Amid mounting pressure from the US, Bangladesh takes bold steps against corruption

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Sheikh Hasina, Awami League, Bangladesh, United States

Bangladesh, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has taken significant steps against corruption in response to mounting pressure from the United States. This move comes amidst discussions about freezing the assets of former police chief Benazir Ahmed and his departure from the country. Sources from both the government and the Awami League indicate that this initiative aims to mitigate tensions in the relationship between the Awami League government and the United States over issues of corruption, human rights, and democracy.

The first tangible action in this diplomatic maneuver was the government’s decision to target Benazir Ahmed. Several national dailies have reported that this action could extend to other individuals, as the government seeks to bolster its position by demonstrating a commitment to anti-corruption measures. This strategic move is seen as a way to navigate the pressure from the United States while attempting to improve bilateral relations.

A former government minister highlighted that the Sheikh Hasina administration’s anti-corruption measures are designed to change the United States’ perception of Bangladesh. According to him, by taking action against Benazir Ahmed, the government aims to create a precedent that even high-ranking officials are not above the law. This step, he believes, signals Bangladesh’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on key issues, thereby fostering a more favorable diplomatic relationship.

The backdrop of these developments is the increasing tension between the Sheikh Hasina government and the United States, particularly as Bangladesh approaches its 12th parliamentary elections. The United States has consistently pushed for free, fair, and participatory elections. This pressure was intensified following the announcement of a new visa policy in May last year and its subsequent implementation in July. Additionally, the US announced labor policies and sent several delegations to Dhaka, underscoring its commitment to democratic principles and human rights.

Despite the pressure, the Awami League government maintained its course and formed the government. However, the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu, to Dhaka on May 14 signaled a potential shift. Lu expressed a desire to strengthen ties and move forward, a sentiment that the Awami League welcomed with cautious optimism.

The subsequent US sanctions against former army chief Aziz Ahmed on May 21, just a week after Lu’s visit, and the court’s order on May 23 to seize the assets and bank accounts of Benazir Ahmed and his family, marked a significant escalation. These actions followed allegations of corruption against Benazir, published by a national daily, and a formal request for investigation by a government MP. The US accusations against Aziz Ahmed also prompted calls for an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).

Awami League leaders involved in improving US relations assert that the government’s fourth consecutive term under Sheikh Hasina aims to alter the U.S.’s stance on corruption in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina seeks to mitigate diplomatic friction through continuous efforts to secure US cooperation. The initial step in this broader strategy was the action taken against Benazir Ahmed, a move seen as essential due to US pressure.

In December 2021, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and several of its current and former officials, including Benazir Ahmed, faced sanctions for alleged human rights violations. During Lu’s visit, a government adviser expressed optimism that these sanctions might be lifted. However, the US State Department later clarified that the sanctions on RAB would remain in place.

Given the circumstances, the government had little choice but to act against Benazir Ahmed, primarily due to the US’s firm stance on curbing corruption. Various government and party sources indicate that the government’s policy for the next five years will focus on developing relations with the United States. This approach involves adapting policies and strategies to ensure smooth governance while maintaining Bangladesh’s foreign policy stance. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is committed to avoiding strained relations with any nation.

Sources also suggest that the government’s actions are driven by the necessity to manage the country effectively. This pragmatic approach is epitomized by the decision to act against Benazir Ahmed, which aligns with the broader policy of taking convenient steps as needed.

Awami League insiders reveal that Donald Lu’s visit included recommendations for anti-corruption measures. The government has started implementing these recommendations, beginning with the action against Benazir Ahmed. By taking such steps, the government hopes to strengthen its relationship with the United States and possibly influence the US to adopt a more favorable position towards Bangladesh.

Benazir Ahmed, the former police chief during the Awami League-led government, has faced significant accusations of corruption, leading to the seizure of his assets. The government, however, has denied sheltering him. Awami League leaders and government officials maintain that the government adheres to a policy of ensuring that crimes are punished, suggesting that the action against Benazir would not have occurred without a major impetus.

A senior Awami League leader acknowledged that public skepticism about the timing and motives behind the action against Benazir is natural. Nevertheless, he asserted that this move represents a new strategy to improve relations with the United States. In this context, the chairman of the international affairs sub-committee of the government party and former ambassador, Mohammad Zamir Desh, emphasized the importance of Donald Lu’s assurances of US cooperation in advancing Bangladesh’s democratic, economic, and socio-economic development.

Despite these developments, many Awami League leaders believe that a strategic game of mutual interests is unfolding between the United States and Bangladesh. They argue that while the US seeks to protect its interests by pressuring the Sheikh Hasina government, the government aims to maintain power by enhancing its relationship with the US.

Dr. Mustafa Jalal Mohiuddin, an Awami League presidium member, noted in an interview that the US was taken aback by the January 7 election results. He suggested that Donald Lu’s visit introduced new issues and strategies, implying potential shifts in the US-Bangladesh dynamic.

Bangladesh’s recent anti-corruption measures, particularly against high-profile figures like Benazir Ahmed, reflect a strategic effort to appease US concerns and improve bilateral relations. This approach underscores the government’s recognition of the importance of addressing international pressures while striving to maintain domestic stability and governance. The ongoing diplomatic dance between Bangladesh and the United States will likely continue to evolve as both nations navigate their respective interests and objectives.

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