Quietly Crushing a Democracy: Millions on Trial in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s multiparty democracy is being methodically strangled in crowded courtrooms across this country of 170 million people.

Nearly every day, thousands of leaders, members and supporters of opposition parties stand before a judge. Charges are usually vague, and evidence is shoddy, at best. But just months before a pivotal election pitting them against the ruling Awami League, the immobilizing effect is clear.

About half of the five million members of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, are embroiled in politically motivated court cases, the group estimates. The most active leaders and organizers face dozens, even hundreds, of cases. Lives that would be defined by raucous rallies or late-night strategizing are instead dominated by lawyers’ chambers, courtroom cages and, in Dhaka, the torturously snail-paced traffic between the two.

One recent morning, a party leader, Saiful Alam Nirob, was ushered into Dhaka’s 10-story magistrate court in handcuffs. Mr. Nirob faces between 317 and 394 cases — he and his lawyers are unsure exactly how many. Outside the court, a dozen supporters — facing an additional 400 cases among them — waited in an alley whose bustle was cleared only by intermittent monsoon downpours and the frequent blowing of a police whistle to open the way for another political prisoner.

“I can’t do a job anymore,” said one of the supporters, Abdul Satar, who is dealing with 60 cases and spends three or four days a week in court. “It’s court case to court case.”

In recent years, Bangladesh has been known mostly as an economic success story, with a strong focus on a garment export industry that brought in a steady flow of dollars, increased women’s participation in the economy and lifted millions out of poverty. A country once described by American officials as a basket case of famine and disease appeared to be overcoming decades of coups, countercoups and assassinations.

But under the surface, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has waged a campaign of political consolidation whose goal, opposition leaders, analysts and activists say, is to turn the South Asian republic into a one-party state.

Over her 14 years in office, she has captured Bangladesh’s institutions, including the police, the military and, increasingly, the courts, by filling them with loyalists and making clear the consequences for not falling in line.

She has wielded these institutions both to smother dissent — her targets have also included artists, journalists, activists and even the Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus — and to carry out a deeply personal campaign of vengeance against her political enemies.

With an election expected in December or January, the country again feels on the verge of eruption. The opposition sees the vote as a last fight before what could be its full vanquishing. Ms. Hasina’s lieutenants, for their part, say in no uncertain terms that they cannot let the B.N.P. win — “they will kill us” if they come to power, as one aide put it.

When asked during an interview in her Dhaka office about using the judiciary to harass the opposition, Ms. Hasina sent an aide out of the room to retrieve a photo album. It was a catalog of horrors: graphic pictures of maimed bodies after arsons, bombings and other attacks.

“It is not political, it is not political,” the prime minister said of the court cases, pointing to the visuals as examples of the “brutality” of the B.N.P. “It is because of their crime.”

B.N.P. leaders say that about 800 of their members have been killed and more than 400 have disappeared since Ms. Hasina came to power in 2009. In the interview, Ms. Hasina said the B.N.P., when it was in power, had done much the same to her party, jailing and killing her supporters by the thousands.

“They started this,” Ms. Hasina said.

The Survivors

The story of Bangladesh over the past three decades has largely been one of bitter rivalry between two powerful women — Ms. Hasina, 75, and Khaleda Zia, 77, the leader of the B.N.P. and the country’s first female prime minister.

Ms. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was Bangladesh’s most prominent independence leader when the country broke away from Pakistan in 1971. He was killed four years later in a military coup, and much of his family was massacred.

Ms. Zia was married to Ziaur Rahman, the army chief who came to power in the bloody chaos that followed Sheikh Mujib’s murder. Mr. Rahman himself was assassinated by soldiers in 1981.

For much of the time since, the two surviving women have been locked in a fight over who defines Bangladesh’s democracy — and who is entitled to rule over it.

“Actually it was my struggle to establish democracy,” Ms. Hasina said. Pointing to Ms. Zia’s husband, she added: “This opposition, you know, was created by a military dictator.”

The B.N.P. says it was the one that restored multiparty democracy after Ms. Hasina’s father declared the country a one-party state — an unfinished project that the B.N.P. says Ms. Hasina is determined to complete.

“They don’t believe in democracy,” said Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the B.N.P.’s secretary general.

In 2018, Ms. Zia was jailed on graft charges. Today, she lives under house arrest, where, in deteriorating health, she is reduced to watching television and reading the newspaper, her aides say.

Her son Tarique Rahman, who was implicated in a 2004 attack in which a dozen grenades were hurled at Ms. Hasina during a rally — a charge the B.N.P. denies — lives in exile in London. Mr. Alamgir, the party’s de facto leader in their absence, spends much of his time dealing with the 93 court cases he faces.

Ms. Hasina has intensified her assault on the opposition as she has found herself in her most politically vulnerable position in years.

