Saturday, December 29, 2018
Now the 71-year-old leader is seeking her third consecutive term on Sunday. In defending her record, Mrs. Hasina questioned the very definition of human rights.
“If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights,” she said this month in an interview with The New York Times. She vowed, if re-elected, to deliver 10 percent annual growth, up from the current 7.8 percent, and eliminate extreme poverty while continuing to strengthen welfare programs.
“What the opposition is saying, or civil society or your N.G.O.’s — I don’t bother with that,” she said of nongovernmental organizations and her critics. “I know my country, and I know how to develop my country. My biggest challenge is that no one is left behind.”
Local activists, political rivals and international rights organizations accuse Mrs. Hasina of co-opting state institutions like the judiciary and the police. Some Bangladeshis have been punished after speaking against the government, and a new law on digital security gives the police sweeping powers to monitor people’s activity online and arrest critics without warrants. There are fears she will become even more heavy-handed should she win a new term.
Mrs. Hasina and her Awami League are pitted against the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The country has vacillated between the two parties since the advent of democracy in 1991, when military rule ended.
But as the election approached, the government’s critics faced arrest and other forms of repression, a crackdown on dissent that a Human Rights Watch report this month described as “a climate of fear extending from prominent voices in society to ordinary citizens.”
Mrs. Hasina dismissed such criticism from local and international organizations.
“They are trying to please their donors and exaggerating,” she said, to get more funding.
Among the Bangladeshis who have been in officials’ sights is the photographer Shahidul Alam, who was jailed for months after being arrested in August for describing police violence against student protesters in a Facebook post and an interview with Al Jazeera.
“We are choosing the lesser of two evils in our politics,” said Iftekharuzzaman, who goes by one name and is the executive director of the Bangladesh arm of Transparency International, a corruption watchdog.
“All government institutions have a stake in the elections now; they have been politicized strongly,” he said, adding that if Mrs. Hasina “wins a third term, she will increase her authoritarianism, her hold over the state.”
In Bangladesh’s short democratic history, Mrs. Hasina is the first prime minister to win two consecutive terms — partly because the opposition boycotted the last election in 2014, hoping to weaken her. But the boycott meant that Mrs. Hasina’s tenure has gone largely unchecked, creating the very political condition the opposition is now protesting.“The only silver lining one can see out of this mess is a Parliament with a significant opposition to provide some checks and balances,” Mr. Iftekharuzzaman said.
He and Human Rights Watch say that the governing party has undermined an open campaigning process, with the police intimidating opposition candidates and protesters, imprisoning politicians for several days under false charges and tearing down their posters.
The B.N.P. said this month that 10 of its candidates are in prison and 6,000 party loyalists have been arrested.
“If we have a multiparty system, a Parliament that works and a government without absolute power, then this election may be worth the intimidation,” said Kamal Hossain, the head of the opposition coalition. He had previously been allied with Mrs. Hasina.Independent observers say that antipathy toward incumbents is strong and that it is hard to determine whether Mrs. Hasina will win on Sunday. But the opposition is plagued by bitter infighting, and the manifestoes of the B.N.P. and the Awami League are nearly identical, promising vague paths to continued economic growth and better welfare programs.Mrs. Hasina said in her interview that the right to criticize the government freely is only a concern of the urbanized elites. She says her government has delivered on what rural Bangladeshis are most concerned with: getting food on the table, medical care and jobs.
Per capita income has increased by nearly 150 percent, while the share of the population living in extreme poverty has shrunk to about 9 percent from 19 percent, according to the World Bank.
Electricity generation has also increased drastically under Mrs. Hasina’s rule, helping to boost factory production and spreading out to homes in rural areas. The rates of maternal mortality and illiteracy have also declined.
Sultana Kamal, a Bangladeshi activist who was once close to Mrs. Hasina but has become increasingly wary of her, said a win by the current government would be seen as an indifference by voters to rights concerns.
