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Thursday, October 1, 2009

The pure goodness of Manik Chandra Saha

An excerpt from Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places.

by Terry Gould

At first glance there is nothing particularly threatening about Khulna.
Like most regional capitals in Bangladesh, it is hot and crowded, but its remote location in the waterlogged southwest has preserved its rural nature. Around Khan J. Ali traffic circle, bicycle
rickshaws outnumber cars a hundred to one. Down the palm-lined lanes where a million people live, roosters crow from every backyard. And the city air, even near the jute mills and brick kilns, smells like tropical heaven.

Two unbridgeable rivers, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, are responsible for Khulna's back-country ambience. They inundate the plain to the north and east, cutting off land travel to Dhaka, and spawn a thousand other rivers that zigzag west of town, isolating it from Calcutta.
All this water pools in the Bay of Bengal's tidal creeks, forming a mangrove wilderness called the Sundarbans, which walls Khulna on the south. The four-thousand-square-mile roadless jungle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the country's last refuge of the Bengal tiger and the sundari tree, Asia's most coveted hardwood.

There were no tourists in Khulna when I arrived after my time in the Philippines.
The twenty-four-hour trip by river from Dhaka and the lawlessness of the countryside both discouraged visitors. Khulna Division, of which Khulna city is the capital, had been plagued for years by Maoist and Islamic extremists who assassinated officials, set off bombs and
raped the wives of farmers who refused their extortionate demands. The fanatically motivated violence resembled the insurgencies in Colombia and the Philippines, but Khulna added its own twist to the mayhem. Here, among the shifting rivers and jigsaw islands, terrorists whose goals were radically opposed conducted joint operations, and most of their crimes were overseen by the Bengal Mafia, the real power in the division. Indeed, nowhere else in the world were alliances of murderous forces so oxymoronic. Neither theology nor ideology kept jihadists and communists from hiring themselves out to Khulna's gangsters, known in the city as “the seven godfathers.”

According to local journalists, the seven godfathers wore “white clothes”—that is, they were public figures who ran Khulna's city council, chamber of commerce and mayor's office. Offered impunity in return for delivering money and votes to the government in Dhaka, the godfathers employed the extremists to illegally log the Sundarbans, steal thousands of acres a year
from farmers, murder competitors and pillage Bangladesh's ocean trade at the Port of Mongla. Meanwhile, a black-uniformed unit of the federal police, the Rapid Action Battalion, maintained the appearance of law by arresting the first hapless criminal the godfathers pointed to after an assassination. “Main suspect killed in a cross fire,” RAB usually stated in its press releases. Case closed.

(Terry Gould)

The sanctioned gangsterism of Khulna Division was a good part of the reason Transparency International
consistently rated Bangladesh at the bottom of its worldwide corruption index, and why the Committee to Protect Journalists named the country one of the five
most murderous places in the world to report the news. Between 1998 and 2006, sixteen journalists were murdered in Bangladesh, eight in Khulna Division after they'd detailed the government's alliances with “the underground groups.” The most prominent on the kill list was Manik Chandra Saha, above, the former president of the Khulna Press Club and a winner of Transparency International's Integrity Award.

Saha was different from the slain journalists I'd encountered in Colombia and the Philippines.
The division's 14 million citizens considered him a saint, and even some officials acknowledged he was Khulna's most reasoned and likable reporter. The deputy inspector general of the Khulna police wept in public when he heard Saha had been killed on January 15, 2004—the first time
local journalists had ever seen him show emotion. Saha's murder precipitated a week of hysterical mourning. Nationwide hartals, or strikes, paralyzed the country. The prime minister's spokesman and the leader of the opposition arrived in Khulna to comfort the population. And the street where the forty-nine-year-old Saha had fallen was turned into a shrine and renamed Manik Saha Road.

For all the devotion he inspired, Saha was a rather unassuming man. He was stockily built, of middle height, with thinning hair and a voice that could barely be heard when he asked questions at press conferences. What distinguished him in a crowd of reporters were his huge brown eyes, tilted up like wingtips by high cheekbones, which gave him something of a Confucian smile, even when he was being told to shut up by one of the seven godfathers. “Manik did not know how to get angry or raise his voice,” said Mainul Islam Khan, director of a Dhaka-based NGO that attempts to protect journalists. “He had no aggressive side to him, no personal agenda, no ego or inner turmoil. He was a purely innocent person. Whatever he wrote, he just laid the facts out, appealing to reason. He was motivated only by love.”

That love apparently gave Saha tremendous drive. Sleeping at most four hours a night, he divided his days between exposing the region's torments and laboring to rectify them. He founded schools, libraries, cultural organizations, rural poverty councils, human
rights committees, women's shelters, clinics, a theater group, a music academy,
a foundation for working children and an international action forum to save the
Sundarbans. Each of the underground groups had threatened to torture him to
death, but he regularly traveled alone to remote villages to investigate
atrocities. “If they use rape and murder as weapons,” he told his worried
brother Prodip, “if they steal the land and no one arrives to tell the world,
then their wrongs take place in a vacuum.” Trained as a lawyer, Saha
exclusively represented the godfathers' penniless victims—and was penniless
himself most of the time because he gave away the $250 a month he earned from
his groundbreaking journalism. “There is no God to answer the prayers of the
poor,” he told his wife, Nanda. “It's a human universe and therefore up to
humans to fulfill prayers.”

Three days before his murder, Saha
delivered a lecture on his brand of investigative journalism to a reporters'
training session in the nearby town of Jessore.
“Use the scientific method and the rules of evidence to gather facts about what
is unjust and harmful,” he advised. “When conveying those facts, be neither
subtle nor angry. If threatened, take courage by reminding yourself that you
speak for those who have no voice. Place your skills in the service of the poor
and you will be happy.”