Just as Bangladesh was working to get its garment industry back on track after the pandemic disrupted global demand, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused a spike in the cost of imported energy and food, pushing the country’s supply of dollars perilously low.

“It has put tremendous pressure on our economy,” Ms. Hasina said.

The battered opposition saw an opportunity in anger over rising food prices and power cuts, and, fearing an unfair election, was eager to take the showdown to the streets after Ms. Hasina refused to appoint a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the vote.

During a rare large rally in June, B.N.P. speakers demanded free elections and the release of political prisoners. But as supporters marched across Dhaka, their chants offered an indication of the bubbling tensions: “Set fire to Hasina’s throne” and “A flood of blood will wash away the injustice.”

As the police held back and allowed the rally and march to proceed, ruling-party leaders staged a rival rally where speakers acknowledged that the European Union and the United States were watching Bangladesh’s democracy. The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on Ms. Hasina’s senior security officers and threatened visa restrictions, and American and European officials have made several visits to Bangladesh in recent months.

A few weeks after the B.N.P. rally, though, an unsettled Ms. Hasina responded with force. When the party’s supporters tried to hold another large rally, the police met them with clubs and tear gas — and 500 fresh court cases. The crackdown showed that, even as the West issues warnings, it ultimately has limited sway over a leader who has deftly balanced ties with Asia’s two giants, China and India.

Increasingly, the government’s powers are wielded en masse, said Ashraf Zaman, a Bangladeshi lawyer and activist in exile who works with the Asian Human Rights Commission. The police round up scores of people in one case — accusing them of “anti-state activities” or of blocking police work — and leave room for more to be added by listing dozens or even hundreds of “unnamed persons” in the same case. Each individual case can involve multiple charges.

By the time the evidence, often flimsy, is put in front of a judge, the accused have spent months in jail, often at risk of harassment or torture in custody, human rights activists say. Bail, lawyers and legal experts said, has become harder to get in political cases. If the accused does get released, the government presents it as a magnanimous gift, not as acknowledgment that the person should not have been detained in the first place.

Defense lawyers argue in court that their client “has a family, he has already spent this long time, if you kindly give him bail it would be appreciated, and the prosecution ‘allows’ it,” Mr. Zaman said.

The Court

One of the busiest places for political cases is Dhaka’s magistrate court, where Mr. Nirob, the B.N.P. leader facing more than 300 cases, was taken one morning in June. Syed Nazrul, Mr. Nirob’s lawyer, said his client had at least one case filed against him in every police station in the city.

Before proceedings begin each morning, about a dozen lawyers cram into Room 205 at the bar association building, where Mr. Nazrul checks papers one last time. On June 12, the office’s large ledger showed that the team was defending clients in 33 cases that day, 32 of them involving the B.N.P.

Then the lawyers make their way through the narrow alley — buzzing with vendors selling anything from chicken to marigold to replacement teeth — that connects the bar association with the crowded courthouse.

“The hearing takes, maximum, 20 minutes. All day is spent back and forth in this harassment,” Mr. Nazrul said.

Even those fighting for causes beyond the bitter rivalry between the two political parties increasingly pay a heavy price.

Didarul Bhuiyan, a computer engineer, returned to Dhaka after completing his studies in Australia. He set up a small software company, got married and raised three sons. But a question nagged at him: Had he made the right decision in returning?

Mr. Bhuiyan became active in a civil society movement aimed at strengthening checks in the system, so his children would not be forced to pursue a life abroad. “Whenever someone gets to power, they go above the law,” he said.

After Mr. Bhuiyan’s group criticized the management of relief funds during the pandemic, security forces in civilian clothes took him away in a van with tinted windows.

“The incidents of disappearances were common; we worried about what could happen to him,” said his wife, Dilshad Ara Bhuiyan.

As Ms. Bhuiyan went from court to court hoping to apply for bail for her husband, they refused to hear his case, even though the government had filed no charges against him.

“The judge would see the name, the case, and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t,’” Mr. Bhuiyan said.

After five months in jail, he got bail. The police did not file charges until about a year after his arrest, leveling vague accusations of treason and conspiracy against the state. As a central piece of evidence, the police submitted a Facebook post by Mr. Bhuiyan — which he had written months after his release. A time stamp marked a screenshot as having been taken three hours before.

A fellow activist, Mushtaq Ahmed, who was detained around the same time as Mr. Bhuiyan, died in jail. A large portrait of Mr. Ahmed sits on a drawer in Mr. Bhuiyan’s home office.

Mr. Bhuiyan called Mr. Ahmed’s death political murder.

“Putting someone in jail for 10 months without any trial whatsoever is good enough to kill someone,” he said.

Mujib Mashal is The Times’s bureau chief for South Asia. Born in Kabul, he wrote for magazines including The Atlantic, Harper’s and Time before joining The Times. More about Mujib Mashal

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