“If Awami League returns, they will say, ‘The critics are criticizing us, but we returned to power on the people’s vote. The people don’t care about extrajudicial killings, human rights or corruption,’” she said.Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator has ordered mobile operators to shut down high-speed mobile internet services until midnight on Sunday, the day of a national election. Activists are worried that the shut down will prevent election monitors from sharing information about any irregularities at polling stations and alerting the public. For Rashed Khan, a student who moved to Dhaka from a farming village to attend college, resentment of the crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly is not limited to city-dwellers, as the prime minister says.
“I am from a village,” Mr. Khan said. “Village politics are important; they want to be able to speak their minds.”
Mr. Khan helped lead huge student protests this year that paralyzed the streets of Dhaka, the capital. After criticizing the government in a Facebook post, Mr. Khan was detained for two months, and he says he was beaten severely in custody.
Like other activists, Mr. Khan says democratic ideals cannot be sacrificed for economic growth.
“Why doesn’t the government want our opinion, our input?” asked Mr. Khan. “If we have no rights to criticize the government, this development doesn’t matter.”
December 12, 2018.
Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government appears determined to ensure the safety of Asia and her husband, Ashiq Masih, and the couple’s two daughters, until another country agrees to take them in. Canada is their most likely destination.
Asia was still in prison, not in the courtroom, when the decision was handed down on Oct. 31. Enraged protesters poured into the streets in several Pakistani cities. Police escorted me from the courthouse, and I spent three days in hiding, aided by friends in the diplomatic community, before I boarded a flight for the Netherlands still wearing my Pakistani lawyer’s uniform of a black suit and white shirt. I had insisted I wouldn’t leave without Asia, but my friends swore they would take good care of her. It was my life they feared for at that moment.My last meeting with Asia had taken place on Oct. 10 at the women’s prison in Multan, about 250 miles from my home in the eastern city of Lahore, where she had been incarcerated for the past five years. Contrary to reports of her terrible treatment in prison, Asia seemed to have found a quiet life of sisterhood with her guards, who allowed her a television set and more time outside her cell than usually granted to death-row inmates. The relatively benign treatment might have resulted from pressure by Western governments, but I sensed it was because the guards recognized Asia’s bravery and human spirit.
Asia is not a sophisticated person. She was born 47 years ago to a poor family in a dusty farming village in the Punjab province and never sat in a classroom for a single day of her life. But she was helped by her strong religious faith when she ran afoul of blasphemy laws often exploited by religious extremists and ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
She was working on a berry farm in June 2009 with several Muslim women when a dispute broke out because Asia had filled a jug of water for her co-workers. Like many Pakistani Muslims, the women refused to drink water from a utensil touched by a choorhi, a derogatory word for a Christian. Apparently incensed that a lowly Christian woman had argued with them, two of the women who later appeared as witnesses in the case said Asia had insulted Muhammad and the Koran. Local clerics began denouncing her. An enraged mob beat her and dragged her to a police station, saying she had confessed to blasphemy.Asia was sentenced to death by a district court in 2010. She had legal representation in name only, because competent lawyers often fear to take on blasphemy cases. At least 70 people , including defendants, lawyers and judges, have been killed by vigilantes or lynch mobs since blasphemy laws were strengthened in the 1980s under the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. A lawyers group that offers free legal advice to complainants is known to pack courtrooms with clerics and raucous supporters who try to bully judges into handing out convictions.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the prominent governor of Punjab and a critic of the blasphemy laws who had visited Asia in prison and promised to lobby for her pardon, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and a cabinet minister for minorities who had also spoken up for Asia, was murdered.
I took on Asia’s case in 2014. I’m a lawyer, and I do not want to see anyone falsely convicted of a crime, much less hanged for it. The Supreme Court granted a petition to appeal her case, and in 2015 the death sentence was suspended. In October, I was notified that the final appeal would be heard. The justices’ ruling for Asia, citing insufficient evidence, took great courage.I think I will have to stay away from Pakistan for at least two years before it will be safe to return. Until then, I will live with friends in the Netherlands or with my daughter in Britain. But I yearn to return home to continue defending victims of the blasphemy laws.
Asia had rarely ventured far from her village before being imprisoned, so beginning a new life in another country would be a challenge for her. But she has shown remarkable strength throughout this ordeal, and I am confident that she will succeed.