SYLHET, Bangladesh – Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, her son and some of her political associates go on trial April 21 to face charges of corruption during her two terms as Bangladeshi prime minister.
On the face of it, it’s a good thing. Investigation by media and a previous government indicated that Zia and her son Tarek Rahman were involved in financial corruption of massive scales. Bangladeshis need to begin to see that corruption in high places can be subjected to public scrutiny.
The problem, though, is that the case against Zia is selective and has been initiated by an apparently illegitimate government. The current Awami League party government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed hangs on to power by excluding most of the main opposition parties from the Jan. 5 parliamentary elections.
Her popularity sagging, Hasina got the outgoing parliament to scrap a law that called for holding elections under a neutral, caretaker government. The opposition saw it as a prelude to her rigging the vote and insisted on having the voting done under a caretaker government. When Hasina refused, 18 opposition parties, including Zia’s, boycotted the vote, as did U.S. and European Union election monitors. A majority in the new parliament – 154 out of 300 – was elected unopposed, belonging to the ruling Awami League party, and Hasina continues as the country’s prime minister.
Secondly, Bangladeshi courts have historically been amenable to government pressure. And Bangladeshi political and bureaucratic establishments have been among the most corrupt in the world. Very few politicians in the government or opposition can stay outside the jailhouse, if properly investigated for corruption.
In 1974 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and Hasina’s father, was having a meeting with Bangladeshi expatriates at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. One of the attendees asked what he was going to do about the “unprecedented levels of corruption” in Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Mujib asked the questioner to “tell me” what he could do about it.
“Everybody [in Bangladesh] is corrupt. I am corrupt, too.” he added.
Mujib’s answer was of course rhetorical. He didn’t mean “everybody” in his country was affected by the vice. Neither did the father of the Bangladeshi nation obviously want to say that he was guilty of the crime as well. Yet he had been the object of widespread rumors and ridicules about corrupt dealings ever since the mid-1950s, when he became a government minister in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.
So have many in Hasina’s Awami League today.
Zia’s prosecution by the Hasina government amounts to “pot calling the kettle black.” Whether the charges against Zia and her colleagues are true (which may well be the case), Hasina is obviously trying to divert Bangladeshi and international attention away from her government’s lack of legitimacy.
- Mustafa Malik hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com.