Published in the Guardian, UK (April 3 2008 )
John Pilger mounts an impassioned and spirited defence of the Bangladeshi politician Moudud Ahmed (The prisoner of Dhaka, March 12). “There is a decent, brave man sitting in a dungeon in a country where the British empire began,” Pilger says. “I have known him since a moonless night in 1971.” Pilger does his reputation an immense disservice with his erroneous and exaggerated claims on behalf of Ahmed, by ignoring the real issues at hand in favour of using his influence to defend an old friend.
On the 37th anniversary of its independence, Bangladesh faces a human rights crisis. Our fledgling democracy – hard won in 1971, and resurrected again in 1991 after years of military rule – is in suspension. Thousands of ordinary citizens have been rounded up and imprisoned without cause, without due process, and with no hope of release. It is true that Ahmed is one of those people. He was arrested by the security forces and is now in jail as a VIP prisoner.
Pilger says that Ahmed’s “tumultuous life carries more than a hint of Tom Paine”. But the irony here is that one of the men responsible for this state of affairs is Ahmed himself, a man who has benefited from every regime to have taken power in Bangladesh, a man who has been a minister under every party and almost every government, whether democratic or dictatorial.
His record on human rights is evident from the fact that he had no hesitation in supporting the 2003 indemnity ordinance which absolved the security forces from prosecution for extra-judicial killings perpetrated in 2002-03. Ahmed detected no violation of human rights when people were killed by law enforcement agencies in “crossfire” between 2004 and 2006; he looked away when religious extremists killed and tortured villagers in North Bengal during that same period. As minister of law, he supported his government’s decision, in 2004, to undermine the independence of the supreme court by appointing 19 judges on the basis of their partisan loyalty, even though he publicly acknowledged that he did not know at least six of them, who had never been known to practise in the high court.
To project Ahmed as a worthy “cause celebre” is to demean all those people of conscience who have fought for justice and human rights and suffered imprisonment, as well as the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh who continue to face lamentable conditions which are a legacy of past corruption and malgovernance.
Ahmed cries for justice now that his own life is at stake. He calls in favours, calls on old friends, and condemns the legal and political system that has him languishing in jail. Where was his conscience when he was law minister? Where was his acute feeling for his country when democracy shrivelled on his watch?
By all means, Mr Pilger, draw attention to injustice in Bangladesh, but try to do so more for those who have no voice, rather than for the corrupt and powerful who have escaped justice for decades. And please bring your investigation skills to bear on the state of the justice system in Bangladesh and some of those who have caused it to become what it is, including your friend Moudud Ahmed.