UK NGO implicated in Islamist militancy

Oliver Scanlan
25 March 2009

The government of Bangladesh is currently investigating links between a UK-based NGO and a madrassa housing a substantial cache of arms. Security officials in Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which raided the Green Crescent seminary and orphanage on Tuesday, have stated that they have detained four alleged militants and are still hunting for a British citizen, known by the nickname "Faisal". "Faisal" is believed to be the owner of the British charity that established the seminary on the remote southern island of Bhola four years ago.

Major Mamun, who led the team that raided the madrassa, said that the arms seized included pistols, shotguns, substantial quantities of ammunition and bomb-making equipment. A number of jihadist books were also recovered. He said that the militants were preparing for a "major operation". RAB commander KM Manumur Rashid has said that the madrassa was being used as a militant training complex, and that the charity had plans to establish two more such seminaries on the remote island.

The RAB raid is part of a general crackdown on militant groups and NGOs that support them across Bangladesh ordered by the Sheikh Hasina government in the wake of last month's mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles border guards.

Yunus calls for courage in the face of recession

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Peace, has said that "if we take up necessary preparations to combat the great crisis, we shall overcome [the global recession]." Yunus' comments were made to reporters at a meeting of the 27-strong government taskforce to tackle the impact of the global economic crisis on Tuesday. The taskforce includes members of the Treasury, MPs from both the governing party and the opposition, business leaders and academics.

The Grameen Bank, founded in 1983 on the basis of Yunus' earlier research, is a pioneer in microfinance, making small loans to Bangladesh's rural poor without the need for collateral. By 2005 it had loaned over $4.7 billion to the poor. Its success has inspired similar programmes in more than 40 other countries around the world.

Land and water bodies commission to be formed

On Monday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met with a number of key experts to discuss the implementation of a National Commission for Land and Water Bodies. The Awami League Grand Alliance pledged to create the Commission in its election manifesto. With a population of over 140 million people and a population density of 2,639 people per square mile, Bangladesh has seen enormous pressure exerted on its limited land resources. This pressure remains one of the principal obstacles to Bangladesh's development.

The six experts included three members of Bangladesh's first planning commission, created in the immediate aftermath of the 1971 Liberation War and chaired by Sheikh Mujib Rahman, father of current prime minister. Also present were Shamsul Huda, Executive Director of the Association for Land Reform and Development, and Kushi Kabir, Executive Director of the authoritative NGO Nijera Kori. The final expert invited to the meeting was Professor Abul Barakat, a prominent economist at the University of Dhaka, who has argued repeatedly that the cause of poverty in Bangladesh is the fact that those who labour on the land do not own it.

It is a cliché in Bangladeshi politics that every new government attempts to create a land commission during its first three months in power. In this instance, the experts are believed to have urged the prime minister to make sure that this newest effort succeeds and doesn't whither under the pressure of powerful vested interests both within and without Bangladesh's parliament.

Bashundhara fire mystery deepens as government probe blocked

On Monday, the committee established to investigate the devastating fire that overran the top six floors of the Bashundhara shopping complex on 13 March conceded that it had failed to discover the fire's cause. In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, which claimed seven lives, there was speculation that it had been started by an electrical fault on the building's eighteenth floor. In Monday's statement, however, state minister for Home Affairs Tanjim Ahmed stated that "the specialists said no fire could spark at the building from an electrical short-circuit."

Although the investigation failed to come to any conclusion, it has brought the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fire into sharp relief. It was already known that the failure of Bashundhara City's fire defences were a key reason the blaze caused so much damage, with the internal water reservoir that fed internal hydrants being inexplicably empty at the time. However, the probe has revealed that the fire brigade was not called until more than an hour after the fire started and that, immediately prior to the fire breaking out, security guards were "withdrawn". The probe committee has been blocked by Bashundhara officials, who have not co-operated in turning over CCTV footage that could give the vital clue to the cause of the fire.

Asked directly as to whether the Bashundhara authorities themselves set the fire, the state minister said that, in the absence of a follow-up investigation, nothing could be said with certainty.
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