Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bangladeshi political enemies find common ground in lobbying effort

So, the veild threat of cutting aid is now being used to cow CTG? Read on:

Bangladeshi political enemies find common ground in lobbying effort

By Roxana Tiron, August 15, 2007 (

Two bitterly opposed Bangladeshi political leaders and their respective parties are finding common ground in Washington, where their representatives are lobbying to raise awareness of human-rights abuses by an interim government that took over in January.In a twist, the warring parties, which have alternated power in Bangladesh during the last 15 years, find themselves caught in the net of a military-backed caretaker government that was charged with overseeing the most recent election period, but declared a state of emergency and postponed polls planned for late January.

The lobbying effort comes as the Bush administration heralds the anti-corruption campaign of the caretaker government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed — yet the White House also is pressing for fair and open elections. Some lawmakers fear that Bangladesh could be on the path to becoming a military-led state like Pakistan.

Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the heads of the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Bangladesh’s two main political parties, along with other senior politicians, public servants and businesspeople, have been the focus of the caretaker government’s anti-corruption drive.Hasina has been jailed on charges of extortion and her family’s assets have been frozen, while Zia, who lives on an army base, is under virtual house arrest. Zia has been ordered to court at the end of the month to face allegations of tax evasion, according to various reports.

But the government that set out to clean up corruption in a country widely perceived as one of the most corrupt in the world now is raising concern among human-rights organizations and governments around the world for being too heavy-handed.The current government has been accused of mass arrests of as many as 200,000 people, denial of political assembly and free speech, torture and extra-judicial killings. Now political enemies Hasina and Zia and their respective parties are sounding alarm in Washington.

For the first time, they are on the same page, although each side is undertaking its own lobbying effort. Zia’s party, the BNP, now has a $400 million, one-year contract with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Former Rep. Greg Laughlin (R-Texas) and Florence Prioleau, a veteran of the Carter White House, are working the Hill on the BNP’s behalf. Meanwhile, the U.S. Awami League had been working with Alcalde & Fay since 2005. The U.S. Awami League, the party’s American branch headed by Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, hired the firm to ensure that free elections would take place. The U.S. Awami League paid Alcalde & Fay $720,000 for 2005 and 2006, but has scaled back its operations in part because of scarce funding, Wazed said. Lobbyists were paid through donations to the U.S. Awami League, he added.

He said the contract with Alcalde & Fay is on hold and he is focused primarily on his mother’s case. A graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Wazed is in regular contact with members of Congress who focus on Bangladesh. Reportedly, last year’s violence between Zia’s and Hasina’s supporters brought to power Ahmed’s caretaker government and its military backers. The latter were widely considered a necessary intervention in a country riddled with corruption.

But now the jailings, the delay in elections and the prohibition of political assembly are raising concern among lawmakers.One of the most outspoken is Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee. “While I believe that neither of the two major parties in Bangladesh have brought any great good to the Bangladeshi people, I’m hard-pressed to understand how an extra-constitutional process brings about political reform,” Ackerman said during a hearing before the congressional recess. “From where I sit, this looks remarkably like what [President Pervez] Musharraf did in Pakistan: Clear the field of mainstream parties and inadvertently open the door to Islamist parties, some of whom have particularly odious associations with known terrorists and terrorist organizations.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who has a large number of Bangladeshis in his district, told The Hill that he impressed upon the Bangladeshi caretaker government both publicly and privately the need for a normalized political process.The caretaker government has presented a new roadmap that would culminate in elections at the end of 2008. Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) wrote a letter to Ahmed in July urging him to publish a timeline of the process.Crowley said he’d prefer the elections to be earlier, “but at the very least they should be on that date certain.”

He said he hopes the U.S. does not have to resort to cutting foreign aid to Bangladesh. “They risk [losing] U.S. funding, United Nations funding,” Crowley said. “We do not want to get to cutting the funding.” Senate appropriators fear that some of the funding is not being spent as intended — to counter terrorist activity and violent extremism. “The committee is concerned that this assistance may be misused to support the government’s use of emergency powers to stifle peaceful political dissent,” said the report to the Department of State and Foreign Operations 2008 appropriations bill.

While several members of Congress are voicing concern about the caretaker government, the State Department has welcomed what officials call “an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign.” The deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, John Gastright, said the Bush administration does not characterize the interim government as a military government, but recognizes that Bangladesh is a country in transition. The administration is monitoring the actions of the government and has urged it to respect due process and ensure that international standards of human rights are upheld,

Gastright added. “The caretaker government has outlined the road map for elections in 2008 […] and that road map includes a new computerized voter list, a reformed election law,” Gastright said in House testimony. “Perhaps even more significantly, the political parties that have long been a roadblock to democracy themselves are considering the internal reforms that provide an opportunity for fresh leadership and new ideas that would benefit the Bangladeshi people.”

He stressed that the caretaker government has had some “notable successes,” such as separating the lower courts from the executive branch and streamlining the operations of Bangladesh’s largest port.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have noted that the caretaker government has carried out more reforms than previous governments have enacted in the last 10 years, Gastright said.

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