April 8, 2016 10:40 pm JST
Commentary

Shehryar Fazli: Bangladesh government must step back from chaos

The brutal murder of a law student blogger who had criticized Islamist groups in Bangladesh has underlined the growing power and impunity of the country's extremist rump. The death of Nazumuddin Samad, 28, who was hacked and shot to death on April 7, has also highlighted how the rise of religious extremism is affecting the country's image and its efforts to advance economically.

     It has long been obvious that the governing Awami League's campaign against the rival Bangladesh National Party has seriously weakened the country's commitment to liberal democracy, the rule of law, civil - in all senses of the word - society, and that it risks causing significant damage to the economy. But it is only now becoming clear that the winners in this long lasting vendetta are violent religious extremists.

     With jihadis on a killing spree and a government that brooks no opposition,  Bangladeshi citizens and the country's liberal and secular civil society are under siege. Samad is just the latest victim of a resurgent extremist movement that has killed at least five other bloggers, targeted publishers, attacked religious and sectarian minorities and their places of worship, and murdered foreign nationals who had made the country their home. The killings, and a cycle of strikes last year, are chilling the investment climate, with private investment stagnating over the past five years even as the economy has grown.

     With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government bent on silencing free speech and legitimate dissent, mass arrests of opposition activists and illegal detentions and extra-judicial killings are on the rise, and citizens see the police and courts as more of a threat than a source of protection or disinterested arbitration.

     Until recently, there was little political space for violent extremists in Bangladesh's secular polity; jihadi threats were successfully -- if brutally -- crushed. However, political conflict and dysfunction has created a vacuum that militants have filled. The threat is far more lethal now; homegrown extremists are bent on silencing liberal and secular voices violently, and Bangladesh's jihadi landscape is fast becoming more complex, with new entrants including al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and Islamic State.

     Hasina's Awami League and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's BNP, the two largest parties, seem locked in an intractable zero-sum game that is aggravating social and political divisions and crippling state institutions. Neither side accepts the legitimacy of the other, manifested in the indiscriminate violence of BNP-led street demonstrations and the government's repressive use of law enforcement and the courts.

     The politicized police force is more focused on targeting the opposition than on curbing criminality or extremism; prisons are overburdened by mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists; the judiciary is perceived as partisan in trials with political overtones, including criminal cases against Zia that could see her imprisoned for life, and is fast losing credibility. Heavy-handed measures, including enforced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings are denting the government's legitimacy, and, by provoking violent counter-responses, benefitting violent members of established parties and extremist groups alike.

New opportunities

However, there are new opportunities to end the political deadlock and restore a more functional democracy. In a departure from the policy of violence it unleashed in the run up to and following elections in 2014, and in contrast to its attempts to unseat the government forcibly, the BNP has re-entered the political mainstream, including contesting local polls. Yet rather than grasping the opportunity, the government is further tightening the screw on anyone who disagrees with it.

     It is now bent on silencing civil society critics. Prominent human rights groups are being targeted, and onerous restrictions have been placed on online expression. After Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the largest English-language daily, The Daily Star, publicly admitted his paper had published uncorroborated corruption allegations against Sheikh Hasina in 2008, AL party activists filed more than 60 defamation and 17 sedition cases against him.

     By undercutting the secular civil society institutions that are the best check against the spread of religious extremism, the government is empowering the forces of chaos. By abusing the rule of law to silence critics and target opponents, it is undermining the trust of citizens in the state's provision of both justice and security.

     Few believe that Anam, Zia, the opposition leader's party colleagues and other government critics will get a fair hearing from judges appointed less for their qualifications and integrity than for their political reliability. However, as she moves to consolidate power through a manipulated criminal justice system, Hasina should recognize the risks to her own credibility, and possibly survival: If history is any guide, the arbitrary legal provisions and instruments her government has introduced could be used against her in the future.

     The BNP certainly has much to answer for in relation to the last three years of violence. Its preference for the street over the ballot box mobilized mobs of violent hardliners and claimed far too many innocent lives. But its decision to contest municipal and local elections in December, and again in March, seems to mark a change in strategy made all the more significant by its decision to refrain from major protests despite allegations of widespread AL rigging.

     The onus of breaking the cycle of violence rests with the AL. Hasina should not listen to those in her own party who interpret the BNP's new willingness to engage as a sign of weakness that should be met with greater repression. As a first step back toward normality, the government should end the use of the police and judiciary to target political opponents and silence critics, and accept peaceful dissent; that would help it regain some of its lost legitimacy.

     To combat extremists who are using the poisoned political waters to increase their influence, the authorities need to go further than merely halting their abuse of the criminal justice system; they need to restore its impartiality so that verdicts against violent jihadis carry the weight of justice rather than mere political vengeance. The government should also bear in mind the potential economic cost of its strategy: Foreign direct investment rose slightly in the second half of 2015, but investors do not like political uncertainty, let alone chaotic violence, and their enthusiasm is likely to cool if the drift away from the rule of law continues.

     If mainstream avenues of legitimate dissent remain closed and the protections of the law continue to be denied, a rising number of the government's opponents may feel compelled to view violence, and violent groups, as the most effective alternative force for change. Islamist extremists would then be the ultimate winners.

Shehryar Fazli is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

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