A bit of moderate Muslim torture

Observations on Bangladesh

One of my closest friends, Moham-mad Abdur Rob, has been arrested in Bangladesh and charged with treason. He is one of many thousands who have been detained during a little-reported government crackdown.

Rob, who fought for Bangladesh during its war of liberation in 1971, is head of the cultural department for Proshika, an internationally financed NGO. Culture in Bangladesh has a special resonance, because ever since independence, the country has been engaged in a low-intensity (though sometimes violent) cultural war. Broadly, those who see themselves primarily as Bengalis are at odds with those who see themselves as Muslim first and only then as Bengalis. Proshika stands with the first group and, for that reason, the coalition government of Bangladeshi nationalists and Islamists, which came to power in October 2001, has frozen its accounts for the past two years.

The Islamists were given the government's welfare portfolio, and with good reason. The government is hostile to western funding, particularly if it is dedicated to secularism and the social and economic independence of women. The long-term plan is to replace western donors with Saudi and Gulf money - with all that that implies for the fate of liberal, pluralist values. Indeed, scarcely had the present government been elected than pogroms against minority Hindus broke out in many parts of the country. When the writer and film-maker Shahriar Kabir exposed this, he was arrested, beaten and held incommunicado for two months.

The pretext for the arrest on 20 April of Rob - and scores of other Proshika employees - was the ill-timed and inept declaration of the Awami League opposition that it would "bring down" the government by 30 April. Hartals (day-long strikes) were called, culminating in a mass rally in Dhaka. In all, about 15,000 people were arrested.

Rob was tortured. In court, it was said he had signed a declaration that Proshika had sent letters to all its branches, urging people to "topple the government". Rob insisted he had signed under duress. He was returned to prison and refused bail.

There is a reason why the west gives no publicity to such human rights violations. Bangladesh, in the words of Christina Rocca, US assistant secretary for south Asia, is "a moderate Muslim democracy . . . strong and stable". As such, its role is to demonstrate that the US is no enemy of Islam - as long as Islam behaves itself.