is not possible to crush a political party in a fascist manner and they will fail in this respect. The fate of these types of undemocratic and fascist actions will never be beneficial for the country or the party which carries out such actions.
Why are you and other party leaders in hiding? How are you running the party under these difficult circumstances?
Azad: At this moment in time, there are no human rights or rule of law in Bangladesh; what the police are doing has become the law. If a person is arrested, he is implicated in over a dozen cases. It is known to everybody that during the last four and a half years, the offices of the BJI were closed by police. There is no place to sit for leaders and members of the BJI; leaders and workers cannot remain in their own houses. Senior political leaders, MPs, human rights activists and media personalities have been in police custody in concocted cases and tortured for several days. If any person is arrested, he rarely gets bail. Even if one gets bail, he is immediately re-arrested upon his release at the gates of the jail and taken into police custody in another false case. The overall situation is that people's support is in our favor and it is increasing day-by-day. The morale of leaders and workers is also rising. They are ready to sacrifice their lives for the cause of the nation. People are sympathizing with sacrifices being made by leaders and workers of the BJI.
What's the BJI's primary objective?
Azad: The immediate goal and target of the BJI is to establish honest leadership, social justice, rule of law, emancipation of people from the atrocities of present ruling party cadres, social welfare, poverty alleviation, ethical education and health care services under an Islamic system. However, our main and ultimate goal is to seek the pleasure of Almighty Allah.
Your party is demanding a non-party caretaker government to oversee upcoming polls. How much popular support does this demand enjoy?
Azad: The people of Bangladesh were always in support of a non-party caretaker government. Even the prime minister herself had fought for establishing this system and declared and enforced 173 days of general strike in order to establish such a non-party caretaker government. One of the parliamentary committees assigned for preparing the 15th amendment of the constitution also advocated this non-party caretaker government. The journalists and editors of our newspapers are also in support of this system. A recently conducted poll carried out by one of the most circulated national dailies has found that more than 90 percent [of the] people support a non-party caretaker government during elections. More recently, one English daily, The Daily Star, together with the Asia Foundation, carried out a survey and found 77 percent support for an election-time, non-party caretaker government. All political parties except the ruling party, members of the general public and civil society are in favor of a non-party caretaker government because any election would not otherwise be fair. The present government made the 15th amendment to the constitution to scrap an election-time, non-party caretaker government. The mission of the present government is only to remain in power; they want to avoid a non-party, caretaker government and hold elections under their own party government.
As part of the opposition coalition, what will you do if the prime minister rejects your demand?
Azad: As the non-party caretaker government has become the people's agenda, we think that our honorable prime minister will ultimately agree with this system. It has become the people's agenda for the national elections. If she [the PM] does not agree, people will compel the present government to agree through a political movement. The people are participating in the present political movement on their own decision.
Do you expect your demands for a non-party caretaker government to be met?
Azad: The vast majority of our population is in favor of a system of election-time, non-party caretaker government. As the present ruling party is a democratic one, we expect that they will honor the people's support for this system. The ruling party is leading the 14-party alliance, where some of the parties are also in favor of non-party neutral government. So we believe that the ruling Awami League will also eventually agree to a non-party neutral government during the coming elections. Actually, there is no alternative to a solution which reflects the people's opinion regarding the establishment of a neutral caretaker government. If they do not agree, democracy will be adversely affected and political and economic crisis will ensue.
Bangladesh's economy has been almost destroyed by the constant general strikes called by the opposition. How can this be remedied?
Azad: We do not believe that our economy has been or will be destroyed by any political activity of the opposition. Actually, the political crisis made by the present government is really damaging our economy. And this is created by the 15th amendment abolishing the non-party caretaker government. This has led to uncertainty and instability in the country. The political crisis has been worsened by the crackdown on political parties including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the BJI and the unfair political trial of our leaders. If the prime minister accepts a non-party neutral government or resigns from the post of prime minister, then there will be no more general strikes. General strikes are necessary to preserve democracy and are necessary to ensure freedom of the people. The government itself has created this problem and it is their duty to solve it.
You and your 18-party alliance have just called for more general strikes. Do you have plans for other forms of political activity?
Azad: In Bangladesh, no political solution was achieved without political movements, including general strikes. For example, when a former BNP-led government was initially not in favor of a non-party neutral government, they ultimately were compelled to agree due to the pressure of political movement involving general strikes. The present political movement is a most effective program. The Awami League staged 173 days of general strikes from 1994 to 1996. There are alternative programs, such as long marches, public meetings and political rallies. But these are also prevented by the police. So people are bound to take extreme courses, such as calling for general strikes, and the present government is solely responsible for this.
The ruling party has repeatedly said that Bangladesh would become a "terrorist zone" if the 18-party alliance came to power again. Has Bangladesh seen any recent terrorist activity?
Azad: In Islam, there is no scope of terrorism. It is the political agenda of the present Awami League government to gain support from a "special quarter" by publicizing this downright falsehood. They are painting a picture that the country will turn into a terrorist state if the opposition is elected so that it can obtain the support of that special quarter. The present government has been carrying out propaganda that if the BJI comes to power with any alliance, then Bangladesh would be a terrorist state. However, people still think that the BJI is a moderate Islamic and democratic party. This is the belief of many foreign countries as well. There is a long history of democratic and political movement by the BJI, even during the 50s, 60s and 80s. It is a recognized political party which has carried out its actions consistently with the constitution of Bangladesh. Terrorist activities are carried out at the insistence of the present government and during their earlier tenure to give the impression that without the Awami League in power, Bangladesh will become a terrorist state. During the BNP-led government, only one occurrence of terrorism occurred. This was dealt with legally and the real perpetrator, Abdur Rahman, was tried and executed. It is alleged that one Awami League leader, a relation of Abdur Rahman, was engaged in giving shelter to this terrorist.
What's your take on Bangladesh-India relations and Indian interference in internal Bangladeshi politics?
Azad: Bangladesh wants friendly relations with all countries of the world, including India. But India has always openly supported the Awami League in preference to other political parties. In addition to that, every time the Awami League comes to power, India gets a number of concessions from Bangladesh, but Bangladesh does not get any from India. Indian issues are given more importance than to our own unsettled issues, like the Teesta River Water Sharing Agreement, construction of the Tipaimukh Dam, access to Bangladeshi enclaves surrounded by Indian territory, and shooting and killing of Bangladeshi civilians – including children – by Border Security Forces of India. The people of Bangladesh do not like interference by any foreign country in its politics. The open support of India towards the Awami League is going against the wishes of the vast majority of the people. It is also contrary to democracy and diplomatic norms. The people of Bangladesh want to settle all issues with India and maintain friendly relations with India. However, India is required to respect the sovereignty of Bangladesh and to behave with it fairly. Bangladeshi people are safe and friendly neighbors.