3/13/07

Why Smiling

Why Are They Smiling?
Naeem Mohaiemen
[Daily Star, March 13, 2007]

Since January, we have been gulping down a steady daily diet of chomok, washed down with a drink of conspiracy cola. Big guns arrested, crown prince in the dock, bank statements seized, Hummer H2 impounded, peacocks in the pen, Bagan Bari locked up. And then dheu tin, why is this such a hot commodity? Well it isn’t really, but it’s the one thing that’s hard to get rid of quickly. You can shred documents, stash guns, squirrel money away in Swiss accounts, release a pet croc into Hosni Dalan (very James Bond…). But dheu tin—those are heavy suckers. Na pari khaithe, na pari falaithe.

When I wake up and leaf through the papers, I’m disappointed if there isn’t a new arrest, a new revelation, a big name brought low. But this insatiable appetite for chomok also masks a structural weakness. We are busy being entertained, and then we forget about it just as quickly as new thrills (or distractions) arrive. Look up in the Sky! Indo-Markin conspiracy! Nagorik Shakti! Chittagong Seaport! Shushil Shomaj’s Revenge! On to the next story…

Dhaka, city of bazillion conspiracy theories, is so busy with this daily kathu-kuthu, not many are bothered about the hard work needed to actually successfully prosecute cases. The same Special Powers Act we used to protest is now our temporary savior (“temporary” because one day we will have to face this law that has been abused by both AL and BNP). Of the SPA’s “prejudicial acts” clauses (sovereignty, defense, friendly relations with foreign states, public safety, communal hatred, law and order, etc), perhaps only “economic or financial interest of the state” clause is relevant to mass looting, corruption and abuse of power now on the dock. Given the inevitable irregularities in detention, interrogation, and evidence gathering, you can see how a sharp, well paid lawyer can start taking apart the cases.

No doubt the CTG is in hyper-drive to try to lock away as many of the black money all-stars as possible. But what are the resources they have? A new Attorney General (Fida Kamal) and AAG (Salahuddin Ahmed), but underneath them the same team – including almost 100 staffers appointed by the BNP-Jamaat coalition (some lawyers have started discussing reform proposals to remove about 60 on grounds of inefficiency and partisanship).

Consider all the political interference we saw in the lower courts in last fifteen years, and even in the Supreme Court in last five years: partisan appointments, cancellation of previous regime appointments, leapfrogging in appointments of judges (including chief justice), new appointments without consultation, mark sheet forgery, Supreme Court musical chairs, vacation bench manipulation, phantom litigants, chief justices revoking judge’s powers to rule … the list is very long. When you probe through these recent maneuvers, you wonder how there can be effective prosecution for the detainees in a court stacked with contradictions, bad precedents and partisan appointments

Consider also, the imbalance in resources between the accountability police and those who are hell bent on avoiding it. Knee deep in conspiracy chatter, people imagine the CTG as a steamroller that is rumbling along Dhaka streets according to a master plan. But in fact, everything is done with stop gaps and minimal resources. And because Fakhruddin already faces heat about structure demolitions, economy slowdown, election deadlines, “US conspiracy,” etc., there are multiple fires on many fronts.

Consider the resources (and partisan, and in some cases not highly competent, lawyers) the government has to track down the money trail and actually put the rui kathla away. Then contrast that with the resources the government had for the Ershad cases. Instead of 40+ detainees, there was only one man on trial. The government committed serious resources, including top lawyers and international investigation teams. But after all those efforts, they landed him only on charges of weapons and cash possession. There were also some charges about a “machine at home for watching foreign TV channels” (kids, it was once illegal..), and a “mobile satellite phone.” But high profile detainees are sometimes caught on precisely these small charges (Al Capone was in the end busted on income tax evasion, this may explain the current dheu tin seizures). Scimitar, Jamuna boat purchase case: all of these big cases have stalled. And of course, with BNP-AL election games, Ershad is out. Oh wait he’s being retried. No out again…makes you dizzy.

Some analysts have looked beyond the BMW shine in newspaper headlines and called for more resources for prosecution teams, replacement of partisan lawyers on government teams, more comprehensive investigation of the allegations of corruption and bias brought against certain judges, professional investigators, clean evidence gathering teams, appointment of independent lawyers (if private lawyers won’t take pay cut to go to AG’s office), and forensic accountants. And always making sure these are fair trials, and not kangaroo courts. Will all that happen, or are we too busy cooking up theories and being entertained to concentrate on hard work?

Here’s a small motivation—if you think last fifteen years were bad, imagine a scenario where all the cases fall apart and the big guns come out of jail – fed up of that jail pocha bhat diet and ready to rumble. The revenge games would reach every inch of the country. No time for fence sitters. Like Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

If you look at the state of 1971 war crimes trials, you can see what happens when enthusiasm and emotion replaces the more mundane, non-glamorous, back-breaking work of evidence gathering. Too busy with songs, slogans and emotions, we gathered little evidence, recorded few witness statements. We thrilled at abstract, performative and emotive events, rallies and slogans about “war crimes.” No international war crimes tribunals, no truth & reconciliation committees, no methodical prosecution process. Three decades later, there’s a big fat zero in the justice and accountability column.

Can we control our fundamental windbag tendencies? Take a little break from fists, slogans, rallies and utthejona. This time around, let’s have a little less emotion, and a lot more hard work, thorough research, and follow through.

