Police brutality

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By rahnuma ahmed

Two hartals, in quick succession. During both, police forces deployed were brutal, as the photos reveal.

The similarity ends there, because the hartal called by the National Committee on Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports was for 6 hours (July 3). It was called in protest against the government’s contract with ConocoPhillips signed on June 16; the deal awarded gas exploration and extraction rights to the US energy giant in two deep sea blocks in the Bay of Bengal. The National Committee’s demand? That the deal should be scrapped because it allows Bangladesh to have only 20% of the gas, it permits the company to export the remaining 80%.  That under these conditions, the deal—similar to other deals signed by the government with multinational companies—goes against the national interest.

A policeman kicks student activist Lutfunnahar Sumona in her upper groin during the hartal called by the Oil and Gas National Committee on July 3 demanding the government's cancellation of the deal with ConoccoPhillips in the Bay of Bengal. July 3, 2011, near Shahbagh thana, Dhaka. Photographer unknown.

The hartal called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies, for 48 hours (eight times more, July 6-7), was in protest against the recent 15th amendment of the constitution which includes scrapping the provision for a caretaker government—under which parliamentary elections are held—a one-and-half decade long practise in Bangladesh. Both major political parties are prone to shifting their position 180 degrees on the caretaker government issue depending on whether they are in, or out of, power. There is no credible reason to think that the Awami League would have assented to the scrapping if it had been in the opposition. Or, to forget the long drawn-out maneuverings of the BNP-Jamaat led government many months before national elections were due in 2007, ones that were calculated to ensure fool-proof rigging. In other words, to lead to the BNP-Jamaat led government’s re-election.

Chief whip of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party Zainul Abdin Farroque, grabbed at the collar by additional deputy commissioner, Dhaka Metropolitan Police, Haroonur Rashid as Mohammadpur zone assistant comissioner Biplab Kumar Sarkar and others crowd in for the vicious assault that followed. July 6, 2011, Manik Mia avenue, Dhaka. Photographer unknown

As Nurul Kabir insists, the nation is held hostage because the two major political parties have not been able to work out the `rules of the game,’ i.e., the elementary fact that at the end of its term the ruling government must necessarily hold free, fair and credible parliamentary elections, that it should have the political maturity to accept the people’s verdict. No doubt difficult, because each ruling party knows without a single trace of doubt—even though it is loath to admit it publicly—that the people’s verdict will throw it out of power. Because of its miserable 5 year performance. Because of reneging on its own electoral pledges.

In other words, the July 6-7 hartal called by the BNP and its allies was over partisan interests, for which both parties are equally to blame. Fifteen years is a long time.

There was another small matter. The Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB) called for a daylong general strike on July 3, protesting against what they termed the removal of `Absolute Faith and Trust in Allah’ from the Constitution. The national oil and gas committee alleged that this was deliberate, that “the ruling alliance was using its Islamist allies” to “mislead the people” (New Age, July 2, 2011).
An allegation not off the mark given the state minister for home, Shamsul Hoque Tuku’s preposterous claim that calling a hartal on the same day “proves [that there is] no difference between their ideologies.” That both the National Committee and the IAB serve the interest of their “foreign masters” (Daily Sun, July 4, 2011).

These attempts at misleading, however, fell flat on their face. IAB was not seen to undertake any activity in the capital in support of its strike (New Age July 4, 2011).  And Tuku too, was noticeably silent when journalists asked him whether the government would initiate an investigation into the National Committee’s activities, for after all, serving the interests of foreign masters is a serious matter.

Maybe, he remembered, albeit belatedly, last December’s WikiLeaked revelations of Dhaka’s US embassy. According to these, US ambassador James Moriarty pressed Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy advisor, to award offshore gas blocks to ConocoPhillips.  Maybe he, Tuku, remembered belatedly, that the government has not only failed to officially respond to these leaks, but has gone ahead and acted at the US ambassador’s bidding.

Which, after all, is what the oil and gas national committee’s hartal was all about. Scrap the deal. It’s against our national interest! And, as is only to be expected, neither the BNP and its allied parties, nor the IAB, lent their support to the National Committee’s demands or to their hartal. Telling, eh?

