(New York) - The Bangladeshi government should reject amendments that would restrict the ability of the Anti-Corruption Commission to take independent action against corrupt government officials, including those in the governing party, Human Rights Watch said today.
A cabinet committee established in 2009 to review Bangladesh's anti-corruption legislation has proposed amendments requiring the Anti-Corruption Commission, which was established by law in 2004, to obtain permission from the government before taking legal action against government officials and members of parliament suspected of corruption.
"Public sector corruption is a grave problem in Bangladesh, corroding faith in government and undermining the rule of law and efforts at reforming institutions like the police and army," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Creating laws that shield government officials from prosecution would send a clear message that the government is not serious in fighting corruption."
According to Transparency International's corruption perception index, Bangladesh has for many years been one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The Awami League, which won national elections in December 2008, promised during the campaign to make the fight against corruption a top priority. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other senior government officials have reiterated the government's strong commitment to address the problem. But apart from parliament's approval of the Right to Information Act, which had already been put into place by decree of the previous government, few concrete actions have been taken.
The government has recommended to the courts and the ACC that they withdraw hundreds of corruption cases initiated against Awami League supporters on the grounds that they were "politically motivated" cases filed under previous governments. However, most similar cases against the political opposition have not been recommended for withdrawal.
On March 24, 2010, Qamrul Islam, the state-minister for law, announced that the government would stop accepting requests to withdraw politically motivated cases at the end of March. He said that the government scrutiny committee reviewing corruption cases have so far recommended a total of 4,143 cases for withdrawal, including 223 cases filed by the ACC.
"In Bangladesh, those in positions of power have regularly used the law to undermine their political rivals," Adams said. "While there has been a need to deal with this problem, it is important for the ruling party to ensure that it does not create the impression that it is favoring its members. It should leave it to the judiciary to weed out unfair charges."
Bangladesh has long had a legal framework and tradition that in practice undermines accountability for government employees. Article 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, inherited from the British colonial period, states that criminal actions cannot be initiated against public officials without government approval if the offense is committed while the officer is acting or purporting to act in his official capacity. Article 197 and similar legal provisions have contributed to establishing a culture of impunity under which grave violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions and torture, committed by the security forces go unpunished.
"Rather than adopting the proposed amendments and further undermining the fundamental principle of equality under the law, the government should repeal article 197 and other provisions that place government officials above the law," Adams said.