Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL)-led Government, which came to power on January 6, 2009, has consolidated its secular commitments through 2012, reining in Islamist extremist groups and targeting the Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement in the country.
Overall political stability has been established, though some untoward incidents have, nonetheless, occurred; these have largely been instigated by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its student wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) with the principal objective of disrupting the ongoing War Crimes (WC) Trials.
According to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the country witnessed 18 terrorism/insurgency-related fatalities in total, including 17 militants and one civilian, in 14 incidents of killing through 2012 (data till December 9). Three Islamist terrorism linked fatalities occurred, including one civilian and two terrorists; in 2010, six such fatalities were recorded, including three civilians and three militants. This is a significant contrast with 2005, when Bangladesh experienced 35 Islamist terrorism linked fatalities, including 26 civilians and nine terrorists.
15 LWE-linked fatalities were recorded in 2012. These included, 12 leaders - Purbo Banglar Communist Party (PBCP) regional leaders - Khalilur Rahman, Mohammad Abdur Rashid, Rahat Ali, Abdul Jalil, Nayeb Ali, Motaleb Hossain, Mostafizur Rahman, Anowar Hossain; Gono Mukti Fauj (GMF, 'People's Freedom Army') regional leaders Tofazzal Hossain, Bidhan Chandra Biswas, Motaled Hossain; and Biplobi Communist Party (BCP) leader Ohidul Islam Rajib - as well as three cadres of PBCP. There were 24 LWE fatalities, all of militants, in 2011; and 50 killings, including 46 militants, three Security Forces (SFs) and one civilian in 2010. Pabna District stood out as the principal LWE centre in 2012, with seven fatalities and eight incidents of arrest in the District.
Meanwhile, SF personnel in Bangladesh arrested 1,616 extremists belonging to various Islamist groups such as JeI, ICS, Jama´at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), and Hizb-ut-Towhid (HT) in 2012 (data till December 9), as against 578 such arrests in 2011; 958 in 2010; and 23 in 2009. Dhaka District proved to be the epicenter of Islamist activities, with 32 incidents of arrest; followed by 20 such incidents in Chittagong and 19 in Rajshahi District. A majority of the persons arrested belonged to the JeI and ICS, as they took to the streets demanding the release of their top leaders, who are being tried for committing crimes against humanity during the 1971 Liberation War. A total of 1,244 cadres belonging to the JeI-ICS were arrested in 77 incidents throughout 2012 (data till December 9).
Major Islamist extremist arrests included:
November 19, 2012: Police arrested 107 JeI-ICS cadres in five Districts, including Dhaka, on charges of attacking law enforcers and for vandalism.
November 6, 2012: Police arrested 207 JeI-ICS leaders and cadres from different places of the country for attacking the law enforcers and carrying out 'destructive activities'.
October 21, 2012: Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested eight HT cadres from PTI Road in Barguna District.
August 12, 2012: RAB arrested 35 cadres of HuT from a restaurant in Dhaka´s Panthapath while they were holding a "secret meeting" to plan "subversive activities" and a "massive showdown" after the eid holidays.
July 19, 2012: RAB arrested 17 cadres of HuT from different parts of Dhaka while they were holding an anti-government rally and distributing leaflets containing anti-state propaganda.
May 25, 2012: RAB arrested four cadres of HuT, including its 'regional commander', in Shibganj sub-district of Chapainawabganj District, while they were in a secret meeting preparing to distribute books and leaflets.
March 5, 2012: RAB arrested two leaders and a member of JMB, identified as Mohammad Asaduzzaman alias Hazari, 'chief' of JMB Khulna divisional unit, Mohammad Wahab, 'head' of JMB Savar zone and JMB member Anwar Hossain, from different parts of Dhaka City. RAB also seized several JMB publications and leaflets from the possession of the arrestees.
January 9, 2012: A close aide of executed JMB leader Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, identified as Emdadul Haque Uzzal, was arrested in the Uttara area of Dhaka City. Police also recovered from his possessions several publications of the banned organisation and some books giving instructions on how to make bombs and operate firearms such as AK-47s.
January 8, 2012: RAB arrested Abu Talha Mohammad Fahim alias Bashar, the 'finance wing chief' of the JMB, and his accomplice Mohammad Abdul Alim, from Achintola Bahrampur village in Rajshahi District.
Meanwhile, a total of 34 LW extremists including 14 leaders - PBCP 'leaders' Motalib Hossain, Jalem Uddin, Mohammad Shahidul Islam, Korban Ali, Mozam Daktar, Ashkar Ali, Hasan Ali, Sabuj Ali, Yadul Islam, and Nuhu Mia; GMF 'leaders' Zillur Rahman, Hanif Biswas and Monirul Islam; and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-Gano Bahini (JSD- Gano Bahini, National Socialist Party-People's Army) leader Saheb Joarder - were arrested through 2012. By comparison, there were 66 such arrests in 2011.
The WC Trials , which commenced after the constitution of the International Crimes Tribunal - 1 (ICT-1) on March 25, 2010, by the AL-led coalition Government, has indicted nine high-profile political figures thus far, including seven JeI leaders - Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Delawar Hossain Sayeedi (on October 3, 2011); former JeI chief Golam Azam (on May 13, 2012); present JeI chief Motiur Rahman Nizami (on May 28, 2012); JeI General Secretary Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (on June 21, 2012); JeI assistant secretaries Mohammed Quamaruzzaman (on June 4, 2012); and Quader Mollah (on May 28, 2012); and former JeI member Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar (on November 4, 2012) as well as two Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) political figures and lawmakers - Salauddin Quader Chowdhury (on April 4, 2012) and Abdul Alim (on June 11, 2012). A second Tribunal, ICT-2, was created on March 22, 2012, to speed up the trial process.