Police action against Zainul Abdin Farroque, the opposition’s chief whip, was brutal to an unheard of degree. On July 6 morning, Farroque had led a march of BNP men and women lawmakers to the Farmgate roundabout and back to Manik Mia avenue, when a group of police officers raced and approached him. Mohammadpur zone assistant commissioner Biplob Sarker stepped up and said,

Biplob: `Jodi kono garir moddhe haat den action ey jabo kintu’ (If you lay a finger on a vehicle, we’ll go into action).
Abdin: `Dhur, tho, tor action’ (Scat, shoo, you and your action hah!).
Biplob: `Thapraya tor daat falaya dimu’ (Watch out, I’ll slap your teeth out)
Abdin: `Fala’ (Go ahead)
Biplob: `Kukurer baccha kothakar, ki mone korsosh?’ (Son of a bitch, who the hell do you think you are?)
Abdin: `Fala’ (Go ahead)

If you don’t believe me, go to YouTube and check it out. I watched the altercation take place here, while many more Bangladeshis watched it on their nightly news, courtesy of private TV channels. Abdin, whose right arm was in a sling from a wound suffered from a tear gas canister shell several days earlier, was swiftly surrounded by other police officials as the altercation began. One of them grabbed at his sling and wrenched it off, another grabbed at his T-shirt, and pulled it off as the others moved in on him. Undressed from the waist up, he was punched and repeatedly hit with batons. Abdin fell to the ground, only to be kicked. Repeatedly. Head, body. He was helped up by his party members and was being helped over to the NAM quarters when the police chased him, caught up with him as he was entering the building’s lift. They beat him again. Abdin was arrested and helped on to a police van which began moving before he had been fully laid on to the floor of the pickup. He fell down on the road. Bloodied, bruised, battered, he has been hospitalised.

In this day and age of electronic media, where hundreds of photographs of what occurred were taken, where TV journalists videod the event, where those who missed it on the nightly news can log on to YouTube and watch it, is it not brazen of government ministers, top party officials, concerned police officials and all other government apologists to keep claiming that Abdin `fell down’ in the tussle? That Abdin had received head injuries `as he fell down’ in scuffles with police offcials (Sahara Khatun)?  That he was also to blame, for having `censured the police officers’ (Mahbub-ul-Hanif, prime minister’s special assistant)?  That his injuries were `minor’?

Is it not brazen of the two police officials who led the attack to get themselves admitted to a hospital? Of the home minister to go visit them? News has leaked that public disgust at the attack, at calls for trying the abusive and attacking officers, of punishing them, has led government trouble-shooters to advice them to low lie. To get themselves admitted to the police hospital. In the meanwhile, police has refused to record a case against ADC Harun-ur-Rashid and AC Biplob Sarkar for assaulting Zainul Abedin. Instead, Sher-e-Bangla Nagar police filed a case against 10-12 persons including Zainul Abdin for assaulting the police on duty. The home ministry has formed a three member committee to probe into the incident.

Despite Awami Leaguers busy in recounting incidents when their leaders too had been beaten up while in opposition (later agriculture minister Motia Chowdhury, later home minister Mohammad Nasim etc., etc.),
despite BNP supporters threatening to wreak vengeance when they return to power (in blogs), members of the public are shocked. And remain shocked. And, as news comes to light that both police officers were ex-Chatra League members (Haroon was a central committee member in 1998, while Biplob was secretary, Jagannath hall), questions are raised afresh about the police force.  About the public’s desire for a national force, not an Awami police force, i.e., which works at the bidding of the ruling party, to fulfil its partisan agenda.

Members of the police force were equally brutal toward oil and gas committee activists. One photo, published in the Daily Sun July 4, 2011, shows a member of the police attempting to gouge out the eyes of a young male activist, as his equally young female comrade attempts to drag him away. Shampa Bose, central committee member of Samajtantrik Mahila Forum, told me that when the police had raided Bashod’s office (Bangladesher Samajtrantik Dal), had dragged out women activists, Selina Akhtar, a master’s student, had been pushed to the ground, had been kicked and stomped on her breasts and stomach by male police officers. Lutfunnahar Sumona, student of Eden college (see photo above) was kicked by a male police officer in her upper groin. Is this part of police training? Are they specifically taught to target reproductive organs of female activists? To dissuade them from political activism and devote themselves to marriage and healthy child-bearing only? I think the nation’s women would like answers to these questions from the home minister. A woman herself.

We would like a national police force, not a partisan one—neither Awami League nor BNP. Nor one which serves the interests of multinational companies. Nor one that services a patriarchal, keeping-women-in-line, agenda.

Published in New Age, Monday July 11, 2011

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