Before I arrived in Bangladesh, I had searched for the motivations of journalists who had given their lives for a story and had discovered complex emotional sources for their bravery. Personal
atonement, angry resistance to public enemies or compensation for infirmity had played a part with some; manly pride or religious intoxication had fueled the courage of others. But in Manik Saha I found something more difficult to explain: selflessness that seemed to come from pure goodness.

The girl gang-raped: The Daily Star Editorial

Source: The Daily Star
The incident that follows a similar crime committed by BCL men a few days ago puts the whole nation to shame, not only should the ruling party be. When a schoolgirl is gang-raped by the activists of the ruling party's student wing, people are bound to feel both tormented and insecure.

The BCL activists appear to have gone out of control as reports of their committing all sorts of crime continue to pile up. All the attempts by the AL high-ups to rein the unruly elements in have apparently failed to produce any results. But then gang-raping a young girl and then trying to hush it up is a crime the enormity of which is hard to describe. The criminals, no fewer than 10 in number, committed the mind-boggling crime and then arranged a farcical village arbitration and were let off the hook lightly, as they were asked to pay a fine of only Taka 10,000 each. Now, rape is not the sort of crime that can be settled in a village arbitration dominated by the influential locals who have no legal authority to deal with such matters. In this case the arbitrators themselves committed a crime by allowing the culprits to escape without the punishment that they deserved.

The whole thing smacks of a conspiracy to deny the poor father of the victim the justice that he sought so desperately. The AL leaders of Kalapara upazila in Patuakhali district have failed to handle the matter neutrally as is evident from the arguments put forward by them in defence of the rapists. Perhaps such leaders are as responsible as the criminals themselves for what is happening today across the country.

Justice is clearly eluding the victim and her family. Things are going wrong for them at almost every step. The rapists are reported to have collected the signature of the girl's father on a white paper to make sure that he could not seek legal remedy. This is of course another crime since the poor fellow's right to seek legal protection was violated through it.

So, it is a story of political clout overshadowing everything else. Even the law enforcers appear to be helpless as they released two of the rapists because no case had been filed against them! However, the police should have delved deeper into the matter before releasing the two young men.

The ruling party has to address the issue in order to uphold the right of a poor girl to get justice, and for other girls to feel secure. Such ghastly crimes will surely blur the party's image and expose it to condemnation only unless the culprits are given due punishment.

Bangladesh: Victim's family, not rapists, on the run

Source: The Daily star

Family of the Kalapara gang-rape victim went into hiding leaving home on Tuesday after police remained inactive against the rapists amidst reprisal from the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Kalapara Police Station Ishaq Ali claimed that the girl (victim) submitted a written statement to the police station yesterday declaring she was not raped.
Father of the teenaged schoolgirl, who was kidnapped and gang-raped by 10 Bangladesh Chhatra League activists on Friday, left his house along with his wife, three daughters and a son.
Relatives of the victim said they are afraid of revealing the family's present whereabouts; that would earn them wraths from the rapists and their political mentors.
Locals and relatives alleged the ruling Awami League Kalapara upazila unit secretary Rakibul Ahsan took signatures from the victim and her father after staging village arbitration and awarding fines of Tk 10,000 each to the 10 rapists to ensure their escape.
They also suspected the statement submitted in the name of the victim was actually one of those blank paper signed under coercion.
Asked who submitted the statement, the OC could not answer but said he was away from the office till 3:00pm and was busy attending a case in the court.
The duty officer, who was present at the police station in absence of the OC, also could not ascertain who submitted the statement.

Bangladesh: Ruling Party leaders pressurize victim to 'refutes' rape report

Source: The Daily Star
The Kalapara schoolgirl, who was kidnapped and gang raped on September 25 and whose family had to leave home under duress, told a press conference that she was not raped but tortured by a gang.
The poor girl along with her peasant father and mother addressed the hurriedly called press conference at Kalapara press club Wednesday night flanked by local Awami League leaders Rakibul Ahsan and Sultan Mahmud.
Rakib, secretary of AL Kalapara upazila unit, and Mahmud, vice chairman of Kalapara upazila parishad, were the two arbitrators who set the 16 Chhatra League activists, accused of kidnap and rape, free on Sunday last after fining them Tk 10,000 each.
Local human rights activists however said no proper steps on the matter could be taken until the victim is rescued from the grip of a local political group.
Locals alleged that the victim girl was forced to read out a written statement, declaring she was not raped but tortured while she along with a cousin was returning home after visiting a puja mandap on September 25.
They alleged that a local political clique has taken the entire family of the victim under its shelter and using them as safeguard against legal steps against the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the victim also filed a defamation case with judicial magistrate court of Kalapara upazila yesterday accusing three--publisher, editor and reporter--of a daily. Judge Md Jamal Hossain ordered that Kalapara Upazila Social Welfare Officer will look into the matter and hearing on the case will be held on November 3.
Patuakhali Deputy Commissioner Md Reaz Ahmed told The Daily Star yesterday that the Prime Minister's Office had asked him to look into the incident and subsequently, he asked local police to take lawful action.
Major Rajib Amin, commander of Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) camp in Patuakhali, told this correspondent that Rab on Wednesday invited AL leader Rakibul Ahsan, who awarded the fines through a village arbitration, to provide Rab with his version of the incident but he did not appear till last evening.
Kamrul Huda Siddiqui alias Sumon, project coordinator for Anirban, a local rights body, said they are trying to liaise with Rab and local police so that they can rescue the victim and send her to a safe home in Dhaka.
“It will not be possible to take any step till the victim is rescued from the grips of political persons,” he added.