A Question of Numbers
It is often claimed that in our current society, over-stimulated by bad news, atrocities, and advertisements, citizens have become indolent to mere numbers. They say that without a story, a name or a face, numbers get lost in the sea of headlines that inundates our televisions, newspapers and social media every day.
However, they are wrong. Numbers still have an overwhelming symbolic effect. As a matter of fact, the exact number of victims of certain relevant violent episodes has become part of the collective imaginary of numerous nations, and there are still heated disputes over the death toll of several conflicts.
Whereas in reality it is unclear, Rwandans often quantify in “one million” the number of victims of their murderous conflict. 1,000 is the number of citizens who lost their lives in a single day in Egypt, while protesting against the military coup d’état perpetrated by General el-Sisi in Raba’a Square, a figure that is constantly rejected by the regime. Bangladesh authorities started judicial proceedings against those people who questioned the accuracy of the official figure of “3 million victims” derived from the 1971 Liberation War.
In all these examples, the figures overcame the numbers. They became an emblem of social identity, and a metaphor of national suffering.
A nationwide crackdown
In Bangladesh, nonetheless, numbers continue determining the political discourse: more than 11,000 citizens have been arrested in the country during the last week. 11,000 citizens whose liberty has been curtailed, who will not be able to go to work, who will not be allowed to see their families. To understand the magnitude of this number in human terms, we could mention that 11,000 people represent, for example the total prison population of The Netherlands.
The Government of Bangladesh has announced that these massive arrests respond to the need to stop the current trend of attacks by extremist groups and prosecute those responsible for radical murders. At least 50 secular thinkers, LGTBI rights activists, members of minorities, and university professors have died as a result of these barbaric intolerant attacks over the last year.
The truth behind the narrative
Apart from serving as a powerful symbolic instrument, numbers are also a tool to find truth and identify inconsistencies and untruths behind certain narratives; and in this occasion, the numbers refute the official version given by the Government to justify the arrests. From the 11,000 people arrested in the last week, only 150 are suspected militants, while more than 2,000 have been identified as leaders and activists of the political opposition.
The particular time chosen to conduct the arrests also questions the veracity of the officially-proclaimed justification. After months of inactivity and constant criticisms to the ‘provocative’ activities of the victims, the Government decided to initiate this nationwide crackdown immediately before the commencement of the trial against Khaleda Zia—the main opponent of the Awami League’s Government—and prior to the carrying out of execution of one of the most relevant members of the opposition, Mir Quasem Ali, ordered by the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh (ICT).
This Tribunal sentenced Mir Quasem Ali to death by hanging in 2014, after a woefully unfair trial that ignored the very basic principles of international criminal justice and due process. The lack of evidence in his case was so appalling that the Supreme Court censured the activity of the Prosecution. The judges explicitly claimed to feel “ashamed” about the way the Prosecution had conducted the investigations and proceedings.
The Supreme Court found fundamental errors in the framing of charges that impeded the imposition of a death penalty, and denounced the political motivation behind the judicial process. Nevertheless, despite these grave comments, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty and, if the international community fails to intervene, Mir Quasem Ali will become the sixth person executed at the orders of the ICT, in circumstances that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described as a violation of the right to life.
All the principal international human rights organizations, legal experts and even the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights found that Mir Quasem Ali’s trial had failed to meet the most basic international standards of justice.
Consequently, it was expected that the arbitrary, illegal and unjust execution of Mir Quasem Ali, and the politically-motivated trials against senior members of the political opposition, would awaken mass popular protests and criticisms to the Government.
Political motivation: the illegality of the arrests
The temporal coincidence of these two controversial events with the massive arrests, and the identification of thousands of members of the political opposition among the people targeted by security forces, challenge the official explanation for the arrests and indicate that the reason behind this widespread crackdown was political.
It would not be the first time that a Government manipulates the counter-terrorism, the national security or the anti-radicalism discourse to further political interests, silence the opposition, reduce the democratic space for dissent, and ensure individuals fear the consequences of criticizing the Executive.
In this vein, it is not surprising that the Minister of Information had already blamed the two main parties in the opposition—the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami—for the extremist attacks; thus anticipating the political crackdown. Importantly, the Government has banned two ifthar celebrations that Jamaat had organized, which demonstrates that the Government’s intent is to silence dissent.
The number of people arrested is so immense that the Governmental explanation has become ludicrous. Nobody could rationally defend the necessity to arrest 11,000 citizens to investigate and prosecute the deaths of 50 victims.
The Government has, therefore, initiated a widespread political crackdown, and the vast majority of the arrests are arbitrary and illegal. As a matter of fact, the independent international human rights organization Human Rights Watch has already called upon Bangladeshi authorities to halt what it called “mass arbitrary arrests”, and reminded the Government that it must investigate each extremist attack separately and prosecute the perpetrators individually, instead of implementing general damaging measures that massively disregard human rights.
Consequently, the citizens currently detained should either be charged on the basis of credible evidence linking them with the aforementioned attacks and brought without delay before a judge, or be immediately released.
It must be noted that this is not be the first time that the Government of the Awami League detains and incarcerates thousands of members of the opposition without legal basis, simply due to their political affiliation. In 2015, in the first anniversary of the unrepresentative and universally-condemned parliamentary elections, State authorities imprisoned more than 10,000 people, most of them supporters or perceived sympathizers of the opposition.
Numbers mark the past and the present of Bangladesh. However, no number, no parameter, can predict the damage that the Awami League’s oppressive and totalitarian policies will inflict in the future of the country.