Crime and politics in Bangladesh

Crime and politics in Bangladesh

TEN years after they arrived, the weapons have found their victims. In April 2004 police in Chittagong, the main port city of Bangladesh, intercepted a shipment of rifles, submachine guns with silencers, 25,000 hand grenades and more, worth some $5m. Made in China, the arms may have been shipped with help from Pakistani spies set on causing trouble for India. The weapons were intended for rebels in Assam state in India’s north-east, where insurgencies rumble on.

For years in Bangladesh the legal case went nowhere. Those involved in the arms shipment were ignored. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), under Khaleda Zia, then prime minister, showed no interest in prosecutions. Only after the Awami League, the current government, took office in 2009 did prosecutors begin to consider the crime seriously. On January 30th a trial court sentenced 14 men—most of them from or affiliated to opposition parties—to death on smuggling charges related to the arms haul.

Assuming the sentences are upheld by the higher courts, they carry great political as well as legal weight. By implication, they embroil Mrs Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman. He is judged by many to be the BNP’s next leader—though he is living in London while corruption cases pile up against him at home. Among those sentenced to hang is Lutfuzzaman Babar, a long-time flunky of Mr Rahman’s. This week the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, vowed that her government would work to prove that, in the light of Mr Rahman’s influence at the time, he knew all about the weapons.

Others sentenced to death include a former head of Bangladesh’s military intelligence, another high-ranking Bangladeshi spy, plus (in absentia) a leader of an Assamese insurgent group who is on India’s most-wanted list. Of major political significance, the court also found guilty Motiur Rahman Nizami, who leads Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a close ally of the BNP. He has already been indicted by a separate court, looking at war crimes committed in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. He faces the prospect of being sentenced to death twice over.

Jamaat has promised protests against the smuggling verdicts. Though the party has a reputation for street violence, its capacity to create trouble seems diminished in recent months. Many Jamaat activists have either been arrested or shot dead. The BNP also looks utterly broken, unable to persuade followers to return to disruptive street protests against Sheikh Hasina, whether over court cases or elections.

By contrast, the prime minister looks increasingly content. Her Awami League won a general election on January 5th that was boycotted by the BNP and Jamaat. Aid donors and other observers who worried about the poll’s credibility now seem to be coming to terms with five more years of Sheikh Hasina. The official aid agencies of Britain and America have funded an opinion survey suggesting that the Awami League would have won the election even without the boycott. That is a handy fillip for the government.

India, Bangladesh’s giant neighbour, will be pleased with things, too. It is especially close to Sheikh Hasina and the avowedly secular Awami League, and it endorsed the January election. Those who set foreign policy in Delhi are anxious to prevent Bangladesh becoming, as it was before, a haven for insurgent groups that operate in India. They want Bangladesh to resist the sort of Islamist extremism prevalent in Pakistan. And they want it to help limit the flow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants flooding into India for work.

Sheikh Hasina shares India’s aims, while doing everything to flatten the opposition at home. It bodes ill for democratic government. But the state of the opposition—pinned down in court, on the streets and in parliament—suggests a modicum of outward calm may prevail for a while.

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