Naeem Mohaiemen does film/art interventions.

3/7/07

Truth Twisting

The Truth, Twisting In The Wind

Naeem Mohaiemen

[Daily Star, March 8, 2007]

Major General Manzoor has been on my mind lately. The Manzoor of the morning of May 30th, 1981. The man whose team assaulted Chittagong Circuit House with rocket launchers, made Ziaur Rahman’s body jahjhra with bullets, in pursuit of another bloody coup. But also, the Manzoor of June 1st, hiding in the tea garden coolie quarters, watching his rebellion fail as troops defected and crossed over into Suvapur, all his plans of starving Dhaka into submission falling apart. What were the last thoughts that went through his head as he was dragged blindfolded into that army jeep? Regret? Fear? Shame? Or did he think, I didn’t do this alone…I need to name names…

I remember hearing on the radio that Manzoor was captured. It seemed only moments later that another announcer said he was dead. How, when, why? The conventional narrative was that a group of angry troops surrounded the jeep and dragged him out: “khunike payyachi!” Later he was found face-down in a drain, with a gaping hole in the back of his head. No sign of the mob. The thing that sticks in my throat is that post mortem report, signed by Lt. Col. A. Z. Tufail Ahmed (reproduced in Mascarenhas’ book): “a big gaping hole 4”x2”” from a shot to the head and “no other injury on the body.” A smooth one-bullet execution, and not a single achor on his body -- by an angry mob? No, somehow, something about it never seemed right.

No tears for Manzoor. But weep for the truth. Our history is littered with dead men -- Khalid Musharraf, Abu Taher, Mohammad Abul Manzoor -- always taking uncomfortable stories to the grave. From 1972 onwards, this country was rocked by intrigue, agitation, and violence. Somehow we muddled through, and here we are, still standing, still shadhin. But who did what, who knew what, and who kept silent and watched? We don’t even know what we don’t know.

You’re too skeptical, said a friend. Maybe the truth is exactly what we know. The public narrative is the only narrative. Maybe so, but at every wrenching historical turn, the people who planned intrigue always seem to conveniently die before they can name their partners. And when you read books about that period, every eyewitness is dead, out of the country, or someone who has incentive to exaggerate or downplay their own role.

Manzoor has been on my mind again because of the JMB verdicts. After exhausting all legal channels, their request for clemency has now been turned down by President Iajuddin. The JMB convicts have repeatedly said they want to talk to the media and name their patrons, but Law Adviser Mainul Hosein said that won’t be allowed, because there’s no precedent.

If nothing else changes, they will hang by April, and I bet there won’t be outraged reactions from rights activists (the same people who were shocked by the Saddam snuff video). Personally, I’ve always opposed the death penalty -- it does nothing for justice but everything for our bloodlust and revenge mentality. But that’s not even where I’m coming from today, I want these men to be spared, because we need to get to the whole truth.

Let’s just spell it out. Do we really believe that a fantastically well-coordinated, accurately planned, micro-second timed, nationwide bombing campaign in 64 districts was pulled off by this small group of “radical Islamist” cells? Do we really believe that the government, after denying the existence of militant groups for so long, suddenly transformed into an ultra-efficient, SWAT team that managed to scoop up the entire militant ring, as soon as international pressure became a bit too much? All that chatter about the new breed of suicide bombers, ready to blow themselves up to establish khilafat, and suddenly they all surrendered? How come none of those bagha bomaroos blew themselves up when the police surrounded them? The government was so sure things would go according to plan, a three-ring circus of TV cameras was even invited along to capture every moment of Bangla Bhai’s capture. And thrilled by “Breaking News” coverage, we forgot to ask any hard questions.

Like, where are the real puppetmasters?

The JMB captures are super convenient for all concerned. Attacks on cultural functions? Machete attacks on Humayun Azad and Shamsur Rahman? Mysterious Chittagong arms drop? Forget all that. We’ve got JMB, all is well. An all purpose monster under the bed, the solution is also childlike simplicity -- hang ‘em high, and we can have shonar bangla back.

In a country where bureaucracy moves at molasses pace, and cases can hang in court for years, why did the JMB case get such speedy treatment? Why the mad rush to hang them before the Caretaker Government took office? After a BNP MP's explosive allegation of links between JMB and high-ups in BNP, and press reporting of the same, Advocate ZI Khan Panna filed a Public Interest Litigation (WP No. 8621 of 2005), asking that investigations regarding the bomb attacks also take into account such allegations. After the High Court gave a positive direction to the Police and others to extend the range of investigation, the former Attorney General AJ Mohammad Ali, on behalf of the 4-Party Alliance, appealed and got a stay order from the Appellate Division. What are they all so afraid of? And whatever happened to FBI, Singapore, Interpol, and Scotland Yard investigation reports, results of searches and seizures, information gathered by Investigating Officers, sources of supply of weapons, financing source investigations, etc. None of those were ever made public.

The death penalty is wrong on humanistic grounds, but also tactically in this case, because it chokes off the investigation trail. There is still time for this CTG to commute the sentences to life imprisonment, make public all documents from investigations to date, and continue interrogating them, through neutral, non-partisan investigation officers -- until we get to the whole truth.

Maybe some people are lusting to see bearded faces turn black and blue, tongues bulging out, twisting in the wind. Mar shala gulo ke. The truth would be the real casualty. Once again, chuno putis would die, while puppetmasters roam free.