JeI and ICS cadres have been trying to disrupt the ongoing WC trials from the very beginning, since most of the indicted leaders are from the party. The JeI-ICS combine carried out a nine-day countrywide agitation programme, commencing November 5, 2012, to protest the campaign of 'repression' against party leaders and workers, and demanding the release of its top leaders. Many JeI and ICS cadres were arrested in the aftermath of this and other agitations, for attacking the Police in various places. Issuing a note of warning on November 14, 2012, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared, "Launching attacks on the Police by the JeI-ICS trying to obstruct the trial of war criminals will only accelerate the trial proceedings. The more the attacks the faster will be the pace of the trial. No jumping and leaping will work. The trial of war criminals will be held on Bangladesh's soil." Indeed, on November 25, 2012, Industries Minister Dilip Barua even urged the Election Commission (EC) to cancel the registration of JeI as a political party as it has failed to fulfil conditions set by the EC. The conclusion of the WC trial before the next elections, due before the end of 2013, is an urgent imperative. In case the BNP comes to power after the 2013 elections, it is inevitable that a concerted effort to suppress the history of the atrocities of 1971 will ensue, and the current WC Trials would be subverted.
Another alarming internal problem is the constitutional provision of a Caretaker Government (CG), which was introduced in the 1996. The AL-led Government, with the passage of the 15th Constitutional Amendment Bill on June 30, 2012, overturned the 16-year-old requirement that general elections be overseen by a non-partisan CG. The BNP-led opposition alliance announced, on November 28, 2012, that they would blockade roads countrywide on December 9, to press for a return of the CG to oversee the next parliamentary polls. Indeed, on December 9, 2012, violent clashes, among BNP-backed blockaders, Police and AL workers, were reported from across the country, including Sirajganj, Dhaka, Narayanganj, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Lalmonirhat and Laxmipur Districts. At least two persons were killed (one each in Sirajganj and Dhaka towns) and more than 290 people, including 40 Policemen, were injured during the clashes. Over 70 homemade bombs went off, around 50 vehicles, including five Police vehicles, were set ablaze and 150 others were vandalised.
The Government's stand, however, is that the it has strengthened the EC so that it could perform its duty properly, and all 6,000 different kinds of elections held under the present Government over the last four years were free and fair and there were no complaints against any of the polls. The Government stated that all future elections would also be held peacefully and fairly.
Bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh came into sharp focus through 2012, and have witnessed further improvements. The first meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) was held in New Delhi, India on May 7, co-chaired by Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and the then Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna. The Joint Statement issued after the meeting noted that "the legal framework for bilateral security cooperation would be completed with the signing of the extradition treaty." In a recent development, a joint statement released after the meeting between Union Minister of Home Affairs (UMHA) Sushilkumar Shinde and his Bangladesh counterpart M. K. Alamgir in New Delhi on December 4, 2012, stated that both sides have agreed that the Extradition Treaty will be finalized and signed in January 2013 during the proposed visit of UMHA to Dhaka. According to the statement, both sides agreed not to resort to firing unless fired upon or attacked by terrorists or armed criminals.
During the Home Minister level talks, Bangladesh Home Minister Shahara Khatun stated, on February 24, 2012, that United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) leader Anup Chetia, currently lodged in a Dhaka jail, would be handed over to India by Bangladesh immediately after the legal process for his deportation was completed. As a result of co-ordinated border plans between the two sides, Bangladesh RAB arrested one of the top rebel leaders of National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) from Khagrachhari District of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), on February 16. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, on July 30, handed over Champion R. Sangma, co-founder and 'chairman' of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), to India. Further, from September 19, the Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB) and RAB launched an intensive operation to track down ULFA (Anti-talks) leader Drishti Rajkhowa. The Sheikh Hasina Government's strong steps to crack down on terrorist elements on its soil have undoubtedly opened up prospects of increasing cooperation in other areas, between India and Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, during the 13th Home Secretary-level talks between Bangladesh and India, held on October 16-17, 2012, at Dhaka, discussions were held on the implementation of Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons and Combating Terrorism, Agreement on Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking, ratification of Land Boundary Agreement (LBA)-1974 by the Government of India and protocol signed in 2011. Both sides agreed to allow developmental work, including the construction of Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) and Land Custom Stations (LCSs), within 150 yards of the zero line. They also agreed to constitute a high-level team to monitor the development of border infrastructure.
Dhaka has also taken a number of visible measures in 2012 to curb both Islamist and left wing extremism. The Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Act, 2012, was passed in Parliament on February 16, 2012. According to the Act, the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit can provide Financial Intelligence Units in other countries with information relating to the financing of terrorism, when so required or requested. The Act also included provisions relating to atomic, chemical and biological weapons; to the arms and ammunition used for terrorist activities; and interventions by terrorist and subversive organisations in the financial sector. Earlier, on March 13, 2012, the Speedy Trial Tribunal - 4 sentenced JMB leader Mamunur Rashid alias Zahid to death for detonating a bomb in the Gazipur District Police Superintendent´s office in February 20, 2009, in which 16 people were injured.
In another landmark judgement on March 18, 2012, a Dhaka court indicted BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia´s "fugitive" elder son Tarique Rahman and 29 others on charges relating to the August 21, 2004, grenade attack on an Awami League rally, finally formally launching the trial for the attack.
Bangladesh's achievements on the counter-terrorism and internal security fronts, as well as in improving relations with India, through 2012, have been remarkable. Nevertheless, a note of caution remains to be sounded as the residual capacities of the JeI-ICS are still significant, and their alliance with the BNP remains sound. Against this backdrop, the BNP's call to start fresh protests from December to bring back the CG system will be the litmus test for the Sheikh Hasina Government.
(The writer S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)