x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Crime returns to haunt Bangladesh

Notorious criminals with allegiance to politicians are re-emerging after two years of military rule that saw decline of illegal activities.

Asmi Mehnaz talks about the goons who ransacked her house in Dhaka on Jan 1 and fled with money.
Asmi Mehnaz talks about the goons who ransacked her house in Dhaka on Jan 1 and fled with money.

DHAKA // Visibly shaken, Asmi Mehnaz pointed a trembling finger at the broken shards of glass that littered her front entrance, as a policeman took down her complaint in a tattered notebook. "There were at least two dozen men," she said with a lump in her throat. "Most of them wielded pistols; many others brandished butcher knives." The men demanded that Ms Mehnaz, a 23-year-old entrepreneur who owns two electronics stores in Dhaka, hand over 200,000 takas (Dh11,000) in cash. As she hunkered down inside her room, barricading the door with furniture, the men menacingly fired eight rounds in the air. They eventually broke into the living room, Ms Mehnaz said. They assaulted her father and aunt before fleeing with 50,000 takas kept inside a steel cabinet. "They vowed to return again," Ms Mehnaz said. Similar attacks happened on Thursday evening on five other houses in Mirpur, a grubby suburb in the north of Dhaka, less than a week after the parliamentary elections that catapulted Sheikh Hasina's Awami League to power. Until two years ago, when the country had a civilian government, extortions and other criminal activities were common in Bangladesh. But the country saw a steady decline in such activities, locals say, during the iron-fisted rule of the military-backed caretaker government. But after the parliamentary elections this week, as politicians return to the corridors of power, notorious criminal elements, most of whom claim allegiance to political parties, are re-emerging in Bangladeshi society. "Crime and politics go hand in hand in Bangladesh," said Syed Muha As Bangladesh's major political heavyweights were incarcerated in the two years of caretaker government rule, criminal elements remained low key and thus, "out of business". After the elections, he said, it was a matter of time before criminals would return to the political fray. "This is a very natural deterioration of law and order," Mr Ibrahim said. "And Bangladeshis are inured to violence." The recent elections were not marred by incidents of violence, unlike previous ones. However, the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which was trounced by a gaping margin by the Awami League, has complained to Bangladesh's Election Commission that voting irregularities and ballot rigging had occurred in 220 polling stations across 72 constituencies. After the election ban on rallies was eased on Thursday, two people were killed and more than 20 injured in post-election clashes between the campaigners of the Awami League and the BNP across half a dozen districts around Bangladesh. Given the country's history of political turbulence, many political analysts saw the post-poll violence coming. Sheikh Hasina and Ms Zia have alternated leadership of the country between 1991 and 2006. In the past, when one assumed office, political campaigners from the other camp took to the streets, engaging in strikes, leaving the country paralysed and scaring away foreign investors. Bangladesh's political culture is so blemished, said Sakiul Millat Morshed, that no political party ever graciously accepts defeat. "Even if you bring Obama to govern Bangladesh, he won't be able to change Bangladesh's flawed political system," said Mr Morshed, the executive director of Shisuk, a non-governmental organisation. "To manage a country of 144 million people with such limited resources is cumbersome." These criminal elements, Mr Morshed said, have arisen due to widespread poverty - nearly 40 per cent of Bangladeshis live on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) per day. The unemployment rate stands at 45 per cent. "You solve all these problems, and Bangladesh will not breed criminals any more," said Mr Morshed. However, Mr Ibrahim is confident that even though the country will see a return of old, violent, graft-ridden politics, it will not corrode the public's faith in the new Hasina-led government. "Until two years ago, politicians in Bangladesh felt they were above the law," he said. "But now after hundreds of politicians were tried in courts and jailed during the caretaker government rule, that feeling of invincibility has subsided." The Awami League, which has solely assumed power without any support from coalition partners, was akin to a "sumo wrestler", Mr Ibrahim said. "If it flails, it will fall with a huge thud," he said. "It cannot afford to let the post-poll violence spiral out of control considering it will have to bear the entire blame." However, that view provides little respite to Ms Mehnaz, who has decided to shut her stores for a few days, fearing another attack by extortionists. She said the "goons" had been attempting to usurp one of her shops for more than two years, she said, but were restrained because of the military-controlled regime. "Now that they are in power," she said, "the attacks will become more audacious." Ms Mehnaz belongs to Bangladesh's Bihari community, a marginalised group of Urdu-speaking migrants who are derogatorily labelled as "stranded Pakistanis". Biharis have remained sequestered in refugee camps around the country for more than three decades, but in the recent elections, they were granted the right to vote for the first time in Bangladesh's turbulent history. "We are minorities in Bangladesh," she said. "We are most vulnerable to criminal elements." achopra@thenational.ae